Underage and on Facebook

Facebook is mulling over letting children below the age of 13 join its network, but with so many signed up already, what difference would it make?

FACEBOOK’S minimum age should be 21. This argument mooted by CNN blogger John D. Sutter will no doubt get the support of many parents who worry about safety and privacy issues on the social media network. That is, those parents who have not secretly signed up, or helped to sign up, their children on Facebook.

Facebook (FB) already has an age limit 13 years old but the reality is that many “underaged” children already have their own profiles on the site, parents’ consent notwithstanding.

In fact, it is estimated that some 7.5 million children below the age of 13 are currently on FB, out of its total 900 million plus users worldwide.

This shows that the minimum age requirement on FB is just a number. Facebook does little, if anything, to enforce it, and one can simply lie about their birth date to circumvent the rule.

So why the charade?

As suggested by the Wall Street Journal, which first broke the news of the social media giant’s plans to open up to tweens and even younger kids, Facebook was feeling the heat from the American authorities in relation to the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA).

The Act stipulates that online services catering to children below 13 would need to obtain the consent of their parents before collecting data from them. COPPA also requires that parents be given the ability to review, revise and delete their children’s data.

Hence, with the number of pre-teen children registering on the site growing by day, Facebook knows it can no longer turn a blind eye to its minefield. Coming clean is perhaps its only option in defending itself from any potential legal action.

As it acknowledged in a statement: “Enforcing age restriction on the Internet is a difficult issue, especially when many reports have shown that parents want their children to access online content and services.”

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg himself had earlier said he would like to see kids under 13 use FB “more honestly and in compliance with the law”.

“My philosophy is that for education you need to start at a really, really young age… Because of the restrictions, we haven’t even begun this learning process… If they’re lifted then we’d start to learn what works. We’d take a lot of precautions to make sure that they (younger kids) are safe…,” he was quoted.

The conspiracy theorists of course say freeing the shackles is one way for Facebook to recoup its losses after a disappointing debut at the share market. Widening its user base will certainly broaden its revenue-raising opportunities, especially in the mobile apps and ad sector, and add to its market value.

Then there is the brand loyalty factor getting them young is the best way to get users hooked for the future, and guard against any possible defection to “cooler” social media networks to come.

Whatever the motive, the reality remains stark there is a high number of active FB tweens and they can no longer be ignored.

Choy: Many parents of children who are being bullied online feel they can’t do anything about it.

Time to Like

As he sees it, officially opening up to the under-13s can be a positive move, says CyberSecurity Malaysia chief executive officer Lt Col (R) Prof Datuk Husin Jazri.

“By officially allowing children to sign up, Facebook can keep tabs on how many Facebookers below 13 there are,” he opines.

In Malaysia, for instance, it is no secret that many tweens have their own FB accounts, with most having signed up either with the consent and help from their parents, siblings or close relatives; or by “cheating” Facebook, that is, changing their birth date to make the computer system accept them as above 13.

It is not clear how many Malaysian children are now online but with some 12.5 million Malaysian FB users recorded this year, it is safe to say that there are many.

In fact, global social media and digital analytics company Socialbakers estimated that some 2.2% of Malaysian Facebookers were aged 13 and below last August (around 248, 528). That is a rough estimate at best; with our below-18 population totalling up to 11.2 million (approximately 2.87 million children are in primary school), it is difficult to pinpoint how many FB minors are signed up on a fake age.

Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) chairman Datuk Mohamed Sharil Tarmizi agrees that removing the token age restriction is perhaps the most effective way to protect our children on Facebook.

This will create openness among the tweens and their parents, says Sharil.

“Children will not need to hide that they have FB accounts any more and would be encouraged to share their online experiences with their parents. If they do not bypass the protection measures (as kids nowadays are very IT savvy), the children should get the age appropriate online protection they need against the adult world’ of Facebook,” he adds.

However, both agree that this will only be effective if Facebook fulfils its commitment to introduce a new suite of tools for parents to keep their children safe when they register a FB account and interact on the social networking site.

Sharil, who is also vice-chairman of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) Council Working Group on Child Online Protection (COP), a specialised organ of the United Nations based in Geneva, Switzerland, reminds parents that children are minors first and foremost.

“Children under 13 are typically in the primary school group and need extra supervision, guidance and care,” he stresses.

Husin proposes that specific accounts for those below 13 be created with suitable contents and safeguards to enable parents and guardians to continually provide assistance as well as monitor the online activities of these young Facebookers.

