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26 January 2005

LiveJournal for under-13s

I probably wouldn't have ended up posting this if I hadn't read Anil Dash's recent The Social Impacts of Software Choices post. But I did and so I am. In his post, Anil argued that:

The choices all of us make when creating software, or when finding new ways to use it, are selecting for certain behaviors. This has a tremendous number of implications, despite the fact that the effects are very hard to predict and even harder to change once they've begun.

It's Anil's recognition of this that makes me hopeful that Six Apart might look into the LiveJournal experience for under-13s.

When Six Apart acquired LiveJournal they very quietly made a major change to the terms of use... They allowed under-13s to sign up for a journal, with parental permission.

What happened to my account? It seems like it was suspended?

If LiveJournal has conflicting info about your age in your account (it appears different in two places) you need to authorize your account to prove you're over 13 or have your parents' permission to keep a LiveJournal. In the past we did not allow anyone under the age of 13 to have a LiveJournal. Now you can have one even if you are under 13 but because of Federal Law you must get your parents' permission.

Brad, on 2005-01-05

Now, we already know that LiveJournal's users are mostly in their teens and twenties, and even at the time of its acquistion LiveJournal had 33,060 13 year olds - which in reality means 33,060 '13-and-under year olds'.

The world's youngest videblogger, 11 year-old Dylan, for example, uses a 13-and-over service (Blogger). It's no surprise she made it through the sign up process, though, when you see the helpful feedback on the form ;-)


But as far as I know, LiveJournal is the first major weblog/journalling service to open its service to kids. Which is kind of exciting.

I was hugely disappointed, though, to see that while Six Apart and LiveJournal had implemented the required-by-law parental permission verification, they had done nothing to improve the safety and/or internet literacy of the children they were now allowing to sign up for a journal. So, there is absolutely no safety advice, and parents are exited from the set up process before the child fills in their personal information. And this form encourages users to share their personal information, asking all of the same questions it does of older users (e.g. location), and with all of the same careless defaults. Not only does it default to show your email address and IM details, it actually explains that you should keep this option enabled:

Show your contact information

You should keep this option enabled. This allows people to contact you by showing your e-mail address and instant messaging details on your User Information page.

Similarly, on a service that already has 268 'add-me' communities, and seemingly no proactive moderation, users with free accounts can't see the friends of their friends; instead they're recommended to search for people based on their interest or "at random". This introduces a risk for younger girls who - while being focused on belonging and popularity, and 'collecting friends' - would actually opt for friends of friends rather than strangers if they could (as they have with their IM lists).

Now, LiveJournal has a 'get out' in their privacy policy, in that they say they're "not directed at children under 13 years of age but... recognize that with proper adult supervision some parents might permit their children to visit LiveJournal.com" but while this is legally correct, it shifts too much of the burden to parents, when most children consider themselves the internet experts in the home, and the majority of kids with home access report mostly using the internet alone.

Defaults matter. Most people will - at least initially - go with the service's choices, especially when they're couched as a recommendation. Children in particular have a very casual approach to identity management, so, at the very least, journals for children should have privacy- and safety- friendly defaults.

In Blogger for example, you have to explicitly choose to set up a profile and all of its defaults are privacy friendly. There's also really clear, user-friendly design and understandable help text. When you're handing over your personal information, you do so under a 'Privacy' header and when you type in information to share, it's really clear how it will be used, e.g. "If checked, your first and last name will appear on your profile."

So, a small development request for Six Apart... Take advantage of the fact that you're now more likely to know who your child users are, and use privacy- and safety- friendly defaults for them (at least). Maybe include some contextual help, especially when you're asking for personal information. And given that you're sending an email to their parents anyway, why not include a little more information about what a LiveJournal is? Not all parents are as tech-savvy as Dylan's dad.

This is all really consistent with Mena's understanding that weblogging is evolving from a publishing model to communication with smaller audiences of friends and family. And it's probably also necessary to prevent the kind of moral panic that errupted around chat a couple of years ago. But maybe it's already too late for that...

See also: My talk at last year's ETech, where I considered how we might ensure children’s safety while letting them have expressive identities in social software.

Posted at 07:37 PM in Children and teens | Permalink


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