Been busy the last week helping build a great, new community with a cool group of people. I’m very excited about it, but everytime I do this, I am reminded about what a tough job it is.
I will start by saying that I preach the gospel of COPPA (Children’s Online Privacy and Protection Act), almost to the point of evangelism. I believe and care deeply about protecting and educating kids online as to the parameters of privacy and protecting their personal information. But, oy god, is it hard to strategize and design an online community for kids (or one that may attract kids)!
There are 2 main areas that I often see glazed over when designing communities that may be used by (or attract) people under 13 years old (U13), specifically in the US:
- COPPA legislation is about access to private info for a specific population (U13’s). It is not about the content on your site (unless of course that content is the personal info of U13’s). The heart behind it is protecting kids, but the actual items on the checklist you need to verify that exist on your site are about limiting the access to those under 13.
- Because of this, in order to stay on the right side of the law, site operators need only to put the minimum barriers to entry they can and still stay in the right according to the law.
- This usually means a check box certifying that you are over 13, a message that says you have to be over 13 to join or a limited drop down menu for only ages above 13. By doing this, you are “restricting access” to only those people above the age of 13.
Yet, this does nothing to deter lying and it certainly does little for an explanation as to why you are putting this hurdle up in the first place. Which leads me to the other area that is often simply forgotten in the design process:
- The other side of this is to really believe in the heart behind the legislation and make up for where it is lacking.
- If you are not able to manage an audience of under 13 year olds, this means putting the same barriers to entry up mentioned before, but explaining WHY they are there, urging the users not lie about their ages, detailing what will happen if they do and then actually caring out those consequences when needed.
- If you are targeting under 13 year olds, you need to decide whether you have everything as canned communication, whether you have the ability to monitor all the content before it goes live, whether you have the ability to obtain verifiable parental consent and the ability to keep a staff managed and up to date on how to best manage and help your community.
If you tell a kid to not do something without explaining why you are telling them, you are basically inviting them to develop their own conclusions as to why that rule exists. Sometimes they will guess correct, sometimes they won’t. Kids online know they have to be over 13 to go on many site, but many of them are not aware of why.
It doesn’t take much more effort when you are designing your site to put a bit of info, even a sentence, that explains the reasoning behind it. Even if you aren’t clear on why, a simple “hey, we will get in trouble if we have people under 13 and if we find out you lied, we will have to kick you out” will suffice. Honesty works, at least that’s what we tell kids, right?
If you can’t go the extra mile to make sure you are right by the law and by the ethics of communities, take a second to think about whether the community aspect is one you need to implement. Sure, community is the hot, new marketing buzz word of the moment. But if you cannot dedicate the necessary resources needed to start one and then maintain one, you shouldn’t start one at all.
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