Google said Thursday it is opening its social network to teenagers, a change apparently aimed at rival Facebook which already permits adolescents on its site.
The move comes as some privacy advocates and lawmakers question if teens should be given special protections online as they are among the most avid users of social networking sites.
Beginning March 1, the company will follow the activities of users as they move across the firm’s Web sites, including its highly popular YouTube, Gmail and main search engine. The company emphasized in interviews that the change would apply only to users who are signed on to their Google accounts.
Teens using Google+ would also begin to see their data shared between the company’s dozens of services when logged on, Google confirmed.
The company, which had previously made its Google+ service open only to users 18 years and older, said that teens want to share more information on the Web and that its decision was largely sparked by demand from users who want to use the service.
And in a critique of its rivals, Google said it will provide a safer environment for teens who tend to over share information on other social networking sites. Users can create customized circles of contacts to share information such as pictures, links and other content to prevent information from leaking to the public. Facebook also allows a similar feature.
But Google took a shot at competitors, saying its network makes that easier. Before a teen decides to share something publicly, the sites encourages the user to think again before posting.
“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’,” wrote Bradley Horowitz in a posting on Google+.
Facebook sets 13 as the minimum age for its users. Consumer Reports has reported than an estimated 7 million U.S. users on Facebook are underage, however.
Google was praised by privacy groups for making its social network exclusive to adults. Some privacy groups say special considerations for teens should be made on social networks so that they aren’t easily found by predators. They say teens should be able to easily delete information to protect their reputations in the future.
Behavioral scientists say teen brains are still in development and that they tend to be more impulsive than adults.
That’s one reason why Reps. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Joe Barton (R-Tex.) proposed a Do Not Track for children privacy law that creates standards for online privacy of teens.