Facebook had previously prevented users between ages 13 and 17 from sharing information outside their extended network: their friends or friends of friends.
Under the new policy, when teens join the site they will automatically have stronger privacy protections and the information they post will be visible to a smaller audience, limited to just their friends. But the users will also have the flexibility to change those settings and share their posts with the general Internet audience.
In a blog post, Facebook said the changes will give teens more control over what information they share with the public. But privacy groups said Facebook has failed to address complaints that its data collection practices don't adequately protect its youngest users. Facebook is addressing what teens "choose to share consciously, not the under the hood forms of collection that the site enables and has increasingly become more sophisticated," said Kathryn Montgomery, a privacy advocate and communications professor at American University.
Facebook did not disclose how many of its more than 1 billion users would fall under the new policy, but a Pew Internet and American Life study in August reported that 94 percent of teens who use social networks have Facebook accounts. Under Facebook's policies, underage users agree that their parents have given them permission to use the site, but the site does not require any certification.
Facebook said that allowing teens to share more with the general public brings the site's policies in line with competitors. Teens, the company said, tend to have a good understanding of how privacy settings on social networking sites work. The Pew study found that many teens set privacy settings themselves or consult peers and parents for advice.
"Teens are among the savviest people using of social media, and whether it comes to civic engagement, activism, or their thoughts on a new movie, they want to be heard," the company said in a blog post announcing the change.
The changes started rolling out Wednesday afternoon. Teens who opt for the looser privacy standards will be asked twice if they're sure that they want to share their information with Facebook's widest audience. The notification will also give teens an option to change the individual post's privacy settings.
Stephen Balkam, chief executive of the Family Online Safety Institute and a member of Facebook's safety advisory board, said that the new privacy settings show that Facebook's attitude towards teen privacy has evolved.
It's "a very positive step and something we've been deliberating on for quite some time," he said.
Still, the changes don't address questions Facebook has faced over the amount of data it collects about teens on its site. Privacy groups recently sent a letter to the Federal Trade Commission asking the agency to evaluate Facebook's policies on this issue, and have the network create separate policies for teens on the issue of data collection.
"Right now, Facebook treats them as if they're adults," said Jeff Chester, executive director for the Center for Digital Democracy.
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