Facebook announced Wednesday that it is loosening privacy rules for its teen users.
The announcement comes amid headlines about teenage bullying and cyber predators, and industry analysts expect the move to draw fire. The social network has frequently found itself criticized for its privacy policies, and this one could draw more attention than usual.
Until Wednesday, Facebook users between the ages of 13 and 17 were only able to share status updates, pictures and videos with their online friends or friends of friends. With the new policy, teenage users may opt to open up their accounts and make their posts public.
"Teens are among the savviest people using social media, and whether it comes to civic engagement, activism, or their thoughts on a new movie, they want to be heard," the company wrote in a blog post . "While only a small fraction of teens using Facebook might choose to post publicly, this update now gives them the choice to share more broadly, just like on other social media services."
Patrick Moorhead, an analyst with Moor Insights & Strategy, said the new policy could be an issue or Facebook. "Historically, online privacy activists have gotten riled up about Facebook privacy issues but it never really ever got far," he said. "Now there is the chance child advocacy and parent groups will step in."
Facebook also is enabling teens to turn on a Follow feature, which allows their posts to show up in other's news feeds.
Adult users have always been able to choose how public or private their information is made.
"We take the safety of teens very seriously, so they will see an extra reminder before they can share publicly," Facebook noted. " When teens choose "Public" in the audience selector, they'll see a reminder that the post can be seen by anyone, not just people they know, with an option to change the post's privacy. And if they choose to continue posting publicly, they will get an additional reminder."
Zeus Kerravala, an analyst with ZK Research, said Facebook's move is all about advertising.
"When Facebook is allowing more people to see teenagers' information, they're also allowing advertisers to see more info," he said. "Marketers can get better knowledge of what is hot with teens. Teens also tend to be very loud and public in what they want to buy."
However, despite the potential financial benefits to this, Facebook is taking a big risk with this move, added Kerravala.
"Facebook is publicly traded now, so they need to start thinking about how to continually increase shareholder value," he said. "That's life as a public company. The risk is that parents get upset about this and either limit their kids' use of it or force kids off Facebook."
Moorhead went further and said it's a bad idea.
"These are kids and everyone should step back and consider exactly what this means and its potential impact," he said. "Most of these Facebook privacy brouhahas blow over, but if a kid gets hurt based on these changes, this isn't going to blow over. This could most likely be the privacy issue that Facebook needs to reconsider."
Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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