Big changes are coming to Google: the company intends to officially make its accounts available to children under 13, with parental permission and control. An anonymous source at Google said that the company's been also working on a children-only version of YouTube that would allow parents to control what content their children can upload or see.
Of course, it's already very easy for under-13s to open accounts with Google, Facebook or any other free social media, by simply lying about their age when they sign up.
In general, social media companies don't let openly acknowledged under-13s have accounts because of COPPA, the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, which basically says that where children are concerned, companies and businesses may not collect the same vast amount of information they do on their adult users. However, COPPA doesn't apply to account-holders who lied about their ages.
Privacy advocates have of course expressed concern about Google's plan to offer children's accounts; the Journal quoted Jeff Chester, executive director of the online-privacy group Center for Digital Democracy, as saying “Unless Google does this right it will threaten the privacy of millions of children and deny parents the ability to make meaningful decisions about who can collect information on their kids.”
On the other hand, when the Consumerist blog reported the news, it asked “Google’s plan to let kids have accounts: bad idea or acknowledgement of reality?” and reminded its readers what everyone knows already: plenty of kids already have such accounts, since it's ridiculously easy for people of any age to type dishonesties on the Internet. (Consider: “I'm a 19-year-old man who is royal heir to the Norwegian throne, and also the world's going to end in December 2012” — there's not a grain of truth to be found in that sentence, yet I had zero difficulty typing out that statement and publishing it online.)
In all seriousness, there's a definite argument to be made that, since so many underage kids are going to socialize online anyway, the best thing to do is be open about it, so parents can oversee their activities and protect their kids from making bad choices.
Unfortunately, determining the “right” Internet and social-media policy for your kids might be the single most difficult child-rearing issue for modern parents to figure out, because you can't look back to your own childhood for ideas, the way you can for most parenting decisions: “What time should my kids go to bed? Let me think – what was my bedtime at their age?” or “How much TV could I watch?” or “Adjusted for inflation, how much spending money did I have?”
But try to remember what social-media policies your parents imposed when you were your kids' ages, and chances are the answer is “None, because the Internet as we know it didn't exist, and neither did social media.” Even the telephone-use parenting policies of the landline era don't really apply to smartphones: in the old days, about the worst damage an unsupervised kid could do with a phone was run up a high long-distance bill, or make a few prank calls. Meeting unsavory strangers was very unlikely, and posting something visible to the whole world that will follow you the rest of our life was impossible.
On the other hand, parents do need to figure something out, because in today's world, “safe and responsible online conduct” is a life skill all children will need to master, long before they reach official full-fledged adulthood.
Maybe a G-rated and strictly controlled “walled garden” for kids is a good place for them to start learning.