Google has a fundamental problem with kids, or an opportunity depending on how you look at it. At the problem’s center is the fact that in order for Google to effectively serve ads to users of its product, the more information it has on that user, the better. Better ads men that advertisers on balance will pay more for those ads, as they are reaching a highly targeted audience.
Google, however, can’t legally collect personal information from kids under 13 without their parents’ consent, as dictated by the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). Parental consent is a messy thing – parents can and do say no – which means that some would-be users of your product won’t be using it.
The workaround for Google to date has been a very inelegant game of “don’t ask, don’t tell”. Everyone knows that kids under 13 use YouTube, Google’s video hosting property. We’d guess that it’s not only the most widely used social network by the under 13 crowd, it’s probably the most widely used web property, period. Google has effectively gotten around COPPA by either not asking for user’s age (you can watch YouTube videos without having a YouTube account), or by not verifying the age when a user opens an account.
We aren’t taking Google alone to task here; only a small number of websites and social networks have an effective means for verifying the age of users. The industry standard is for users to be whatever age they happen to say at signup. If that sounds like a flawed system, it is.
Google is partially solving the problem today by launching YouTube Kids, a free under-13 version of YouTube, and has communicated to the press that both the video content and the ads will be age-appropriate.
If Google does a good job screening which videos are in fact safe for kids, and has a way of keeping the comment section clean, it will indeed by a good, safer option for kids. Some early reports claim that comments won’t be allowed. We checked the Google Play store and YouTube Kids is not available as of this writing.
We say “partial” solution because after the launch of YouTube Kids (today for Android phones and tablets, in the near future for iOS), adult YouTube will still be thriving, and as easy for kids to use as ever.
Lots more work to do in this area.
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