Rant: Are Your Kids Chatting with Brands or Real Kids?

I was at a conference a couple of weeks ago and one of the companies presenting was a kid-targeted social network. Apparently this particular social network has over 11Million global members (remember, these are kids) and they spend on average 65 minutes PER DAY using the site. ON AVERAGE.

If this was an education-based network, I would think that this was great. You know, a place to log on and hang out with other kids to get support doing homework, maybe peer and formal support for bullying or the other trials kids go through, maybe even access to some parent-reviewed sites, all in an age-appropriate environment.

But that's not at all what this social network was. It was, in fact, an avatar-based social site for kids. Think Habbo Hotel: hangout spaces, events, games, one-on-one or group interactions, and corporate-sponsorship everywhere you looked. For kids.

The membership and usage numbers they were citing were disturbing enough, but then the CEO started talking about the plethora of corporate-sponsored interactions: corporate members, sponsored rooms and events, product placements, marketing directly to kids in a one-to-one and one-to-many environment. He even showed an image of his avatar (which looks like all the other kids' avatars in the space) inciting a bunch of kids to "say Hi" to the event sponsor. The avatars all stood in a room (that resembled a hotel lobby or bar, minus the bottles) with speech bubbles saying "Hi, (sponsor)!"

And I got chills.

Shilling to Kids, Without Parental Supervision

Ok, I'm not naive but I can honestly say that it never occurred to me that parents would serve their kids up to brands to be shilled to individually and personally within the context of a social network.

This isn't Facebook. No, this is one of the many social networks that target kids specifically. They "require" parents to assist in the registration process by providing a credit card number and vouching for their child. (The credit card gets a $0.01 charge, so that parents see a transaction in the event that the child "borrowed" the card to sign up without their knowledge.) But once inside, nothing requires the parent's involvement. The kids are open to chat and play with other "kids". And they are surrounded by brands and brand reps. Who look like other kids.

What About COPPA?

Some sites state that they adhere to the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) which is meant to protect kids' privacy. But does it go far enough?

First of all COPPA was created in 2000. If there is anything I know about policy, it's that there is no way policy developers can see into the future and anticipate the cultural and technological changes that will occur over time. COPPA focuses on the specific personal information that is collected about children (think: contact information).

What it doesn't cover is specific online interactions with children. Consider kids' TV networks and the ads they show: I absolutely hate when the Dude watches kid-specific TV channels and all the commercials are targeted to him. They yell, they tell lies, they have glossy product shots, and he doesn't have the filters yet to see through them.

Thankfully, we encourage him to ask questions and think critically. We prompt him to deconstruct ads and consider whether the toys could really perform as described, or if they really look like they are portrayed. We are beside him, walking him through the critical thinking process, trying to open his mind to the possibility that the ad may not be a direct reflection of reality, and encouraging him to question what he sees on TV.

It's Personal (and Creepy)

Online, if parents are not sitting beside their kids and watching all of their interactions, they may be falsely comforted by the idea of their kids joining an age-appropriate social network. And if parents don't realize it, they could be serving their kids right up to the corporate sponsors and members who set up special rooms and events within the network to promote their brands, directly to kids without parental supervision. Brands get to ask your kids questions about their consumption habits and then encourage them to try out a specific product or brand. COPPA doesn't have coverage for this type of interaction, because it may not require the collection of "personal information" from the participants.

My kid is bombarded with advertising everywhere he goes, but if I don't think it's in his best interest I can intercept a sales person from directly interacting with him. That's my right as a parent: I can help him through those interactions and assist him in understanding when he is being sold to. If a corporate rep looks like just another avatar in the network, how will a kid know if he's chatting with a sales person or a kid his own age? The whole approach strikes me as dishonest and manipulative.

What These Sites Can Do

I'm not suggesting that we need to shut these sites down, and I know they need to make money, so here are some suggestions to change the approach:
  • Make it explicitly clear during the registration process that kids will be solicited to directly by brands once they become members of the social network, giving parents a clear sense of what they will be signing their kids up for;
  • Offer a subscription-based service that removes corporations from the equation. I would rather pay a monthly fee for my child to use a protected ad-free network;
  • Direct corporate shilling to the parents: 
    • have parents provide their own contact information and have the ads/ promotions sent to them instead of the child, or 
    • have the parents register an account first, then they can set up the kids' accounts. Create a space for parents to log in and monitor their kids' activity and shill products in that space instead of in the kids' spaces.
  • Don't allow anyone over the target age range to set up an account in the kids' zone.
Be mindful: Letting your kids use an age-appropriate social network does not protect them from online predators. There is no way by which to exclude adults from pretending to be children. If your child chats regularly with any participants, you should be mindful of those contacts and pay attention to the nature of the conversations. In the end, it is always our job as parents to protect our kids.

What We Do

In our house, for now, the Dude can use kid-friendly sites that don't require login. As soon as there is a login requirement, he knows to find another activity or another site. I do believe that it is important for kids to learn to navigate their way online, however at 9, he can still learn to be Internet savvy without divulging personal information. We'll open it up within a few years especially as more of his friends go online, but for now he can still enjoy himself without needed to develop a profile.

And you, do you let your kids access these networks? Have you considered the risks? How do you mitigate them?

[Aside: You can debate privacy vs. over-protection in the comments if you so choose but remember that these are kid and tween networks that I'm talking about and that age group is just not savvy enough to protect themselves online without some adult help, IMHO.]