August 20, 2014 4:29 pm

Google accounts for kids under 13 raise concerns with privacy experts

Google may soon allow children under the age of 13 to sign up for services like YouTube and Gmail with accounts that allow parents to oversee their child’s online activities.

Michael Hitoshi/Getty Images

TORONTO – Google may be setting its sights on a new group of users – kids.

The tech giant may soon allow children under the age of 13 to sign up for services like YouTube and Gmail with accounts that allow parents to oversee their child’s online activities, according to multiple reports.

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The Wall Street Journal reported Monday that the kid-friendly services would allow parents to control how they use Google services and even what information is collected about their child.

READ MORE: Why some parents are choosing not to post their child’s photo online

Google is also said to be working on a kid’s version of video sharing service YouTube that would ensure all content was appropriate for those under 13. The company has not confirmed or commented on the rumours.

But this could be tricky territory for Google.

Currently Google and other popular online services like Facebook require users to be over the age of 13 to use their services. The U.S. Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) puts strict limitations on how children’s information is collected by web services.

COPPA requires parent’s verifiable consent before collecting any sort of data and controls how that data can be used in advertising.

Of course, any user can lie about their age when signing up for online services and some parents may already have done so in order to get their child online.

According to an unnamed source who spoke with the Wall Street Journal, Google hopes that the kid-friendly accounts will make the process more compliant with COPPA.

But privacy advocates are already raising concerns about the rumoured move.

In a blog post published Wednesday, Jeff Chester, executive director of the U.S.-based Center for Digital Democracy, called the rumoured project a critical public policy and child welfare issue, citing concerns that kids would fall victim to the harsh world of digital marketing.

“Anyone who knows how Google really conducts its business should be alarmed about its plans to make money off of kids,” wrote Chester.

“No individual or group is immune to Google’s interest in targeting them with ads, including whether they are on a mobile device, social network, watching YouTube, searching or even in a store.”

READ MORE: Top apps that give parents control over kids screen time

According to the blog post, the online privacy group has already raised concerns to other NGO’s and has contacted the U.S. Federal Trade Commission regarding the reports.

Chester – who when contacted for comment directed Global News to the blog post for his statement on the matter – said that if indeed real, the kid-friendly accounts would allow Google to tap into the last “nearly untouched” market for advertising.

“Kids are a very lucrative market, spending and influencing billions of dollars each year, including for games, apps and other products,” he wrote.

“Google is going to have to show it is truly creating privacy friendly products divorced from its powerful digital marketing apparatus; that it wouldn’t target kids for junk food and other products that can harm their health (and have contributed to the global obesity epidemic); and that parents will have serious controls over the ad and data collection process.”

Marketing to children is worrisome, yes – but parents should do their best to educate their kids

Vancouver-based psychiatrists and parenting expert Dr. Shimi Kang agreed that while there is a risk for targeted advertising, the silver lining in this case may be that parents get more involved in guiding their kid’s online experience.

“When it comes to technology parental guidance is really no different to how we monitor and guide our children’s diets – it’s a part of 21st century parenting,” Kang told Global News.

“Parents are still trying to understand that this is a core part of parenting now.”

Kang suggests that parents lay out the pros and cons about using online services if they chose to allow their children to sign up.

READ MORE: Can children become addicted to technology?

“Tell them that they might get to learn and see some really cool stuff on these sites, but that they also might see ads that are going to make them want to sign up for or buy things, not all of which will be appropriate,” she said.

The parenting expert also argued that some of the suggested features of the Google kids accounts, like a dashboard that allows parents to oversee their child’s activities online, would be a good way to get parents involved in guiding appropriate tech use.

© Shaw Media, 2014

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