Google Targets Services to Children

by Matt Klassen on August 22, 2014

Google is planning on offering online accounts to children under the age of 13, a report in the Wall Street Journal indicated, moving the search engine giant into the “controversial and operationally complex” (and not to mention lucrative) market of underage users. But is this move in the best interests of our kids, or simply in the best interests of Google?

In this new system parents will be able to set up accounts for children under 13, monitor and control the use of those accounts, and regulate the information collected about their children. The problem, of course, is that those very parents have little idea about how to control and maintain their own online privacy, let alone the privacy of their Internet-savvy kids, meaning there exists significant opportunities for exploitation (accidental or otherwise) of our vulnerable youth.

But that said, its doubtful Google will actively use its suite of services to directly market to children, as not only does Google’s advertising require complex behavioural analysis, the gathering of which would violate numerous ethical codes with children, but that the FTC frowns on such blatant marketing to kids, meaning Google will have to find a more covert way to get young kids hooked on the Google lifestyle.

The reality of our online existence is that many children and parents already ignore age requirements for setting up email and social networking accounts, with parents unaware of the risks and kids more than willing to exploit their parents’ ignorance. From that perspective, this move is really Google responding to the current reality of online usage, young kids already use the service, so why not make it safer, more controlled?

Not only that, but with Facebook and Instagram already sporting a large base of underage users, this is really Google trying to corner a piece of a lucrative, largely untapped market, the argument being that everyone does it, so as Greg Sterling, vice president of strategy for the Local Search Association, told the E-Commerce Times, “This would just put a formal process or procedure around that usage.”

But as I mentioned, targeting kids under 13 is tricky business, particularly given the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, or COPPA. This law imposes strict limits on data collection, requiring consent and tight controls over how data is then used. It should not noted, however, that companies are not liable under COPPA if a user lies about their age, making Google’s decision to allow users under the age of 13 seem magnanimous rather than creepy.

While Google’s data collection habits will likely be curbed when targeting underage users, the goal will be the same as it is with any of Google’s free services, plant seeds that will one day blossom into increased Google dependence. As one blogger explains, Google will “use the new accounts to let kids play safely online under strict parental supervision, and nurture them toward becoming Google loyalists in the long term,” likely refraining from cashing in financially on these users until they’re 18.

Let’s not fool ourselves though; Google has opened its services to kids under 13 for one reason and one reason only: money.  “Companies realize that children are a huge, financially lucrative market,” said the Center for Digital Democracy’s Jeff Chester. While they may present their efforts under the guise of improving education or other aspects of children’s lives, “marketers just see huge dollar signs,” he charged. “We have real concerns. … We’re going to take a very close, critical look at this.”

Indeed all parents need to take a critical look at their kids’ online habits, understanding that the Internet is not a benign tool where safety can be assumed and where the user is always in charge, but a completely different reality that changes and modifies its users thinking and behavioral patterns is startling ways. In fact, even the companies look Google who will offer advanced safety protocols for online usage cannot fully be trusted, as they always have an ulterior motive in mind, seeing your kids as nothing but money in the bank.

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Written by: Matt Klassen. www.digitcom.ca. Follow TheTelecomBlog.com by: RSS, Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube.

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