If you were running a bar, would you refuse to serve an underage customer? Would you make systems to prevent the serving of alcohol to children? How about if you sold cigarettes in your store? What about adult content – either in your store or on your website?

What if you were a social networking site? Would you do something to prevent the eight-year-olds from registering?

I know all of these are not exact parallels, but the fundamental idea is the same. For instance, it bugs me no end that promos for late-night adult movies are shown during prime time TV, sometimes even during programming that is obviously aimed at children.
At least to me, all of these are milder or harsher versions of the same ethical question! There is a difference between putting up some mandatory and hard-to-find signs, and actually preventing the underage customers from being served.

When it comes to social networking, what I find particularly interesting is that the age restrictions are self-imposed, and yet they themselves do not implement them. Why have them at all? Unlike some of the more obvious examples above, there are, to the best of my knowledge, no legal restrictions imposed by any government.

Interesting story in The Times:

Hundreds of thousands of children aged between 8 and 12 years are using Facebook, Bebo and other social networking sites in clear breach of their age-restriction policies.

Facebook and Bebo have a minimum age requirement of 13 and MySpace of 14, but a study by an internet security company suggests that the sites are unable to enforce their own rules.

Almost a quarter of children aged between 8 and 12 say that they are regular users of one of the big three sites, which suggests that they could have as many as 750,000 underage users between them.

First published on August 8, 2008

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