- Associated Press - Monday, June 4, 2012

NEW YORK — Though Facebook bans children younger than 13, millions of them have profiles on the site by lying about their age.

The company is now testing ways to allow those youths to participate without needing to lie. This would likely be under parental supervision, such as by connecting children’s accounts to their parents’ accounts.

Like many other online services, Facebook prohibits children younger than 13 because federal law requires companies to obtain parental consent if they want to collect information about those children.

Such information collection is central to Facebook. Every photo or status update a child posts on Facebook could count as information collection. Many companies consider the parental-consent requirement too burdensome, so they simply ban all children younger than 13 instead.

But that ban is difficult to enforce. In many cases, parents themselves help children skirt it by setting up profiles for them and lying about their ages. There are an estimated 7.5 million children younger than 13 on Facebook, out of more than 900 million users worldwide.

In a statement, Facebook noted that many recent reports have highlighted “just how difficult it is to enforce age restrictions on the Internet, especially when parents want their children to access online content and services.”

“We are in continuous dialogue with stakeholders, regulators and other policymakers about how best to help parents keep their kids safe in an evolving online environment,” the company said.

Few details are available on the nature of Facebook’s tests, which the Wall Street Journal reported on Monday. Relaxing the ban on younger children could be a long way off, or never get implemented, as happens with many features Facebook tests.

The report comes just two weeks after Facebook began trading stock as a public company. Its stock price has fallen in part because of concerns about its ability to keep increasing revenue and make money from its growing mobile audience.

To James Steyer, the CEO of the nonprofit Common Sense Media, Facebook’s discussion on permitting children to join is about expanding its audience - and profits.

“With the growing concerns and pressure around Facebook’s business model, the company appears to be doing whatever it takes to identify new revenue streams and short-term corporate profits to impress spooked shareholders,” Mr. Steyer said in a statement.

But Stephen Balkam, the CEO of another children-and-technology nonprofit, the Family Online Safety Institute, disagrees.

Mr. Balkam, who sits on Facebook’s Safety Advisory Board in an unpaid position, said the company has been discussing the issue for more than a year. That’s months before Facebook made regulatory filings in February for its initial public offering of stock, which took place in mid-May.

“It has nothing to do with the IPO,” he said.