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Marketer Beware: 7.5 Million Facebook Users Are Kids

If you think your promotional efforts on the social networking site are reaching only consumers 13 and older, think again.

Marketing to children has always been risky terrain that should be navigated only with the utmost of care--or not at all.

Turns out, however, that many companies are actively selling to children without even realizing it. Specifically, the companies in question are the ones that use Facebook to connect with customers and promote their products and services. According to a recent report, a shockingly large number of the Facebook users they're likely reaching are actually kids.

Facebook's terms of service require that users be at least 13 years old to use the site. As a parent, however, I know from experience that kids routinely lie about their age so as to participate; after all, besides that stated requirement, there's no further verification involved, and no kid wants to be left out.

5 Million Users Aged 10 and Under

What I didn't realize until this week, though, is just how many of Facebook's users are actually kids. Not only did some 20 million minors actively use Facebook in the past year, according to a Consumer Reports "State of the Net" survey released Tuesday, but a full 7.5 million of them were younger than 13.

Ready to be even more shocked? More than 5 million Facebook users were 10 and younger.

"Despite Facebook's age requirements, many kids are using the site who shouldn't be," said Jeff Fox, technology editor for Consumer Reports, in a press release announcing the survey's results. "What's even more troubling was the finding from our survey that indicated that a majority of parents of kids 10 and under seemed largely unconcerned by their children's use of the site."

Consumer Reports goes on to caution about potential implications including malware, identity theft and bullying. Closer monitoring and privacy controls, in turn, are a focus of its recommendations for parents.

Risky Business

It's definitely troubling that parents are generally so lax about their kids' online activities--only 18 percent of the parents responding to Consumer Reports' survey had even "friended" their kids on the site, for example.

Equally chilling, however, are the potential ramifications for marketers who use Facebook for promotional purposes. There are several risks associated with marketing to children, even if it's entirely unintentional.

1. An Ethical Gray Area

Though it's conducted all around us every day, the ethics of marketing to children are not clear, even when the products and services in question appear to be age-appropriate. There's been considerable debate over the practice, and it continues today, spurring the creation of organizations like the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.

2. The Obesity Question

Marketers of food and beverages face particularly intense scrutiny these days in the wake of today's obesity epidemic. If that's what your company sells, you definitely don't want to be part of the problem--even unwittingly--by promoting your products to kids on Facebook.

3. Inappropriate Messages

Whatever the product or service involved, commercial messages that may seem innocent enough to adults could still have negative consequences for children by promoting violence, materialism, an obsession with body image or inappropriate sexuality. Once again, this is all around us in the media every day, but that doesn't mean it's OK -- or that you should allow your brand to be associated with it.

4. Potential Legal Implications

Advertising to children is governed in most countries by a mix of self-regulation and legislation -- including the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) in the United States -- but you should know that there are some areas, including Sweden, where marketing to kids under 12 is illegal, for example. Even if it's unintentional, do you want to place your company in a potentially tricky legal situation?

I've never been a fan of Facebook, particularly for marketing purposes. Now, however, there's yet another reason to approach the site with extreme caution. While Facebook may tell marketers that its audience is aged 13 and up, we now know that that's absolutely not true.

Just as the old adage goes, "On the Internet, no one knows you're a dog," so today no one at Facebook actually knows if a user is a kid.

One can only hope Facebook will respond to this research with some sort of age verification process. In the meantime, marketers had better beware.

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