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SnapChat recently launched a modified version of their app called SnapKidz that targets users younger than 13. Kids can still take pictures, decorate them with different colors, and add text, but they can’t send the pictures to anyone. Instead the photos are saved on their phone, no account is created, and no personal information is stored.
I may be showing my age, but my first response was “What kid younger than 13 has their own phone?” According to Lookout.com, 56% of kids ages 8-12 own cell phones. Plus, even if the kids don’t own smartphones, their parents do, and 43% percent of parents with smartphones said they use their phone to entertain their kids.
SnapKidz may be cool for the under-eight crowd that merely accepts any technology that their parents give them, but it’s not fooling any kid that owns his or her own phone.
Age verification on the Internet is horrendously ineffective. Anyone under 13 with a calculator app can sign-up for Facebook. In 2009, 38% of 12 year-olds were on social networks, up from 31% in 2008. According to ComScore, at least 3.6 million of Facebook’s monthly visitors are younger than 12. Furthermore, 78% of parents believe it’s okay for kids to violate the age restrictions and 68% of parents helped their child create a social media account. The underage population on Facebook isn’t a group of hoodlums using the Internet when their parents are gone; it’s kids who have grown up with social networking as a part of life.
While it’s easy to scoff at Facebook’s age restrictions and criticize SnapKidz as a PR ploy, these companies are really just playing by FTC rules. In 1998, Congress enacted COPPA (the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act) to keep children under the age of 13 safe.
“Younger children are particularly vulnerable to overreaching by marketers and may not understand the safety and privacy issues created by the online collection of personal information.”
Websites (and apps) that collect the personal information of children under the age of 13 have to follow a completely different set of guidelines than websites that restrict users to those that are 13 and up. They’re restricted by what information they can collect, what they can do with it, and what ads – if any – they can display. It’s because of COPPA that SnapChat had to overemphasize the fact that SnapKidz doesn’t actually create an account for users. If they did, they would be opening up a Pandora ’s Box of FTC regulations.
The FTC openly admits that age verification systems can’t stop children from lying about their ages, but warns administrators that if they find underage users, they need to terminate their accounts or set up parental consent blockers.
Parents won’t be punished for letting kids lie online, and kids are going to sign-up anyway if they have their own devices. It’s the apps and websites that have the most to lose from underage users, which is why SnapChat created SnapKidz. They might not keep all smartphone users who are under 13 from sending pictures from the main account, but they can keep a good chunk away – while still building their brand and user-base.