Why are 5 million kids on Facebook if it doesn't want them?

Wed Sep 19, 2012 6:08pm EDT
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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Facebook has an ugly little secret, a number disclosed nowhere in its voluminous filings to become a public company and now only vaguely addressed by corporate officials.

An estimated 5.6 million Facebook clients - about 3.5 percent of its U.S. users - are children who the company says are banned from the site.

Facebook and many other web sites bar people under age 13 because the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) requires web sites to give special treatment to children 12 or younger. The law aims to stop marketers prying personal information from children or using their data to advertise to them. Sites must get parental permission before allowing children to enter, and must take steps to protect privacy.

Facebook declines to acknowledge that many of its efforts to block children are not working.

The issue has taken on new relevance as the Federal Trade Commission finalizes rules to further restrict companies and Web sites that target youths or are geared to young audiences.

Facebook, the world's leading social media company with 955 million users, has said that the law does not apply to it because it explicitly restricts use of its site to people aged 13 and older.

Facebook has made some progress in identifying preteens and excluding them from the site. A June Consumer Reports study showed that Facebook eliminates as many as 800,000 users under age 13 in a year through its tiered screening process, which the company declines to describe.

The study still estimates 5.6 million children are on Facebook, a figure that experts say includes many who create accounts with help from their parents.

The Consumer Reports data comes from a January 2012 survey of 2,002 adults with home Internet. Participants were chosen by TNS, a research firm. The margin of error is plus or minus 2 percentage points.   Continued...

In this photo illustration, a Facebook logo on a computer screen is seen through glasses held by a woman in Bern May 19, 2012. REUTERS/Thomas Hodel