I set my daughter up with her first-ever email account yesterday. She’s nine. Google age restrictions be damned, the girl gets what the girl wants. After all, email requires reading and writing, right?
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Spoiled by texting and IM, my impatient digital native checked her new Gmail account about a dozen times in the first five minutes for inbox action. “I texted my BFF to email me back twice already. Why isn’t it here yet?!”
Give the post-millennial time. She doesn’t “get” email yet. I’m surprised she asked for it in the first place. Isn’t emailing as lame as actually calling people?
“Make me born in the '90s so I look old enough,” she giggled during the half-a-minute Gmail signup drill, fully aware that we were outright lying to Google about her age. “And let’s give me a fake name because of strangers and stuff, k?” “Marketers, too,” I clucked.
Compared to most of her soon-to-be-fifth-grader friends -- and to her brothers, who both scored Gmail accounts when they were only seven in order to sign up for National Geographic Kids’ cursed Animal Jam online world -- my daughter is years late to the email game. But for Google, she’s right on time. Kids like her, the 13 and younger set, are Google’s next big target market, reports The Information.
Rumor has it that the tech giant might soon open its personal data-gobbling gates to pre-teens and kids even younger. That is, officially, because countless young children aren’t already all over Gmail and they’re not hooked on YouTube or anything.
We reached out to Google for confirmation, but the it remains tight-lipped, with a spokesperson saying the company “does not comment on rumor or speculation.”
Google reportedly wants to make its relationship with users 13 and under legit, as in legal, and market new ones. If it does officially court kids that young, it will have to comply with the Federal Trade Commission’s Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA).
Per the FTC, the law’s main goal “is to place parents in control over what information is collected from their young children online.” While COPPA requires parental consent, it lets companies off the hook if customers fudge their ages.
Companies that collect information from and interact with kids 13 and younger that violate COPPA -- by hawking their information to third-parties, like advertisers, for example -- can be slapped with fines of up to $16,000 per infraction.
Google’s potential new, family-friendly leaf could include allowing parents to snoop their kids Google services-related activities, as well as mandating that people who sign up for Google services accounts divulge their age on Android devices, also according to The Information. People already have to fess up their “age” when signing up for Google services on their computers, fake or not. Google is also reportedly working on a kid-friendly version of YouTube.
As it is now, without a single parental control in place, YouTube is the opposite of child-appropriate. It’s a parenting nightmare.
Maybe we hang out with the wrong people, but I don’t know any kids who don’t zone out on YouTube daily, often unchecked by their parents. At my house, watching painful fails and lolcat vids (and, yep, how to light farts on fire) on YouTube has replaced hours of Lego building, BMX riding and even swimming on the hottest of days. Who knows what my kids watch on YouTube via their smartphones when they’re out and about with their friends? Fire tricks with lighters much?
And it’s not enough just to watch YouTube videos. Millions of kids make their own, too. My friend’s 11-year-old posts his own Minecraft mods and Call of Duty cheats vids every day on the 1 billion-member video Pandora’s Box, the second most visited website on all of the Internet.
But, remember, Google accounts are not for kids. Not yet. You have to be 13 or older to have one, YouTube, Google+ and Gmail included. Riiiight.
My young, wannabe viral YouTuber friend doesn’t know this. Neither does his mom. Do most parents? And, even if they did, would they care? Probably not. Google does nothing to stop parents from signing their kids up for accounts, nor their kids from signing themselves up. I doubt it will when it openly markets to kids either.
At the moment, age restrictions don’t warrant a single word in Google’s Gmail Terms & Privacy details. Google does, however, spell them out on YouTube, buried down in item 12 of its Terms of Service. “If you are under 13 years of age, then please do not use the Service. There are lots of other great web sites for you. Talk to your parents about what sites are appropriate for you.”
Hmmm. I’m confused. If YouTube is exclusively for teens and up, why does Google offer so many branded kids’ channels, like BabyTV, Sesame Street and Sprout? Sesame Street’s channel hit 1 million subscribers just last week. Don’t watch if you’re under 13, but, hey, check out our popular children’s shows.
Google obviously knows it has underage users and lots of them. When and how it will expand its services to officially include them remains to be seen, but you can bet it will fall within the letter of the law.
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