Sharil: ‘Children need guidance and supervision. Online tools and technologies can never replace the care and guidance that parents can give’

“Facebook for those below 13 should be categorised as a special account, different from the adult Facebook accounts. They should introduce some kind of system to ensure that the children obtain parental consent before they get accepted to sign up, and whenever a child requests for or accepts a new Facebook friend, parents should be alerted,” he adds.

Dangerous playground

Still, as many parents would be deigned to admit, no matter how vigilant you are, it is still a big bad Web out there.

“Parents can only guide and monitor their children, they cannot really change the environment,” says a father-of-three who only wants to be known as Arshavin.

You will still need the help of the policy makers and service providers, among others, to make the Internet, and specifically Facebook, safe for children, he adds.

“No matter how well-trained or educated your children are, some places are just off limits, even if you go there with them.

“I read this one comment that I think captures it well will you let your elementary school child attend a college or adult party?’. You won’t, right?” he poses, warning that some parents might be lulled by a false sense of security for their children on Facebook if the new ruling is implemented.

Social media specialist Jasmin Choy agrees, highlighting cyber-bullying as one danger for young children on FB. The problem is intensified as many parents are not equipped to deal with it, she says.

“Many parents of children who are being bullied online feel they can’t do anything about it. Then there are those who just don’t know what is happening to their kids in cyberspace, or those who are not giving enough guidance to their kids and are becoming bullies online,” she says.

Opposing the social media network’s plans to open up their membership for children under 13, the mother of two relates a recent cyber-bullying case close to her heart.

“It happened to a friend’s child who is sensitive and fragile. She was already being subtly bullied online when the girls ganged up on her and made her feel like she was stupid. The problem was, the mother didn’t know what to do about it. If she intervened, the daughter would be very embarrassed. On the other hand, if the mum didn’t intervene, these girls would go on bullying her daughter.”

Another red flag for children, she warns, is online porn and sexual predators.

“Many parents have no idea how much porn is being served up to the kids online. They think they have some idea but are often shocked when they discover how accessible porn is to their six- to13-year-olds.”

As Choy highlights, one only needs to go to some of the game apps on FB to receive porn advertisements.

“Many pop up even on innocent-looking Facebook games. Besides, curious kids are going to share images and if there’s FB and Twitter they will see it,” she says, advising parents to “prepare” their children by educating them about the birds and the bees at an early age.

“We can’t be prudish about it. They are going to see it anyway, so why not explain to them before trouble brews.”

The main danger she foresees, however, is the breach of privacy.

“Think about all the times we chatted with a young kid on FB. We must have at least mentioned the child’s name, asked them how their day was… things like that. We tend to forget the dangers when we are having fun online. Bad people can easily glean information from the chats the adults have with young kids on FB posts,” she says.

Choy also strongly believes that pre-teens are particularly vulnerable because most do not have the maturity to handle problems related to FB or be aware of the dangers.

“Even if they are aware of the dangers, they can’t often see the danger in front of them. Even adults don’t react fast enough to FB risks, what more children of that age,” she says.

Along with the threat of paedophiles, there is also worry that young children will be subjected to unscrupulous advertisers and marketers on Facebook, or have their personal data sold to advertisers.

Not surprisingly, Zuckerberg has already been lobbied by a coalition of consumer, privacy and child advocacy groups to keep children’s data confidential and the site ad-free for the below-13s in the United States.

For bank officer Aslina, addiction is her big worry.

“Just like adults, kids tend to spend way too much time on Facebook and can get addicted to it. Instead of studying or socialising with friends and playing games or sports, they will be logged on FB.”

And, cautions teacher Mary K, parents might not be able to withstand another pressure should FB open its doors to pre-teens peer pressure.

“Now they will be pressured to join because all their friends are on it. It will be a difficult time for parents, “ she says.

Arshavin agrees.

“I asked my 16-year-old daughter why she is on FB, and she said it was to watch what her friends are up to. But when I asked her to log off, she just whined about what she would be missing,” he says.

Calling FB a “different beast altogether”, Choy who is a proponent of the Internet as a study tool vows to keep her children away from it as long as she can.

“I really believe all young kids should have access to the Internet. My six-year-old can Google search for any information related to his hobbies or studies at any time with the tablet. YouTube has given him access to various documentaries he can watch and learn from. And why not? Technology and the Internet have made learning exciting. It has allowed my children to think out of the box. I just don’t think they should have an FB account at an early age,” she says.

If parents do decide to let the child open a FB account, she adds, they would need to constantly talk to them about the hazards and teach them good cyber habits.

“Explain over and over again why they should not reveal sensitive information like their names, location of the moment and place of residence. And check, check, check their FB settings,” she stresses.

