How young is too young for Facebook and Gmail?

Graham Cluley
Graham Cluley
@[email protected]

Kids with laptopShould there be a minimum age before you can use social networks or have a web email account?

Under Google and Facebook’s terms of services, you have to be at least 13 years old. However, plenty of even younger girls and boys are probably using the systems – with or without the knowledge of their parents.

The issue has come to light again for two reasons. Firstly, new research has uncovered that 55% of children under the age of 12 have a Facebook account, despite age restrictions put in place by the site.

According to a study by New York University, 76 per cent of the underage kids registered their social networking accounts with the help of their parents.

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In the United States, sites such as Google and Facebook are required to comply with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), which demands that children under the age of 13 must provide a parent’s/guardian’s permission before giving out personal information online.

Mark ZuckerbergFacebook and Google (and many other websites) aren’t set up to collect permission, and so they waltz around COPPA by insisting that users must be over 13 years old to use their services.

“Insist”? Well, they make clear in their terms of service (which you sign-up to when you join one of these websites) that you are 13 years old or over. And – at that point – the websites normally think that they have performed enough diligence.

Clearly this limitation doesn’t sit too well with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who has said in the past that he will “at some point” challenge the law restricting youngsters from participating on his social network.

The issue of pre-teens using the internet has come to the fore again because of the young daughter of Rich Warren, a software engineer from Houston, Texas.

Warren has explained in a Google+ post how he set up a Gmail account for his daughter years ago so she could email her grandparents.

More recently Warren’s daughter Haruko has been using the account for classwork, keeping in touch with schoolmates and homework.

This weekend, however, Google unceremoniously shut down the account, meaning the young girl no longer had access to her work or her address book of contacts – because she was too young.

As Mashable described it, Google made a young girl cry.

All of this talk stirred a memory in me. Do you recall this TV advert by Google, where a father creates a Gmail account for his newly-born daughter?

Sure the commercial pulls on the heartstrings, but isn’t it also a little hypocritical to shut down a Gmail account created for one young girl, and yet have a TV advert like this?


Okay, so maybe the video doesn’t represent precisely the same scenario. Maybe “Hollie” in the video is only supposed to log into her account and read the emails her dad has been sending her since birth once she has turned 13.

But it still feels like rubbing salt into the wound of Rich Warren’s daughter, who has seemingly lost forever emails sent to her by her grandmother.

Post by Rich Warren

You can understand Rich Warren being annoyed, and his daughter being upset.

Let’s hope that Google shows a little compassion, and sends the young girl a backup of her data and past communications, the work she has produced on Google’s systems so far, and her list of contacts.

And let those of us who help our pre-teen kids create internet accounts realise that they could be shut down at any moment, and the data lost forever.

Even if websites did try to include children as part of their community, in a safe way that protected them from bad stuff and complied with COPPA, there are significant challenges both in proving that someone is under 13 when they create an account and verifying that a parent giving them permission to share personal information online is who they say they are.

Don’t expect a fix to this problem anytime soon.

Graham Cluley is an award-winning keynote speaker who has given presentations around the world about cybersecurity, hackers, and online privacy. A veteran of the computer security industry since the early 1990s, he wrote the first ever version of Dr Solomon's Anti-Virus Toolkit for Windows, makes regular media appearances, and is the co-host of the popular "Smashing Security" podcast. Follow him on Twitter, Mastodon, Threads, Bluesky, or drop him an email.

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