Faced with slowing growth in its advertising business, Facebook is considering throwing open its social network to children, in the hope that their parents will pay for games and other content on the site.
The plan is also designed to limit the company's legal risk over the already-widespread use of the site by minors, millions of whom might be on Facebook after lying about their age.
News that chief executive Mark Zuckerberg, pictured, is considering legitimising and expanding the use of the site by children comes as Facebook shares fall further below their flotation price. The stock slipped below $27 in early trading in New York yesterday, compared to the $38 at which they were sold to new investors two-and-a-half weeks ago, as investors continued to fret about slowing advertising income from its website and the even narrower options for monetising traffic on its mobile site.
In one piece of potentially good news, it was reported that the social network could be close to settling its extensive patent dispute with Yahoo in a deal that would usher in a new business partnership between the two internet behemoths. Yahoo sued Facebook, claiming it infringed on dozens of patents covering how to personalise websites, serve adverts and run a social network. Facebook countersued, and bolstered its case in April by buying $550m-worth of technology patents from Microsoft.
Facebook is open only to people aged 13 or above, but US magazine Consumer Reports found last year that as many as 7.5 million of the site's 900 million users could be younger than that. Another study suggested that one-third of those illegitimate users were on the site with their parents' knowledge, and in many cases with their parents' help.
"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," Facebook said in a statement. "We are in continuous dialogue with stakeholders, regulators and other policy makers about how best to help parents keep their kids safe in an evolving online environment."