Colleges laud Google+ age restriction change, safety features

An ed-tech expert says Google is erring on the side of caution.

Campus technology officials said they are more likely to create an official Google+ presence after the nascent social network announced Jan. 26 that the former Google+ age requirement of 18 has been lowered to 13.

Google’s age restriction had prevented at least one university from expanding its social media reach into Google+, because some of its students come to campus while they’re still 17, and until Jan. 26, were not eligible for a Google+ account.

Along with the lowering of its age requirement–which could help Google+ compete with Facebook–Google detailed a series of safety measures that would be included for its youngest social network members.

In Google+ Hangouts, for example, a teenager video chatting with people in their “circle” will be temporarily removed from the Hangout screen when someone from outside their circle joins the session. Only approved Google+ account holders in a teenager’s circle can start an instant message chat.

Read more about Google+ in higher education…

Google+ allows colleges to create official pages

“Over time, the nuance and richness of selective sharing even promotes authenticity and accountability,” Bradley Horowitz, Google’s vice president of product management, wrote in a blog post. “Sadly, today’s most popular online tools are rigid and brittle by comparison, so teens end up over-sharing with all of their so-called friends. … With Google+, we want to help teens build meaningful connections online. We also want to provide features that foster safety alongside self-expression.”

Hundreds of colleges and universities have created official pages on Google+ since the technology giant announced in early November that schools, businesses, and organizations can create their own profiles on the site, which was introduced last summer to much fanfare in higher education.

Patrick Dierschke, an IT official at Angelo State University (ASU) in Texas, said campus technologists have considered adding Google+ accounts for the university’s 7,200 full-time students, but decided against it after learning that no one less than 18 years old could have a Google+ profile. That all changed when Google lowered its age requirement.

“This will obviously really help us move forward with that we’d like to do [with Google+] as a campus communication tool,” Dierschke said. “This seems like a step in the right direction. We’ve been waiting for a chance to use this to its full potential.”

ASU has 23 students who aren’t yet 18, according to the university. It’s a sliver of the campus’s student population, Dierschke conceded, but until every student could have a Google+ page, ASU wouldn’t adopt the social network like it has Google’s other educational offerings, such as Gmail.

“We’ve been interested in [Google+] since it was in beta … but we saw the age requirement and saw that we just couldn’t go through with it,” Dierschke said, adding that he thought Google+’s age restriction would be 13, like it is for Gmail.

ASU has given official Google-powered campus eMail accounts to students as soon as they are accepted to the school. Dierschke said the campus wanted to include Google+ accounts for those brand new students, but couldn’t because many high school seniors and recent graduates are not quite 18.

Facebook, which some professors and instructors use to host class discussions and answer homework questions, requires account holders to be 13.

Twitter once enforced an age requirement of 13 years old, but no longer does.

The Children’s Online Privacy Protection (COPP) Act, passed by Congress in 1998, spells out what website operators must include in privacy policies, and when the website must seek parental consent.

The law stipulates that children younger than 13 can legally distribute personal information with their parents’ permission.

Prestigious universities have had Google+ pages since the site first allowed school to join. More than 5,100 people have Stanford University in their Google+ “circle,” for instance. Harvard University has been added by 2,100 Google+ users.

Campuses like ASU might be frustrated with Google’s age requirement, but higher-education officials should remember the legal hurdles companies face when allowing minors to use their products and services, said Raymond Rose, a longtime developer of educational technology programs.

“I completely understand both sides, but need to side with Google on this, for legal reasons,” he said. “I think the [ASU IT] folks need to talk with some folks in K-12 on the legal issues involved with protecting minors.  Those 17-year-olds may have graduated from high school and be independent, but from a legal perspective, they’re still minors.”

Rose said a nightmare scenario could have unfold for colleges and universities that would give access–accidentally or intentionally–to students who aren’t yet 18 before Google announced its age requirement change and the host of safety features for young social media users.

“What happens and who gets sued when the student gets harassed, or even worse, in the Google+ environment?” he said. “If they really feel strongly, they might need to get their institution’s counsel to take a position that says there’s not a problem giving minors access. Then they can have a real interesting conversation with Google.”

Many colleges and universities hadn’t considered Google’s social network age restriction, because social media messaging and communication with current and prospective students, faculty, and parents has revolved around more traditional outlets.

Tomika DePriest, a spokeswoman for Spelman College in Atlanta, which uses Google Apps for Education, said the college hadn’t focused its social-media efforts on Google’s network because Spelman students haven’t gravitated to the site.

“We have not placed a stake in Google+ as an official college channel because our focus is on being where our constituents are mostly represented,” she said. “When it comes to prospective students and current students, Facebook rules. Twitter is gaining some traction, but the volume is not significantly high.”

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