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Monday, July 19, 2010

Facebook's New Child Safety Features...Am I Missing Something?

Several articles last week touted Facebook's latest step toward making children safe on their site.  Facebook has partnered with the Child Exploitation and Online Protection (CEOP) Centre from the UK to offer "a new suite of features designed at keeping the Facebook experience safe for kids."  I spent a few hours looking into these new features and honestly....I don't get it.  I can't figure out how these new features are going to offer any real protection for kids while on Facebook.

The big problem for me is that I can't find any clear description about what CEOP is bringing to the table.  The language describing the partnership is very vague.  Here is an example (this text is posted on both Facebook and CEOP's sites):

"Access to the ClickCEOP button will be provided via an application that users can add or bookmark so that it appears on their homepage as not only a constant source of help and reassurance for them but also as a strong visual signal to their friends, family and others that they are in control online."

The appearance of an icon or button on someone's page doesn't actually do anything.  From what I understand, when clicked, the button takes the child to an "information page" where they can also report abuses.  Reporting abuses sounds promising until you learn that Facebook is making no commitment to do anything about reported users and CEOP is only building a database of reported incidents (for what purpose, no one seems to know).  The "information" they refer to is a list of the standard Internet safety advice you can find on a thousand different websites (like mine).  In other words, the button does nothing tangible that can help a child at the crucial moment when their safety is being threatened.

Here is the link to the description of the service:

From what I understand, here is what it doesn't do:
  • It doesn't block offensive content
  • It doesn't block unsolicited messages from strangers
  • It doesn't prevent children from "friending" strangers
  • It doesn't give parents any control or even access to their child's profile or content
Seems to me that these are the things you need to do to make Facebook safe for kids.

Is a 14 year old going to respond to bullying or a sexual advance by searching the CEOP site for "relevant information?"  Do these people even know what a teenager is?  Will teenagers continue to use the "reporting" feature once they realize it does nothing?  Is a sexual predator going to leave a child alone just because of a bookmark that appears on the child's profile page?

Maybe I'm missing something here and I would love for someone from Facebook or CEOP to fill in the missing pieces.  If the information I have is incorrect or incomplete then Facebook needs to do a better job communicating to their user base.  My current opinion is that this is a smokescreen to divert attention from the reality that Facebook is still a fairly unsafe place for kids.  Since the 2007 lawsuit from the State of New York over child safety, Facebook has struggled against a lot of bad press about kids and their site. I hope this is more than just a lame attempt to improve public opinion.  Kids and parents deserve more than that.

Oh, and by the way, you now have to be just 13 to have a Facebook page.

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