The latest social group to gravitate onto Facebook? Tweens.
They talk to each other. They talk to cousins in other states. They play Happy Aquarium and Farmville.
But they aren't supposed to be there.
Facebook prohibits anyone under the age of 13 from joining the social networking site. The rule is based on federal laws governing the privacy of children. In order to sign up, you have to say you're at least 13 years old.
Many parents and their underage children, however, are choosing to ignore the rules.
"I don't think I need the federal government to tell me that there's an age at which my child is mature enough to handle a Web site when I know she's mature at 12," said St. Petersburg mother Shelly Dolan Ash, whose daughter, Margot, has a Facebook account. "There are plenty of other things to regulate."
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Social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook have become the public spaces of the 21st century. Think of it as a cyber school yard or public park.
"These are environments where you want them accompanied by parents," said John Palfrey, a Harvard Law School professor. "I think 13 is a reasonable cutoff for them to be on their own in these open spaces."
The Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, passed a decade ago, is the federal law that forces Facebook to accept only the 13 and older set. It says that children are not allowed to reveal information about themselves without parental permission. But Facebook and MySpace are, by their very nature, information-sharing sites, so there is no way to get a parental okay for every "I'm bored" or "Text me" status update.
The thinking is that children don't have the maturity or common sense to know what information shouldn't be shared, like their address or whether their parents are home. Some don't realize that everything they say on Facebook, every curse word, sexually explicit come-on, remains online forever.
Then there's the fact that lots of tweens — with parental approval — are saying they are 13 when they're not.
"We have to teach our children to follow the rules," said Gwenn O'Keeffe, a pediatrician and spokeswoman for the American Academy of Pediatrics in Massachusetts.
Still, the Federal Trade Commission, which is responsible for enforcing the federal law, does not track people — parents or children — who break the rules on Facebook, said spokeswoman Claudia Bourne Farrell. Its charge is only to make sure Web sites are helping to protect the privacy of children.
Facebook spokesman Simon Axten said the company has a system in place to prevent underage users. He spoke of a "community verification system" at signup, which might include contacting the first few friends of a Facebook newcomer to verify age. He declined to respond to questions about how many Facebook users have been kicked off for being underage.
But Facebook's effort doesn't seem to have prevented dozens of young kids in the Tampa Bay area from signing onto Facebook.
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Alexis Beital sat at a computer in her Zephyrhills home recently and logged onto Facebook.
She typed "Happy Birthday" on the wall of her Uncle Joseph, who lives in North Carolina. Then she sent her mother a smiley face with pink hearts popping out of it. Beneath it, she wrote: "I love you Mommy."
Standing behind her, watching her every move: her mom.
Alexis is 9. She has had her own Facebook account for about a year and has amassed 24 friends, most of them family members and her mother's friends.
Her mother, Jeanette Beital, 41, decided to let Alexis have a Facebook account after just about every other member of the family got one, including Alexis' grandmother. Alexis' brother, Zachary, got one when he was 12. He recently turned 13.
"Everyone else had one and she was like, 'Why am I the only one? I have friends and family, too,' " said Beital, an administrative assistant for a civil engineering company in Tampa.
"Alexis is 9 but a lot of kids her age are joining and we're finding more and more kids Zachary's age and even from his group of friends joining," Beital said. "I can understand where the government is coming from. There are so many sick psychos out there. But I think as a parent if we watch our kids and pay attention, it's okay."
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Margot Ash logged onto Facebook on a laptop in her kitchen one day recently. Her mother, Shelly Dolan Ash, was nearby but not too close.
Margot took a quiz to get her ghetto nickname (Pookie). She checked out the status update of a friend who was happy about a new boyfriend. She clicked through photos of her with her brother at Animal Kingdom.
Margot is 12, about to turn 13. She has had a Facebook page for about a year. She has 122 friends.
She updates her status frequently.
I'm watching Lion King — my fav! Is it bad that I am practically 13 years old and I still adore these old movies?
And: Stayed up all night planning an outfit for Monday because I was so excited about my clothes (especially these adorable brown boots)
And: :( he has a gf :(
Margot says more than half of the seventh-graders at her school — most of them 12-year-olds — have Facebook accounts. Lots of sixth-graders, too.
Margot's mother checked out Facebook before letting her daughter get an account. Mrs. Ash has her daughter's password. She frequently rifles through Margot's status updates to make sure her daughter is behaving online as well as she does offline.
So when Margot said she was upset about something but used a word that comes to mind when a dog lifts its leg near a fire hydrant, Mrs. Ash told her to take it down. Similarly, when Margot blurted out her concern for the fate of a friend's sick child, Mrs. Ash stepped in. The child's family was on Facebook. The post might make them sad, she told Margot.
"I told her she was invading their privacy," Mrs. Ash said.
Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report.