You might have seen reports that Google could offer children under the age of 13 years a simple and safe way to access their internet services, including Gmail and YouTube.
But will this new strategy really make a difference to the way the younger generation use the internet?
Google’s accounts are currently only available to individuals 13 years and over, but the move to let children create their own unique presence is uncommon in the online world. The organisation has made this decision under the premise of safety, that parents will be able to monitor their children’s activities when using these accounts.
An anonymous source at Google has also said that the company is working on a children’s-only version of YouTube allowing parents to control the content their children can watch online or upload themselves. As a major player in the online world, Google’s consideration of children’s wellbeing is important.
Data mining and advertising
As Google’s decision reverberates through the media, the debate is focusing on the privacy of children and the best ways to ensure their safety. Is Google’s rationale of providing children greater safety a mirage, considering they may now need greater adult supervision regarding what types of information they should and shouldn’t post online when using services such as Gmail or YouTube?
There is also the concern of data mining. There are currently strict laws such as US Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) governing what internet companies can and can’t do when it comes to tracking the online behaviour of kids for marketing purposes.
Advocate groups such as the US-based Center for Digital Democracy worry this move will see Google’s digital marketing apparatus target kids for junk food and other potentially harmful products.
Protecting children online is an important social issue, but we must also take into account the fact children are already active users of the internet. Some 93% of children between the ages of three and nine go online for eight hours a week.
Jumping the age-gate
It’s no surprise that children are already avid viewers of video sharing sites such as YouTube, and many will tell you they prefer to watch YouTube to television as they can choose the content themselves. They can watch videos available to view anonymously (without signing in), as well as those racier videos requiring a sign in.
YouTuber star PewDiePie, a Swedish video game commentator, has millions of followers to his YouTube channel, with a huge number of these children.
While pornography is not permitted on YouTube videos, swearing and adult themes are, and many parents are worried that popular internet stars such as PewDiePie are simply not appropriate for their children.
Children are also avid uploaders of their own content to sites such as YouTube. There is a swathe of videos on YouTube of kids taking part in the ice bucket challenge sweeping the world.
When I talk to children, as part of my research, about how they watch videos online, they explain they can easily access this content and breach the age-gate imposed by sites such as YouTube. They confide they simply sign into such accounts with a false (older) age – one told me he stated his birth year as sometime in the 1800s, and added that he never gives his correct age “as it’s the internet”.
A 2011 study undertaken by Microsoft Research and US universities showed while some parents are aware of their children’s false account age, others are not, and instead rely on these internet companies to police their sites.
Of course, not all children are using a false age to obtain these accounts, yet my discussions with 12- and 13-year-olds indicates the majority sign up to accounts at least three or four years before their 13th birthday.
So what should we do?
Whether we want it or not, many contributors to the discussion about Google’s plans suggest we must block it to protect our kids. Yet the fact that millions of children under the age of 13 are already using these services indicates this line of thinking is naïve.
Guiding children through cyberspace should not be pitched as a beginning point – this ignores their already extensive online experience. Deliberately dismissing their knowledge counteracts the potential to adequately support children as they encounter adult material online.
A crucial starting point for parents and educators is the need for children to understand the funding model driving online content.
While some adults are up in arms about personalised advertising that will now target children thanks to sophisticated data mining strategies, we must consider the other types of personalised advertising offline already in existence.
There are vending machines in schools, broadcast advertisements in school buses and on television and the use of commercial content in classrooms. It can be argued that harvesting kids’ information online is merely a natural extension of the ongoing exploitation of our younger individuals, and some parents may say that political and business references to “children as the future” really refer to children as “future cash flow of business”.
Parental controls over online behaviour is also an issue that needs raising as we naturally expect or assume parents will monitor children’s actions online. But expecting parents to police children 24/7 is unreasonable and naïve, and expecting technology to do the job for us via nanny-type programs is careless. Experience tells us that such programs are not a foolproof option, and many children are adept enough with technology to work their way around these safeguards.
To move forward, we need to educate children to differentiate the types of content available online (and offline). Put simply, we need to teach children to understand the difference between advertising and editorial content.
Advertisements are not always packaged up obviously and clearly as such, but rather can underpin content in a more subtle fashion. Supporting children to develop the type of astute analytical skills to be able to tell the difference between the two is crucial, considering they are spending more and more time online.
We must also initiate tough conversations with children to help them understand what online content is not child-friendly. We may not want our children to view this content, but the diverse and largely unpoliced nature of the internet suggests it is likely they will at some stage.
Google’s move to open up accounts to children is a good point of reflection for modern society. It helps to clarify where we stand in understanding children’s engagement with technology. Policies and support programs that have children’s well-being as their focus must acknowledge and respect children for who they are. And children today are skilled technology users – more skilled than many adults.
The support we provide must focus on giving guidance that assists them in understanding more fully the world they live in. Rather than letting them fend for themselves, we have to give them strong, real and consistent guidance that is meaningful to them.
In a world where children can list their birthdate as in the 1800s, perhaps Google’s plans aren’t really that shocking after all.