Facebook Referred to Kids as Young as Five as "Whales" for Its Monetized Games

Facebook wouldn't refund large purchases made by underage gamers.

You've heard this story before: kid wants to buy something in the mobile game they're playing, asks their parents for their credit card info, then accidentally racks up a bunch of charges. It turns out the same thing happened on Facebook, newly unsealed court documents reveal.

In 2012 Facebook fought a class-action lawsuit which claimed the social media company profited from children who accidentally racked up huge credit card charges. The lead plaintiff was playing a game on Facebook when they asked to borrow their mother's credit card to make a $20 in-game purchase. According to lawyers, the child continued to make charges to the same card for weeks without realizing it. They believed they were making the purchases "with virtual currency[.]"

The Reveal was recently able to unseal internal Facebook documents regarding refunds for games. According to the documents, Facebook conducted an analysis of users playing Facebook games after employees began expressing concern. The results found the average age of Angry Birds players on Facebook was five years old.

The internal Facebook memo discovered that while parents are aware of their children playing games on Facebook, many don't believe their child would be able to purchase anything without authorization. This is how purchases on Apple iOS work as buyers must re-authorize every purchase with their password.

The Reveal reports that in one of the unsealed documents, two Facebook employees are recorded discussing whether or not to refund a child—whom they refer to as a "whale"—who racked up $6,545 in charges from a Facebook game. "Is the user writing in [as] a parent, or is this user a 13ish year old," asks one employee recorded as Michael. The other Facebook employee named Gillian responds, "It's a 12ish yr[sic] old. Says [it's] 15. Looks a big younger. She* not its. Lol." Michael then replies, "...I wouldn't refund."

The class-action lawsuit against Facebook was settled confidentially in 2016, but the judge who unsealed the documents notes the information will "be of great public interest, particularly since it relates specifically to Facebook's transactions with minors." This comes at a time where Facebook is facing a new level of scrutiny after the company is was accused of using personal data inappropriately.

Although gaming is just one part of Facebook, information from the documents should shed light on how Facebook interacts with its users and treats the customers that entrust it with personal data.