And constantly but silently read their children’s postings to check for trouble, she adds.

This is something Alina does diligently with her two pre-teen children who are registered on FB.

“In the beginning, I was worried that I was making the wrong decision to let them get their own profiles on FB. But I read up on it and made sure that I know what is in store for them. Then I went through all the safety and security features available on FB with them before we registered.”

Most importantly, she adds, she always reminds them to be as cautious online as they would be in the real world.

Sharil agrees children should be taught as early as possible that rules and regulations exist online just as they do offline, and that there are dangerous areas online just as there are dangerous areas or things in the real world.

It is parents’ responsibility to cultivate security awareness in their children and educate them on safe Internet usage, says Husin.

“Parents must be alert of any unusual activities of their children on the Net and take the appropriate action to rectify if their child gets caught in any undesirable activities online.”

Sharil, however, reiterates that parents are the best judge of whether their child is ready for Facebook themselves.

“It all goes back to the basic skills of parenting and instilling good moral values in their children. Children need guidance and supervision. Only parents can do this effectively. Teachers, NGOs and the broader community can help but they can never replace the parent,” he notes.

Crucially, parents are at the frontlines of their children’s defence, says Sharil.

“Parents should continue to monitor their children’s online activities while encouraging appropriate online behaviour. They should not totally depend on Facebook’s parenting’ facilities. Online tools and technologies can never replace the care and guidance that parents can give.”

Ultimately, he adds, it is extremely important for parents and guardians to become good role models for their children when they are online.

By HARIATI AZIZAN sunday@thestar.com.my


The Facebook Fallacy

For all its valuation, the social network is just another ad-supported site. Without an earth-changing idea, it will collapse and take down the Web.

Facebook is not only on course to go bust, but will take the rest of the ad-supported Web with it.

Given its vast cash reserves and the glacial pace of business reckonings, that will sound hyperbolic. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

At the heart of the Internet business is one of the great business fallacies of our time: that the Web, with all its targeting abilities, can be a more efficient, and hence more profitable, advertising medium than traditional media. Facebook, with its 900 million users, valuation of around $100 billion, and the bulk of its business in traditional display advertising, is now at the heart of the heart of the fallacy.

The daily and stubborn reality for everybody building businesses on the strength of Web advertising is that the value of digital ads decreases every quarter, a consequence of their simultaneous ineffectiveness and efficiency. The nature of people’s behavior on the Web and of how they interact with advertising, as well as the character of those ads themselves and their inability to command real attention, has meant a marked decline in advertising’s impact.

At the same time, network technology allows advertisers to more precisely locate and assemble audiences outside of branded channels. Instead of having to go to CNN for your audience, a generic CNN-like audience can be assembled outside CNN’s walls and without the CNN-brand markup. This has resulted in the now famous and cruelly accurate formulation that $10 of offline advertising becomes $1 online.

I don’t know anyone in the ad-Web business who isn’t engaged in a relentless, demoralizing, no-exit operation to realign costs with falling per-user revenues, or who isn’t manically inflating traffic to compensate for ever-lower per-user value.

Facebook, however, has convinced large numbers of otherwise intelligent people that the magic of the medium will reinvent advertising in a heretofore unimaginably profitable way, or that the company will create something new that isn’t advertising, which will produce even more wonderful profits. But at a forward profit-to-earnings ratio of 56 (as of the close of trading on May 21), these innovations will have to be something like alchemy to make the company worth its sticker price. For comparison, Google trades at a forward P/E ratio of 12. (To gauge how much faith investors have that Google, Facebook, and other Web companies will extract value from their users, see our recent chart.)

Facebook currently derives 82 percent of its revenue from advertising. Most of that is the desultory ticky-tacky kind that litters the right side of people’s Facebook profiles. Some is the kind of sponsorship that promises users further social relationships with companies: a kind of marketing that General Motors just announced it would no longer buy.

Facebook’s answer to its critics is: pay no attention to the carping. Sure, grunt-like advertising produces the overwhelming portion of our $4 billion in revenues; and, yes, on a per-user basis, these revenues are in pretty constant decline, but this stuff is really not what we have in mind. Just wait.

It’s quite a juxtaposition of realities. On the one hand, Facebook is mired in the same relentless downward pressure of falling per-user revenues as the rest of Web-based media. The company makes a pitiful and shrinking $5 per customer per year, which puts it somewhat ahead of the Huffington Post and somewhat behind the New York Times’ digital business. (Here’s the heartbreaking truth about the difference between new media and old: even in the New York Times’ declining traditional business, a subscriber is still worth more than $1,000 a year.) Facebook’s business only grows on the unsustainable basis that it can add new customers at a faster rate than the value of individual customers declines. It is peddling as fast as it can. And the present scenario gets much worse as its users increasingly interact with the social service on mobile devices, because it is vastly harder, on a small screen, to sell ads and profitably monetize users.

