Why is 13 the magic age?

If you are not 13, many popular websites–Facebook, YouTube, Blogger, WordPress, Tumblr and Twitter–require users to be 13 years or older. Most parents and kids are unaware of why this age restriction exists. A survey conducted by the Berkman Center found most parents believe it is to protect kids from adult content. They interpret this limitation as the site is not suitable for children under the age of 13, like the PG-13 rating.

In fact, the restriction is due to  COPPA, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. Coppa protects children’s personal information by giving parents control over what information websites can collect about their kids. Any website directed at kids under 13, or any website that collects personal information from kids it knows are under 13, must comply with COPPA.

Sites must have parental permission before they collect or share kids’ personal information.  Personal information includes a child’s full name, address, email address, or phone number. This applies to information collected during registration, and information kids choose to post about themselves.

To avoid having to get parental permission, most websites for a general audience, restrict users to 13 years or older. These websites state in their privacy policy or terms of service that they “do not knowingly collect information from users under 13 years old.” Parents, believing the restriction based on content, allow their child to enter a false birth date. The result is children’s information loses its special protection.

In 2010, the FTC charged Playdom, the operator of 20 online virtual worlds with violating COPPA.  According to the FTC, Playdom illegally collected and disclosed personal information from hundreds of thousands of children under age 13 without their parents’consent. Playdom initially asked for parental permission before registering  but after registering allowed them to enter personal information on a public profile page and in online forums.

Once a child entered the virtual world, they could post comments and share their registration information. Children’s personal profile page contained fields for entry of  user name, real name, location, website, email, and various instant messenger IDs. The personal profile page also logged a child’s user activity, including all the child’s posts and last posting date and time.

After the FTC investigated, Playdom, instead of improving its system of compliance with COPPA, changed its privacy policy.  The policy now states “Our Policy Toward Children:   The Services are not directed to children under 13. We do not knowingly collect personally identifiable information from children under 13. If we become aware that a child under 13 has provided us with Personal Information, we will delete such information from our files”.  A child under 13 is no longer eligible to join Playdom.
Companies find it easier to restrict access and ignore underage users. Kids are entering false birth dates to use these sites. If kids are using websites with over 13 restrictions,they are responsible for protecting their own personal information. Kids should:

  • never post personal information on a public profile or in a public forum.
  • have a parent present when they first register to review information.
  • always think before they post.  Once posted online, it is permanent.
  • understand the reasons for the age restriction and the need to protect their personal information.
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