The kids are online: Google could lead the way for next generation of users

20 Aug 2014

Image via Tatyana Vyc/Shutterstock

Flimsy age restrictions aren’t keeping digital natives from accessing online content, so are child-friendly accounts from Google et al the answer?

As it stands, Google Accounts – which provide access to the internet giant’s whole suite of services, including YouTube, Google+ and Gmail – are restricted to those aged 16 and over in the Netherlands, 14 and over in Spain and South Korea, and 13 and over in all other countries.

That could be about to change, though, as reports claim accounts tailored for children under 13 years of age are in the pipeline.

Dangers of ignoring age limits

Google’s current age restriction is difficult to enforce as underage users can easily lie about their birthdate when setting up an account. Further to that, parents themselves may sign their kids up to these services.

According to Brian O’Neill, head of research at DIT’s College of Arts and Tourism and national contact for multinational research network EU Kids Online, close to 40pc of 9-12-year-olds in Ireland regularly watch video on video-sharing platforms and nearly a third (29pc) of 11-12-year-olds have a profile on media-sharing platforms such as YouTube, Instagram or Flickr. 

“We also know that young people are exposed to and frequently upset by seeing unsuitable, sometimes frightening and potentially harmful content,” he added.

The issue of data collection and use

By creating accounts specifically for kids, Google could potentially corral these younger users in a safer environment policed by their own parents, which could be a positive step towards regularising their access and use of online services.

Subscription-based news service The Information reported that Google was considering features such as a dashboard for parents to track their child’s activity, a child-safe version of YouTube, and a requirement for those setting up Google accounts on Android software to share their age, as is already requested when signing up on a desktop computer.

Dedicated children’s accounts will reportedly give parents control of how their kids can interact with Google services, as well as what data is collected on their use.

The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), enforced by the US Federal Trade Commission, imposes strict limits on how information on children under 13 is collected, requiring the consent of a guardian. It also controls how this data can be used for advertising.

Online privacy group the Center for Digital Democracy expressed its concern at this development to The Wall Street Journal’s Digits blog and will be watching closely to ensure that Google treats the data of potentially millions of children correctly.

Providing a safe internet for digital natives

“How Google implements this will be important to watch,” said O’Neill.

“Providing parents with greater awareness and capacity through supervised accounts (a feature Google has trialled in Android 4.3, for instance) to monitor or engage more actively with how children use and navigate the web can offer a safer and better experience,” he added.

As a top dog in the tech community, other companies may follow Google’s lead in this respect, facing up to the reality of digital natives who don’t want to be excluded from the digital community.

“Given the reality that internet technologies are evermore present in all households and part of younger children’s experiences, services that recognise and support children’s positive participation are to welcomed,” said O’Neill.

“It does place a burden on providers – and on parents – however, to be more vigilant and digitally aware.”

Little girl at laptop image by Tatyana Vyc via Shutterstock

Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.