On the other hand, Facebook is, everyone has come to agree, profoundly different from the Web. First of all, it exerts a new level of hegemonic control over users’ experiences. And it has its vast scale: 900 million, soon a billion, eventually two billion (one of the problems with the logic of constant growth at this scale and speed, of course, is that eventually it runs out of humans with computers or smart phones). And then it is social. Facebook has, in some yet-to-be-defined way, redefined something. Relationships? Media? Communications? Communities? Something big, anyway.

The subtext—an overt subtext—of the popular account of Facebook is that the network has a proprietary claim and special insight into social behavior. For enterprises and advertising agencies, it is therefore the bridge to new modes of human connection.

Expressed so baldly, this account is hardly different from what was claimed for the most aggressively boosted companies during the dot-com boom. But there is, in fact, one company that created and harnessed a transformation in behavior and business: Google. Facebook could be, or in many people’s eyes should be, something similar. Lost in such analysis is the failure to describe the application that will drive revenues.

Google is an incredibly efficient system for placing ads. In a disintermediated advertising market, the company has turned itself into the last and ultimate middleman. On its own site, it controls the space where a buyer searches for a thing and where a seller hawks that thing (its keywords AdWords network). Google is also the cheapest, most efficient way to place ads anywhere on the Web (the AdSense network). It’s not a media company in any traditional sense; it’s a facilitator. It can forget the whole laborious, numbing process of selling advertising space: if a marketer wants to place an ad (that is, if it is already convinced it must advertise), the company calls Mr. Google.

And that’s Facebook’s hope, too: like Google, it wants to be a facilitator, the inevitable conduit at the center of the world’s commerce.

Facebook has the scale, the platform, and the brand to be the new Google. It only lacks the big idea. Right now, it doesn’t actually know how to embed its usefulness into world commerce (or even, really, what its usefulness is).

But Google didn’t have the big idea at the company’s founding, either. The search engine borrowed the concept of AdWords from Yahoo’s Overture network (with a lawsuit for patent infringement and settlement following). Now Google has all the money in the world to buy or license all the ideas that could makes its scale, platform, and brand pay off.

What might Facebook’s big idea look like? Well, it does have all this data. The company knows so much about so many people that its executives are sure that the knowledge must have value (see “You Are the Ad,” by Robert D. Hof, May/June 2011).

If you’re inside the Facebook galaxy (a constellation that includes an ever-expanding cloud of associated ventures) there is endless chatter about a near-utopian (but often quasi-legal or demi-ethical) new medium of marketing. “If we just … if only … when we will …” goes the conversation. If, for instance, frequent-flyer programs and travel destinations actually knew when you were thinking about planning a trip. Really we know what people are thinking about—sometimes before they know! If a marketer could identify the person who has the most influence on you … If a marketer could introduce you to someone who would relay the marketer’s message … get it? No ads, just friends! My God!

But so far, the sweeping, basic, transformative, and simple way to connect buyer to seller and then get out of the way eludes Facebook.

So the social network is left in the same position as all other media companies. Instead of being inevitable and unavoidable, it has to sell the one-off virtue of its audience like every other humper on Madison Avenue.

Here’s another worrisome point: Facebook is a company of technologists, not marketers. If you wanted to bet on someone succeeding in the marketing business, you’d bet on technologists only if they could invent some new way to sell; you wouldn’t bet on them to sell the way marketers have always sold.

But that’s what Facebook is doing, selling individual ads. From a revenue perspective, it’s an ad-sales business, not a technology company. To meet expectations—the expectations that took it public at $100 billion, the ever-more-vigilant expectations needed to sustain it at that price—it has to sell at near hyperspeed.

The growth of its user base and its ever-expanding  page views means an almost infinite inventory to sell. But the expanding supply, together with an equivocal demand, means ever-lowering costs. The math is sickeningly inevitable. Absent an earth-shaking idea, Facebook will look forward to slowing or declining growth in a tapped-out market, and ever-falling ad rates, both on the Web and (especially) in mobile. Facebook isn’t Google; it’s Yahoo or AOL.

Oh, yes … In its Herculean efforts to maintain its overall growth, Facebook will continue to lower its per-user revenues, which, given its vast inventory, will force the rest of the ad-driven Web to lower its costs. The low-level panic the owners of every mass-traffic website feel about the ever-downward movement of the cost of a thousand ad impressions (or CPM) is turning to dread, as some big sites observed as much as a 25 percent decrease in the last quarter, following Facebook’s own attempt to book more revenue.

