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Facebook Made My Teenager into an Ad. What Parent Would Ever 'Like' That?

A generation of ‘opt-in’ kids is being exploited, and someone needs to supervise the social network.
 
 
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How fast they grow up. Facebook turns 10 years old this month, which in the internet world sounds pretty old. But 10-year-olds still need supervision.

Consider that Facebook uses children’s images in advertisements without their consent – or the consent of their parents. If your child “likes” a company that advertises on Facebook, or if she “checks in” at a restaurant, or uses an app associated with that company, her image may appear next to a custom ad for the business in the News Feed and elsewhere, with text suggesting that she endorses that business.

You probably won’t even know when your family is suddenly starring in a commercial. Neither will your kid, unless she enjoys fine print more than status updates. But contrary to what Mark Zuckerberg would have you believe, there’s not a fine line between a selfie and a sponsored post – there’s a problem.

A two-year-old class-action suit on behalf of children exploited by Facebook’s profiteering was settled in August, but it turns out that the terms of the deal are an insult to any parent trying to shield her children against an internet behemoth ultimately out for commercial gain, privacy be damned.

I’ll get right to the worst part. The settlement authorizes Facebook, with the blessing of the court, to continue doing what California and six other states specifically prohibit by law: using children’s images to make money without asking their parents first. (The other states are Florida, New York, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Virginia and Wisconsin.)

With the support of privacy, consumer-rights and children’s-rights nonprofits, I and several other parents urged the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit to throw out the settlement this week – because Facebook can’t buy our children, and it can’t sell them either.

The few new “protections” in the settlement are a joke. For most children, the only change is some new legalese in Facebook’s terms of service saying that any user under 18 “represents” that her parent agrees to let Facebook use her image in ads.

Really? You’re asking kids to take the lead on determining whether they can be used as a front for major corporations, based on hitting a single “thumbs-up” button? That’s where parents are supposed to come in.

And the idea that teenagers are really going to sit down and read Facebook’s legal terms, let alone read carefully enough to understand what they’re signing up for? The idea that kids will take that time while they’re busy with the rest of Facebook, which sets the basic terms for their main online communication with friends, whether they like them or not? That high-schoolers are then going to go discuss the legalese with their moms and dads so that they can truthfully “represent” parental consent? That’s just out of touch with reality.

My daughter is 14. She’s bright and savvy. She’s aware of the existence of corporate predators and, yes, she probably knows more about Facebook’s privacy settings than most adults. She shows me anything online that she thinks is sketchy. She’s careful about what actions she takes on Facebook and she has developed good habits to protect her identify online.

Yet without her knowledge, my daughter’s image has shown up next to ads for clothing stores that represent something she opposes – the global supply chain that exploits workers. I don’t want her to be publicly associated with those clothing stores, and, more importantly, neither does she. It’s an inappropriate and illegal to use of her image and name, hiding behind the checkbox charade of “represented consent”.

Not only can my daughter’s digital record affect her future educational and career prospects (more and more college recruiters and employers are checking out the online profiles of students and potential employees), but this practice is a component of a larger problem: my daughter’s generation is increasingly being subsumed by the relentless intrusion of advertising and commercialism into our lives. Ads are everywhere, not only in the physical world – at the bus stop and the airport baggage carousel – but online. I object to it, and as a parent, I want to shield my daughter from it to the extent possible. Sure, my daughter’s generation may be “opting in” more than my own, but I feel they are doing so unwittingly, and so the Facebook generation is playing by Facebook’s rules, rather than their own.

Fortunately, the governments of California and six other states have laws that children’s images cannot be used without their parents’ consent. Government entities don’t always give parents the support they need or regulate what needs to be regulated. But in this case, laws already are in place to help us protect our children.

The problem is that Facebook, through this settlement, is making an end run around these laws – and around parents – by assuming that just because kids between the ages of 13 and 18 say they’re okay with something means they understand the implications. Facebook is undermining my role as a parent. Because even at 10 years old and with its billions of dollars, Facebook is still a kid. Now the justice system needs to impose some supervision.

Annie Leonard is the author of The Story of Stuff and is an expert in international sustainability and environmental health issues, with more than 20 years of experience investigating factories and dumps around the world.
 
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