As many as 7.5 million kids under the age of 13 are using the Facebook service, despite the company's official prohibition -- 5 million under the age of 10.
For minors who lack the experience or judgment to use a social network, this raises the scary potential of sexual predators tracking down kids who reveal their age in an online chat, cyberbullying and more, according to a new survey released Tuesday by Consumer Reports.
“A million kids were bullied on Facebook in the last year," Jeff Fox, technology editor at Consumer Reports, told FoxNews.com. "A 10-year-old is not well-equipped to deal with those things.”
Fox said Facebook recognizes that kids should not use the service and prohibits access to those under 13. But the age verification system is weak, he said: It’s too easy to lie about your age. Facebook could instead use existing age verification services such as Privo. Or a parent could first prove their age using credit card verification and then vouch for the child’s age, he suggested.
Facebook declined to comment specifically to FoxNews.com about the Consumer Reports survey, but did release an official statement about the Consumer Reports survey.
"Recent reports have highlighted just how difficult it is to implement age restrictions on the Internet and that there is no single solution to ensuring younger children don’t circumvent a system or lie about their age," the statement reads. "We appreciate the attention that these reports and other experts are giving this matter and believe this will provide an opportunity for parents, teachers, safety advocates and Internet services to focus on this area, with the ultimate goal of keeping young people of all ages safe online.”
A serious issue?
Child safety is but one aspect of a complex problem. The Consumer Reports survey found that has many as 5 million computers in U.S. households were exposed to a virus. There's another twist: The Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) makes it illegal to collect information about kids using an Internet service, said Ross Ellis, the founder of child-advocacy group Love Our Children USA.
In 2006, the FTC fined popular blogging site Xanga.com $1 million for collecting information about minors. The COPPA guidelines are strict, Ellis said, with plenty of paperwork to sign for a parent to approve a child’s access, and most sites just restrict access altogether.
Cyberbullying is yet another problem: Younger kids aren't as emotionally developed to deal with adults and teens who make hurtful comments.
“Everything from hurt feelings to emotional abuse, isolation, depression and humiliation can result from posts on Facebook,” said Tom Jacobs, a retired juvenile judge who wrote the book "Teen Cyberbullying Investigated" and runs the site Ask the Judge.
Consultant John Bambenek told FoxNews.com that the “nightmare scenario” is not for kids to flirt online or engage in instant message chat with strangers -- but simply posting pictures. Predators can download the images and determine the child’s exact location using embedded GPS data. A program called Creeper even does this automatically, he warned.
Of course, these concerns should be taken in context: The survey focused on the 7.5 million kids using Facebook, but that’s a small percentage of the 500 million users worldwide.
Dealing with the problem
Social media expert Dr. Marcella Wilson of Wilson Consulting told FoxNews.com that parents should better monitor their child’s Internet access overall. She advises creating a contract between parent and child about how the Internet will be used.
Bob Gaines, a consultant with security firm AllCovered.com, said parents and kids should follow basic Facebook protocol. Avoid stating your location or saying you are home alone; in your profile, do not reveal your exact age; and of course, make sure you know your child’s username and password.
But in the end, Facebook needs to address the problem, said Denise Tayloe, the founder of Privo.
“Magically, everyone using these services is over 13,” she said -- hinting that something is clearly amiss.