[Image courtesy of Green Studios Books. Licensed under CC BY SA 2.0.]

Have you ever lied about your age to get access to a website? If you have, you’re not alone. According to a new study done by danah boyd, Eszter Hargittai, Jason Schultz, and John Palfrey (with accompanying blog summary here), over half of 12-year-olds report having a Facebook account. Given that the minimum age for users of a site that takes personal information is 13, it seems that people are routinely breaking the law–often with parental help–in order to post whatever tweens post on Facebook.*

COPPA, the piece of legislation mandating the 13-year-old age cutoff, has been around since most college students were really online–I remember learning to circumvent it in order to sign up for Neopets. But now, as then, the law is nearly impossible to enforce–most sites (particularly those not targeted exclusively at children) only require self-reported birth data, because they have other things to worry about.

boyd and her cowriters argue that the law’s makers could not have possibly forseen a day when users would willingly share buckets of information about themselves in order to participate in online life–Facebook was not something that was on anyone’s horizon when COPPA was written. The law puts instructors in a difficult place, as well. Is a well-meaning teacher of under-13′s supposed  to yell at students for being on Facebook, or to teach them how to navigate privacy settings so they don’t do anything dumb?

To bring this back around to college students (given this is HackCollege, not HackMiddleSchool), the study raises an interesting question about what role digital literacy education should have both at the collegiate level and at the K-12. The kids who were legally able to join when Facebook opened to the public in 2006 are now freshmen in college. Within the next five years, it’s quite likely that no one in an undergraduate setting will have been online in a time before social media–introduced via youthful violation of COPPA–was omnipresent.

It will be interesting to see if this disregard for poorly-thought-out rules will carry over into other areas of university life. Though of course college students have always been willing to disregard authority like the twenty-somethings we are, it’s never been the case that we’ve been able to do it with such ease.

So, what do you think? Is COPPA well-intentioned but doomed? Were you lying about your age to get on FanFiction.net as a child?**  Share in the comments!

* Pictures of Justin Beiber, I assume.

** No? Just me?