Facebook has not launched a 'Panic Button' – it's smarter than that

Facebook has often been criticised in the UK for not having a child safety ‘panic button’ and while a few media outlets are reporting today that it has launched one, the reality is somewhat different. What Facebook is launching is a tailor-made marketing application and campaign for a government body which till now had no presence at all on the social network. That’s quite a different thing altogether.

The move is the latest from the social networking giant to address its obligations to its younger members. In the US it recently added a number of new safeguards to protect young users from sexual predators and cyber bullies. But till now it’s been seen as something of a laggard. Both Bebo and MySpace bother have ‘panic buttons and have been happy to tell the world about it. However, Facebook launched a new Safety Center in April and its long argued – not unreasonably – that panic buttons imply that social networking is inherently dangerous, which would be a warped way of looking at things.

The reality is that the media rarely checks these panic buttons out: Bebo’s button just takes you to a 7 page form – not exactly what would might call an engaging way to address this issue.

Instead, today’s move comes in the form of an application built by London-based agency iPlatform together with Facebook and CEOP, the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre. The app has been specifically created for young people aged 13-18 and enables direct access to CEOP’s advice and reporting centre Thinkuknow from their Facebook homepage.

Users can add the app to their profile as a tab, share the ClickCEOP badge, or add the app as a book mark.

This move is similar how to brands use Facebook, and creates a presence and a potenial conversation between young people and the CEOP. Once the app is installed, it means the CEOP can use it to target educational campaigns at young people by age or geography. It doesn’t brand them as some kind of distant, nanny-state initiative but sets up the potential for an educative process.

Anyone who installs the app will have it appear on their profile page, which sends a visual signal to any visitor to their page. Jim Gamble, CEO of CEOP says “We know from speaking to [sex] offenders that a visible deterrent could protect young people online.” Joanna Shields, Facebook’s vice president for EMEA admits there is “no single silver bullet” for this problem but calls this initiative a “new way of helping young people stay safe online”.

Facebook says there will be wide-spread advertising on the site to encourage take up of the application, including an automatic advert-message appearing on every homepage of users aged between 13-18 years inviting them to add the application.

Some critics are arguing that the app does not auto-install on people who’s ages are 13-18, but it’s easy to see the reasoning behind that – what teenager is going to actually “like” an application that auto-installs because of their age? Talk about off-putting. It’s probably better that a young person recommends something to their peers rather than it being imposed from above, so the viral effect can take off.

For my money this feels like the right solution. Having shrill “panic buttons” everywhere would probably just dull everyone’s response to what is an incredibly important issue. If the research shows that sexual predators can potentially be dissuaded by something on a person’s profile page that effectively says, “hey, if you try something I have immediate access to people and information” then that seems like a proportionate response.