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Why can't your 12-year-old have a Facebook account?

Anyone who's ever watched any news report or crime show has probably been told about how dangerous the Internet can be for children. So what should you do when your child wants a Facebook account? There's more options than you think...including a simple, legal reason that keeps children under 13 off most social networking sites.

Between online predators, cyber-bullies, and just plain internet addiction, it's an understandable instinct for a parent to want to keep their children off social networking sites until they're older. Of course, kids are all about finding ways around what their parents don't want them to it helps to look at everything in place to help protect your child online.

The first thing you need to understand is the Child's Online Privacy Protection Act, which strictly regulates what information a website operator may collect from a child under the age of 13. Here's the basic info behind COPPA, and a guide from the Federal Trade Commission that explains how websites can comply with COPPA's rules.

COPPA clearly delineates the nature of personal information that must be protected in a site's privacy policy for children under 13 on websites, including full names, geographical locations, Social Security numbers, telephone numbers, and email. Violators of the rules of COPPA are subject to a fine of up to $16,000 per violation, which means it's in the best interest of website owners to comply.

The FTC's page also explains recent updates to the rules of COPPA as of July 2013, which includes specific examples of the types of personal information a website may or may not request from a child.

Because of the involved nature of complying with COPPA regulations, most social networking sites, including Facebook, prohibit children under 13 from joining.

But this is also a difficult rule to enforce, with many children simply giving a fake birth date when they sign up for an account.

What are some of the ways you can keep your child off social networking sites, or at least the more harmful content they can encounter on them?

Facebook itself has a guide for parents and educators, though it mostly focuses on being able to access your child's online information, getting images of your child off Facebook, etc. There's some additional tools at their Family Safety Center.

Microsoft has its own guide for child safety, including not letting your kids use the Internet until they're at least 10.

And if your child is already on Facebook, here's a guide on how to access their page.

There's other, more simple solutions available, including:

  • Create a supervised Facebook page that limits personal details, such as age and pictures. This method has actually been encouraged by British politicians as a way to increase online security, though there are arguments that it sends a mixed message about being honest and creating fake identities while online.
  • Create a group page for your family where you have access, and limit the child's activity to this page.
  • Allow your child to use your account ONLY for playing certain Facebook games, which lets you monitor their activity.
  • And there's the simplest, though hardly the easiest solution: Sit your kids down and talk with them about the dangers of being online, the consequences of not taking precautions, and the importance of knowing they can come to you first.

Sometimes, that's the method that just works best.

Photo: San José Library