The move, announced on Wednesday, allows teenagers to post status updates, videos and images that can be seen by anyone, not just their friends or people who know their friends.
While Facebook described the change as giving teenagers, ages 13 to 17, more choice, big money is at stake for the company and its advertisers. Marketers are keen to reach impressionable young consumers, and the more public information they have about those users, the better they are able to target their pitches.
“It’s all about monetisation and being where the public dialogue is,” said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a group that lobbies against marketing to children. “To the extent that Facebook encourages people to put everything out there, it’s incredibly attractive to Facebook’s advertisers.”
But that public dialogue now includes youths who are growing up in a world of social media and, often, learning the hard way that it can be full of risks. Parents, too, are trying to help their children navigate the raucous online world that holds both promise and peril.
“They’re hitting kids from a neurological weak spot. Kids don’t have the same kind of impulse control that adults do,” said Emily Bazelon, a journalist and author of the book Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy. Risks to teenagers posting publicly
Facebook said numerous other sites and mobile apps, from big players like Twitter and Instagram to lesser-known ones like ask.fm and Kik, allowed teenagers to express themselves publicly.
“Across the web, teens can have a very public voice on those services, and it would be a shame if they could not do that on Facebook,” Nicky Jackson Colaco, Facebook’s manager of privacy and public policy, said in a phone interview.
But unlike those other services, Facebook requires users to post under their real identities, which some privacy advocates said would make it much more difficult to run away from stupid or thoughtless remarks.
“It’s risky to have teenagers posting publicly,” Ms Bazelon said. “The kids who might be the most likely to do that might not have the best judgment about what they post.”
Facebook also said it made the change to let its most knowledgable users socially active teenagers like musicians and humanitarian activists reach a wider audience the way they can on blogs and rival services like Twitter.
Facebook changed another aspect of its rules for teenagers, for which it drew praise. By default, new accounts for teenagers will be set up to share information only with friends, not friends of friends as before. Ms Colaco said the company would also educate teenagers about the risks of sharing information and periodically remind them, if they make public posts, that everyone can see what they are sharing.
But fundamentally, Facebook wants to encourage more public sharing, not less.
Read more via Facebook makes it easier to track teenage users.