You see where this is going. As Facebook gluts an already glutted market, the fallacy of the Web as a profitable ad medium can no longer be overlooked. The crash will come. And Facebook—that putative transformer of worlds, which is, in reality, only an ad-driven site—will fall with everybody else.

By Michael Wolff

Michael Wolff writes a column on media for the Guardian; is a contributing editor to Vanity Fair; founded Newser; and was, until October of last year, the editor of AdWeek

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Asia from an Asian perspective

Singapore’s Channel News Asia plans to penetrate the US and European pay TV markets, but faces challenges posed by surging social media.

SINGAPORE television, which helped Lee Kuan Yew defeat his left-wing foes and stay in power for 50 years, plans to go worldwide 24 hours a day from next year.

The global push by the state-owned Channel News Asia (CNA) to extend its reach from Asia to cover the United States and Europe is an ambitious project, given the adverse cable news market.

Last week, America’s CNN (Cable News Network), despite its vast resources and experience, reported a ratings drop of up to 50% in the first quarter.

All three global networks suffered declines, having lost audiences to the new digital media.

The declines are not deterring CNA, whose predecessor had played a historic role in the People’s Action Party’s (PAP) elimination of the powerful left-wing Barisan Sosialis in the 60s.

Despite its near-monopoly, circulation of Singapore’s main Straits Times broadsheet has stagnated.

“For us to be a true global player in the news channel space we need to broadcast 24 hours, every hour on the hour, with live news,” said a CNA spokesman.

“This will eventually allow us to penetrate the US and European pay TV markets, so that people there can get Asian news with Asian perspectives whenever they want.”

Having their state TV moving into the world arena has raised a little sense of pride among some Singaporeans.

Informed citizens, however, are questioning its chances of success considering that it is considered to be a government mouthpiece. And taxpayers are worried about footing the bill for potential losses.

A small-time businessman commented: “I wish it well, but if powerful global networks like CNN are losing out, what chance has the state-owned Singapore TV to succeed?”

Not everyone agrees. A polytechnic lecturer said Singapore has become an economic international player and a provider of jobs for professionals.

So TV has a small part, but, he added, if it is thinking of taking on the big players in providing global news, “I would say forget it”.

The vast majority of Americans and Europeans don’t really care for Singapore’s idea of “Asian coverage of Asian news”.

The biggest handicap is its ties to the government.

Most people I talked to doubted if many Westerners would be well disposed to news from a government news channel (BBC is different because of its long history of objective reporting).

Even among Singaporeans, one in every two believes that the Singapore media is biased, according to a survey last year.

On average, in a normal day, however, newspapers and television are the top sources of news here, with the Internet coming in a close third.

But in last year’s election, some 48% turned to Yahoo! for quick news, with CNA in second place at 23.8%. Newspapers, however, were the people’s main source of news.

Television was launched in 1963, the year Singapore joined Malaysia, and when it left two years later, the telecast of Lee Kuan Yew weeping caught the imagination of the world.

At the launch, only 2,400 Singaporean homes had TV sets, but tens of thousands of people, young and old, would sit on wooden benches in community centres to watch the magic box.

As a 23-year old then, I joined enthusiastic friends to meet outside a department store TV display window and watched celluloid scenes of the PAP developing Jurong or building public flats at a rate of one unit every 45 minutes.

It was a powerful message for a poor squatter country.

Eventually the leftwing hold among the vast Chinese-educated was broken. To the viewers, moving pictures could not lie.

The hard-working Barisan Sosialis representatives resorted to knocking on doors to get to the people, but they could not match the power of moving pictures.

Since then, the government has kept 100% ownership of television. Despite much talk of going public, TV news remain in official hands. About half of Singaporeans polled last year felt that “there is too much government control of newspapers and television”, according to an analysis by the Institute of Policy Studies.

With 3.37 million Internet users out of a 5.18 million population, the expectation is that while mainstream newspapers and TV remain on top of the pole for news, erosion among young readers is likely to continue.

This is because CNA is widely perceived as the voice of the government. An advisory committee said in 2009 that this factor could hamper its credibility as a news conduit.

The circulation of the Straits Times has been dismal over the decades despite a big population jump.

Not exactly good news for the ruling PAP.

An authoritative source once told me that for the PAP to remain in power, it must have control over three things – security forces, finance and the media.

The first two remain more or less in place, but control of the third – the media – is being challenged by the day by the surging social media where every citizen can be both a reporter and a reader.


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