By Annie Andrews
If any of the five men charged in the Buffalo County child prostitution case get convicted, they will become registered sex offenders. In the state of Nebraska, that means they'd be able to keep their Facebook accounts.
In 2009, Nebraska struck down part of a federal law banning sex offenders from the Internet. In that repeal was the ban on social networking sites -- which they called unconstitutional.
Now, sex offenders across the country are using Nebraska's precedent to help them fight for Facebook.
That makes the social networking site's pending decision to allow kids under the age of 13 to join all that more concerning, say some. They say it's opening up the doors to convicted child predators on a virtual playground, a potentially life-changing game, where kids don't know the rules.
But to many, lifting the ban seems like a moot point because kids under 13 are already on Facebook. In fact, the most recent report showed 7.5 million members are under 13-years-old and lying about their age. The same report showed 5 million of those minor members are under the age of 10.
What's worst, say child advocates, is that 64 percent of those kids' parents were unaware they had even joined the site.
"My parents didn't want me to join, but I did it anyway," said one teen stopped in the mall about her Facebook membership. Just about every kid NTV talked to said the same.
"I have Facebook and I'm under 13," said a 12-year-old boy. Another teenage girl we stopped said she had been a member since 12, admitting with a laugh she lied about her age to gain access.
It's the growing epidemic Facebook is hoping to address. On Monday, through the Wall Street Journal they announced plans for kid pages aimed at those under 13. The accounts would be through the parent or guardian's profile, programmers looking at ways to create filters that would give parents complete control over their child's online activity.
"I would not recommend that, and that's my personal opinion," said Deb Harder, a Grand Island Public School administrator who overseas elementary education working directly with counselors and principals.
For Harder, Facebook is already a problem. Most common eruptions are from cyber bullying. "If we have arguments or fights at school, many times we can trace it back to Facebook from the night before or weekend before," she said.
The biggest fear for Harder isn't the name calling; however, it's what she called the most dangerous of circumstances. "We always have the concern of predators getting a hold of our kids of minor age," she said.
Statistics prove that most likely they will. Studies show that one in seven kids online will get sexually solicited and over half of those were asked to send an explicit picture.
- But, it's almost always by other peers, based on this huge study that was done.
"Their telling them ‘we know how you feel,' letting them know they understand them, talking about being their friend, that ‘their parents don't understand them,'" said Deborah Fitts, Executive Director of CAPstone Child Advocacy Center in Scottsbluff. "Sexual predators are grooming for a relationship and leading them down that path."
It's a path, said Harder and Fitts, that many kids won't ever see coming. "Their brain is still developing areas," said Harder. "Developing the areas that make choices, judgments, self-control, emotions, and organization, so their brains aren't developed to handle what comes across on Facebook," she said.
Perhaps showing telltale signs of personal experience, those same teens NTV talked to agreed. "It's a bad idea, because they don't know what they're getting into," said one teenage boy. "There's a lot of things on Facebook, kids don't need to see," said the same teen girl who went behind her parents' back. "If you're not on Facebook, then you really don't know what your kids are doing, that is an issue," said another.
- The same stuff kids don't need to see can be found outside of social networks, like Google for example.
Both CAC advocates, teachers and kids said it needs to come down to strict monitoring by parents. Fitts recommends keeping computers in family areas, not allowing kids to take them to their rooms.