Dad sues Facebook for letting his 11-year-old encounter predators

Sep 15, 2015 at 10:13 a.m. ET
Image: Sharon Lapkin/Moment/Getty Images

Here's one of the most uncomfortable byproducts of modern parenting that every one of us is bound to face: figuring out how to control your child's online activity.

One father was outraged after he found out what his 11-year-old daughter was up to online — so outraged, in fact, that the dad decided to sue Facebook for allowing her to create an illegal underage account.

According to this father from Northern Ireland, who remains anonymous because of the lawsuit, Facebook was "negligent" and lapsed in their "duty of care" toward his young daughter by allowing her to encounter online predators. The lawsuit was filed after this father discovered that his 11-year-old daughter had created an illegal Facebook account, only permitted to users age 13 and up. The 11-year-old girl allegedly used Facebook to upload sexual pictures of herself and was in contact with adult men through multiple Facebook accounts.

Facebook immediately put a stop to this dangerous online activity once the underage accounts were reported. Facebook was also generous enough to settle the lawsuit. The number one social networking site settled with an undisclosed sum last Monday after four years of legal battles, before trial was set to begin.

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A spokesman for Facebook explained their stance, "People have to be 13 to sign up to Facebook. When we become aware that someone is under 13, and they have therefore lied about their age, we remove their account."

This father had every right to be mad after finding out what his daughter was doing online, but it's too easy to place all the blame on one social networking site. Facebook, among many other social sites like Snapchat, Tumblr and Instagram all frequented by teens, has a minimum age restriction of 13 years old.

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When you think like a parent, it can be enraging to consider that Facebook let yet another underage account slip through the cracks — hence, the lawsuit. But when you think objectively, which is admittedly hard to do after you become a parent, it makes sense. These social networking sites popular among teens have an age restriction for a reason, but it is almost impossible to enforce. Unless Facebook and Instagram ask parents to scan in a birth certificate to approve an account (a cumbersome task that may not be feasible given the sheer volume of users), there's really no way to tell the difference between an 11-year-old and a 13-year-old girl.

This is hardly the first time a preteen has tried to slide in under the wire. Back in 2011, roughly around the time that this anonymous 11-year-old began using Facebook under false pretenses, Facebook had estimated 7.5 million users under age 13. Now Instagram has reportedly become "the" social network for tweens, despite the 13-year-old age restriction.

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Facebook claims they're doing their best to crack down on underage kids using the website, but they're fighting a battle they can't win. If anything, this lawsuit is an important reminder to all parents who may eventually find themselves in this dad's shoes — no website can guarantee your child's safety. It's up to you to monitor what your kids are doing online. It's also up to you to teach your children how to use social media and to explain the dangers of contacting strangers, especially strange men through multiple social accounts.

We can pretend this problem isn't happening, or we can talk to our kids more about it. Facebook also has several protective measures in place to help parents who have discovered a child with an underage account: You can report a Facebook account for a minor under age 13. You can also request data from your child's underage account before it is deleted by Facebook.

Even better, you can use this story (and the many others that will inevitably pop up in the news) to talk to your kids about what's really going on online. There are a number of safety mechanisms you can add to your home computer, like installing safety controls and setting Internet rules just like you would instruct your kids to wear a seat belt. But really, the best prevention for this kind of dangerous online activity is education — don't give your child the keys to the car before they learn how to drive.

When your kids know you care, and when they understand that you're watching, they'll think twice about what they're doing online.