On the Internet, if you’re under thirteen years old, you don’t belong in most places.  Sites like Facebook, in particular, have made it abundantly clear that those under the age of thirteen are trespassers, subject to deportation.

 But three things are changing the picture and it’s my guess that we’re about to see kid’s web that’s richer and more robust because of it.

  •        The regulations protecting kids on the Internet have become outdated and are being revisited.
  •        Developers who want to create great web experiences for kids are stymied by existing regulation. 
  •        Parents have become silent scofflaws allowing their kids to join Facebook and other adult sites  even in f the kids are under 13.

The regulation is question is COPPA, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, created to curtail the collection of data from minors on the Internet.   If you’re going to engage a minor on a web site then parental consent is required.

Enacted in 2000, the law has been around since before iPads and smartphones, apps, social networks and collaborative tools.  At a recent industry conference,  All  conference, FTC Commissioner, Leibowitz,  Jon Leibowitz, chairman of the FTC said COPPA was undergoing changes.

The second problem is that the world of kid’s is a god forsaken place for any developer trying to earn a living.   By law, kid’s content developers can’t  allow kids to share information, track their location, or know very much about what they’re doing without parental consent.

Lorraine Ackerman, who runs the site Moms with Apps, offered that given the instantaneous nature of the mobile environment, this creates an additional friction and should be factored into the sales viability of the app.  Many developers play it safe, keeping the kids in a safe bubble.  For example, sending a drawing to Grandma or offering  personalized/localized activity (let’s say a scavenger hunt) is  “walking a fine line”.  Developers of kids’ apps, unlike others, have very little feedback on what kids like, what’s working and how to engage them further. Kids app developers forgo many of the analytic tools that other developers use to gauge user engagement.   One of the byproducts of regulation is  that developers err on the side of safety and refrain from making more engaging kids’ spaces.

And then there’s Facebook.  Facebook  is making headlines because the company is toying with technology that would allow kids under thirteen to be Facebook members in some sort of parentally supervised area.  As Facebook goes, so goes the Internet. According to a study reported by Cnet, Minor Monitor, found that.38 percent of the kids on Facebook are below age 13.  That’s over 3.5 million of Facebook’s  monthly visitors in this country alone.  

Welcome to the perfect storm.  Regulation is being revisited.  Innovation in the kids marketplace is being stymied.   And it’s now possible for social networking technology to let children to talk to Grandma or Aunt Bess, their best friend or favorite cousin, without leaving them exposed to the vagaries of the Internet at large.

Parents should be prepared to take on more of the burden for managing their kids online lives as these forces collide.  But ultimately, a web where kids can talk to their friends and family, under watchful eyes, with the proper privacy protection can be a really great web for all of us.

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