An 11-year-old on Facebook? I blame the parents

Guy Birchall

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Topics Politics

It emerged this week that Facebook reached an out-of-court settlement with a father from Northern Ireland after he sued it for failing to enforce its age-restriction policy. Apparently his daughter, aged 11 at the time the events took place, was exposed to messages and posts from men of an ‘entirely inappropriate sexual nature’. Facebook requires users to be over 13 years old to sign up for an account, but it has no way of confirming ages aside from the dates of birth users input themselves.

The girl had set up several accounts on which she posted suggestive photos of herself, and each time Facebook became aware that she was under 13 the accounts were closed down. But her father’s lawyers argued that Facebook should have done more to prevent her setting up new accounts after previous ones were deleted. The solicitor was quoted in the Daily Mail saying, ‘My own personal view is that Facebook isn’t suitable for under-18s, but the company isn’t even able to uphold its own policy of keeping under-13s out. An age check, like asking for a passport number, would be a simple measure for Facebook to implement.’

Could I propose a radical alternative? Why don’t parents actually go to the trouble of looking after their kids properly? The girl in question was only 11 years old. Never mind unsupervised internet access, when I was 11 I was barely allowed a say in what haircut I had. Admittedly, Facebook wasn’t around when I was a kid, but had it existed the onus would have been on my parents, not Facebook, to stop me using it.

If parents left a pack of fags and a lighter lying around the house where their 11-year-old child could reach them, and they then found their little bundle of joy merrily puffing away, no one would think that Marlboro should be held responsible. The case of an 11-year-old using Facebook is no different, and yet Facebook is being held responsible for a parental mistake.

The internet has done wonders for society, but it has also created new problems for us all, especially children. But these are problems that parents themselves have to take responsibility for tackling. In this case, the family even tried to sue the Department of Culture, Media and Sport on the grounds that it should have brought in legislation to enforce age limits. That really is a staggering abdication of parental responsibility.

Lawyers argued that Facebook had a duty of care to the girl but was ‘negligent in that it failed to have a proper system in place for registration of a Facebook account so that it was impossible, or at the very least difficult, for a child to register by misrepresenting her age’. In my view, Facebook fulfilled its duty of care when it deactivated the accounts after realising she was underage. The only people who failed in their duty of care were her parents. Corporations and governments do not and should not raise our children. Rather than trying to ramp up Facebook’s vetting procedures, parents should start taking responsibility for their kids.

Guy Birchall is a writer based in Stoke.

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