Like a cautious parent, Facebook is giving teen users new freedom despite risks. For the first time, users under 18 can post publicly. The logic is that other sites don’t restrict kids, teens are getting more web savvy, and young celebrities want a voice. This could let minors publicly share things they’ll regret, so they must manually opt in to public sharing and confirm they understand the risks.
Somewhat disingenuously, Facebook frames its blog post about the change as being about adding more protection for teens. It starts off saying that now when people age 13 to 17 sign up, their posts to the News Feed are defaulted to “friends only” instead of “friends of friends (fof)” as they were before. That is important because many people don’t change their default settings, and if you have thousands of friends with thousands of friends, the fof setting would share your posts to more than a million people.
But considering there are 1.15 billion people on Facebook already, and its growth has slowed significantly as it saturates key markets, there are likely well over a hundred million teens grandfathered into the old fof default. The real news is opening up public News Feed posting to minors.
That’s good news for teenage celebrities. They can now turn on the option for their user profile to have followers — people who aren’t their friends but who see their public posts in the News Feed. That means they don’t have to run a separate fan Page to build a public audience. Having significant social media reach can help child actors get jobs or earn teen musicians favor with record labels.
Meanwhile, the young celebs will generate compelling content that appeals to the critical under-18 demographic. Critics say Facebook is losing its cool with this audience. The company has repeatedly claimed on earnings calls that it’s not seeing significant reductions in engagement from teens, but it admits that mobile-first social networks like Snapchat could be grabbing eyeballs Facebook would have gotten otherwise. Giving their famous peers a megaphone could encourage kids to stick around on the nearly decade-old social network.
Another argument supporting the change is that teens are hardcore Internet users that are supposedly becoming quite familiar with how to purport themselves online. If they want to make the conscious choice to switch the audience of the News Feed posts to public, they should have that right.
Facebook claims it’s doing its best to protect them by making them acknowledge the risks by confirming the dialogue window, pictured above, that states: “Did you know that public posts can be seen by anyone, not just people you know? You and any friends you tag could end up getting friend requests and messages from people you don’t know personally.” If a minor confirms and starts posting publicly, down the line Facebook will remind them they’re sharing publicly so they don’t forget, and give them a quick way to limit the visibility of their posts.
The final argument is that many social media sites and blogging platforms like Tumblr let teens post publicly without restriction or heavy-handed warnings. There are plenty of legitimate reasons for teens to post publicly like campaigning for social causes. Why should Facebook be different from the rest of the web?
Well, the counter argument is that Facebook should be different because it’s evolved to be viewed as a friendly place where content is somewhat private. Facebook has had its share of privacy stumbles over the years, and some still think it’s pushing people too hard to be open. For instance, last week it stopped letting people opt out of being searched for and found by name. But the general perception is that Facebook is for sharing with friends.
There will surely be users who breeze through these warnings, post immature status updates or embarrassing photos publicly to Facebook, and their reputations will pay the price. Naive 13-year-olds might wrongly assume that anything inside the site or app’s blue walls can’t be used against them. But should that mean intelligent, responsible 17-year-olds with driver’s licenses should be able to post publicly? It’s a nuanced, subjective thing to judge.
What’s certain, though, is that it’s more important than ever for parents and schools to educate children about safe and respectable use of the Internet. If we teach kids to look both ways before crossing the streets, we should teach them to look at the privacy setting of their Facebook posts before they share.