This Horrific Story Is Why the Kids-on-Facebook Debate Misses the Point

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After hearing about the multiple child rapes that happened on Skout, an online people-meeting app that links up with Facebook, we're convinced this so-called kids on the Internet debate needs to come to an end. The question of whether 13-year-olds should or shouldn't be allowed on Facebook isn't really about protecting kids. They're already there, in need of protection. And the 13-year-old cut-off has little to do with judging how old is old enough to use the social network safely; it's just the result of an arbitrary age dictated by the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, which requires certain online restrictions for users below a certain age. Facebook -- and virtually every other web site -- doesn't want to go through the hassle of enforcing those restrictions, so they say 13-year-olds aren't allowed to use their site. Problem solved! But, as we see with these recent incidents, this technicality isn't doing much to keep kids out of danger from cyber bullying, child rapists, or inappropriate content.

"Sites find it nearly impossible to control who goes where," writes The New York Times's Nicole Perlroth, who details the way three men used this app to lure and rape children. "In Skout’s case, a majority of its users sign in through Facebook, which officially forbids members under the age of 13," she continues. 5.6 million underagers have found their way onto Facebook, according to The Economist. And, as Perlroth explains, Facebook's restrictions don't address the actual hazards.

In one case, a 15-year-old Ohio girl said she had been raped by a 37-year-old man. In the second, a 24-year-old man has been accused of raping a 12-year-old girl in Escondido, Calif. In the third, a 21-year-old man from Waukesha, Wis., is facing charges that he sexually assaulted a 13-year-old boy.

Of course, not all of those kids fall into the below-13 category, but none of them was protected by the Facebook 

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The social network up until now had ignored this discussion, picking the easiest way to comply Children's Online Privacy Protection Act. With the realization that many unauthorized youth have made their way onto the site, Facebook is looking into letting kids on the site with certain restrictions, according to sources who spoke with The Wall Street Journal. Even those unconfirmed murmurings were enough to start a 'should kids be allowed on the social network' debate, with one side arguing that Facebook shouldn't condone social networking at such a young age. Facebook's getting kids addicted too young, goes one argument. It's bad for their emotional development, says another. And, so on. While these points may or may not be true, the point is moot. Let's move on to a more realistic debate. Children are on there, how can we best protect them, if that is even possible?

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.