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Why Facebook needs kids

When kids fib about their ages to sneak on to Facebook, it damages the quality of data on the social network. Establishing a kid-focused account type, something Facebook is reportedly considering, could be just the answer.

For a Web company, it's best to just not deal with kids. They don't have much money -- no credit card accounts, as a rule -- and they're a toxic mess when it comes to regulations. Who wants to deal with changing COPPA regulations and the extra hassle of protecting kids' privacy when they don't have to?

But kids are also the consumers of the future, and they have parents. While they may not buy things themselves, child-related purchasing is central to any family.

Facebook, obviously, has become a part of the social and family atmosphere. Locking kids out of it due to an arbitrary age restriction may make some legal and business sense, but it doesn't work for many families. That's why many parents actually help kids lie to get on to the social network.

There has to be a better way, and Facebook is working on just that. The Wall Street Journal reports that the company will establish a kid-focused account type that links into parents' accounts. Kids won't have to pretend they are grownups anymore. Their real-world parents will soon be able to be their Facebook parents.

This means that parents will be able to see who their kids are connecting with and maybe what they're liking and seeing. It means Facebook's kid accounts may be like a real-world playground: protected and walled off. A place where, as those signs on real playgrounds say, "adults must be accompanied by children" to even get in.

Facebook wins more than parents and kids do, though.

Not only is the social network able to get ahead of COPPA (Children's Online Privacy Protection Act) changes, but by finding a way to allow all users to be themselves, Facebook increases the quality of its data. Data about who is who, and who is connected to whom, is what Facebook makes its money from. Accurate data makes more effective ads.

Even if Facebook won't advertise to kids (which would be a smart move, to help put parents' minds at ease), once it knows whose kids are whose, perhaps it can advertise to their parents. Wouldn't you like to know, come Christmas or a birthday, that your kid is liking everything related to Beyblades, for example, but has cooled on Hot Wheels?

However, building a child-appropriate section of a major site like Facebook is not likely to be financially clean move. Facebook is already having problems making money from ads, esepcially on mobile devices, where the new generation is more likely to access the service. In addition to the having to handle the monetizable content (ads) on the site with kid gloves, protecting kids from harmful content or other things that parents don't want kids to see is not easy.

David Baszucki, the CEO of Roblox, a massive virtual world for kids (mostly boys), says that Facebook might find it very expensive to take care of children. Baszucki says his company has taken on ongoing expenses like running a round-the-clock team of moderators to keep tabs on what people are saying on the site. They have the ability to progressively warn, and then ban, accounts.

For the 12-and-under set, Baszucki says every single image that's submitted is approved before kids can see it. That's hard enough for Roblox, which has 2.5 million users a month generating 1 billion page views. On Facebook, that level of protection may not be possible.

"Traffic is much more expensive," Baszucki says of catering to younger audiences. Roblox makes money directly from users, though: it sells in-game items on top of its free product.

Zynga, Facebook's biggest partner in social gaming, is not commenting on today's news, other than to note that since Zynga is built on other social platforms, it defers to partners on how to deal with identity.

If Facebook can figure out how to get ahead of the issue, it will likely find a welcome audience in parents. A typical (I believe) parent I spoke with about this potential change had helped her 12-year-old lie about his age to get onto the site a year ago due to "peer pressure." She said she thought it'd be "wonderful" if she had more insight into what he was actually doing on the network.