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Who cares? Practical ethics and the problem of underage users on social networking sites


Internet companies place a high priority on the safety of their services and on their corporate social responsibility towards protection of all users, especially younger ones. However, such efforts are undermined by the large numbers of children who circumvent age restrictions and lie about their age to gain access to such platforms. This paper deals with the ethical issues that arise in this not-so-hypothetical situation. Who, for instance, bears responsibility for children’s welfare in this context? Are parents/carers ethically culpable in failing to be sufficiently vigilant or even facilitating their children’s social media use? Do industry providers do enough to enforce their own regulations and remove those users they know to be underage? How far does a duty of care extend? Regulation of age restrictions has, it is argued, created unintended consequences that heighten online dangers for young people. While children are inevitably drawn to new online spaces for entertainment and fun, should their rights to participate in the social world around them be curtailed to ensure their best interests and those of the wider community? Such questions now pose significant practical and ethical dilemmas for policy makers and other stakeholders involved in internet governance. It especially highlights the question of responsibility for protection of minors online and calls into question whether the current model of shared responsibility is working.

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  1. 1.

    The age restriction of 13 years stems from data protection legislation in the United States, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998 (COPPA), whereby websites that collect information from users under the age of 13 must obtain verifiable parental consent. As such, many internet services set 13 as the age bar above which parental consent is no longer required. See Montgomery (2007).

  2. 2.

    EU Kids Online is a thematic network supported under the European Commission Safer Internet Programme and is aimed at enhancing knowledge of children’s and parent’s experiences and practices regarding risky and safer use of the internet and online technologies. In 2010, it conducted a face-to-face, in-home survey of 25,000 9–16 year old internet users and their parents in 25 countries using a stratified random sample and self-completion methods for sensitive questions.

  3. 3.

    According to the Safer Social Networking Principles of the EU, service providers endeavor to make their platforms age appropriate for minors (typically between the ages of 13 and 18) by restricting the visibility of profiles, maintaining privacy by default, providing easy to use tools, terms of service and help resources as well as response mechanisms. See European Commission (2009).

  4. 4.

    This was divulged in the testimony of one Facebook’s privacy advisors before an Australian parliamentary cyber-safety committee. See:

  5. 5.

    Facebook provides a form to report underage users:

  6. 6.

  7. 7.

    See for instance the report of the Irish Data Protection Commissioner in its audit of Facebook Ireland Ltd. (Office of the Data Protection Commissioner 2011).

  8. 8.


  9. 9.

    See Facebook Self-Declaration for EU Safer Social Networking Principles,

  10. 10.

    Or for example, the analogy drawn in the Byron report, commissioned by the UK Prime Minister Gordon Browne into provision for online safety, where pointedly it was argued we do not let children dive into a swimming pool before learning how to swim. See: (Byron 2008).

  11. 11.

    The CEO Coalition to make the internet a better place for kids was convened in December 2011 and committed over the course of 1 year to take positive action to ensure internet experience was beneficial for children. See:

  12. 12.

    The five areas were: (1) simple and robust reporting tools for users; (2) age-appropriate privacy settings; (3) wider use of content classification; (4) wider availability and use of parental control; and (5) effective takedown of child abuse material.


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Correspondence to Brian O’Neill.

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O’Neill, B. Who cares? Practical ethics and the problem of underage users on social networking sites. Ethics Inf Technol 15, 253–262 (2013).

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  • Social networking
  • Internet safety
  • Protection of minors
  • Children and privacy
  • Self-regulation