SAN FRANCISCO — Facebook has loosened its privacy rules for teenagers as a rising debate swirls over online threats to children from online bullies and sexual predators.
The move, announced 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 more choice, big money is at stake for the social network 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 monetization 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 interaction with advertisers 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 risk.
“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.”
Facebook said numerous other sites and mobile apps, from big players like Twitter and Instagram to lesser-known ones like ask.fm and Kik Messenger, 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,” said Nicky Jackson Colaco, Facebook’s manager of privacy and public policy, in an 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.
“Kids need to be able to mess up,” Bazelon said. “Kids who are talking trash on Twitter don’t use their real names.”
Facebook also said it had made the change to let socially active teenagers like musicians and humanitarian activists, people the service has often called its savviest users, reach a wider audience the way they can on blogs and rival services like Twitter.
Facebook drew praise for one other change it made to the rules for teenagers. By default, new accounts for teenagers will be set up to share information only with friends, not friends of friends as before. 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.
The company, which has about its 1.2 billion users worldwide, is locked in a battle with Twitter and Google to attract consumer advertisers like food, phone and clothing companies. Those brands want to reach people as they engage in passionate public conversation about sports, television, news and live events.
Twitter, which has been emphasizing its virtue as a real-time public platform as it prepares to make a public offering of stock next month, has been particularly effective at persuading marketers that it is the best way to reach audiences talking about the hottest television show or the week’s National Football League games.
Online bullying is also a growing concern. In September, a 12-year-old Florida girl, Rebecca Ann Sedwick, committed suicide after extensive online bullying on Facebook, Kik Messenger and ask.fm. This month, Florida authorities charged two youngsters with aggravated stalking in the case.
Gov. Jerry Brown of California recently signed a law that allows residents to erase online indiscretions posted while they were teenagers. And European lawmakers are preparing to vote on changes that would give European residents far more control over their online privacy.