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The Online Mom provides internet technology advice and information to help parents protect their kids, encourage responsible behavior and safely harness the power of technology in the new digital world. Social networking, photo sharing, video games, IM & texting, internet security, cyberbullying, educational resources, the latest on tech hardware, gadgets and software for kids 3-8, tweens and teens, and more.

E-mail for kids: How young is too young...?

The recent introduction of Google Buzz, a social networking tool based around Google's Gmail service, created a firestorm of protest from privacy advocates and many regular users. It appears that some people felt blindsided by the automatic opt-in and preferred their e-mail to remain private.

Since Buzz first appeared, Google has made a number of significant changes. Although you still have to opt-out rather than opt-in, the checkbox for doing this is much easier to find, and there are clearer options for following, unfollowing or blocking certain people.

However, understanding Buzz, and knowing what you are (or aren't) signing up for, is not easy. You definitely need to be a little tech-savvy to work through it all, and it's not something you could expect a child to understand.

Which brings us to an interesting point. Over the last few days, a number of influential tech bloggers have sharply criticized Google, because Buzz has exposed their kids' to an unintended public audience.

Charlene Li, a veteran tech analyst and author, used her prominent blog to report how a private e-mail from her 9-year-old daughter ended up being publicly visible, because she was using Buzz without understanding the implications. Some of her daughter's friends were doing the same thing, innocently sharing their e-mail addresses and other personal information with complete strangers.

Although Charlene quickly disabled Buzz on her daughter's Gmail account and warned other parents, she publicly railed at Google, calling Buzz "a parental control nightmare".

In a response to Charlene's concerns, a Google spokesperson pointed out that anyone wishing to use Buzz must have a Gmail account and, under Gmail's terms of service, children under the age of 13 may not have a Gmail address.

Now this may come as a shock to millions of parents but there it is in black and white: kids under 13 years of age aren't supposed to use Gmail! (A quick look at Yahoo! reveals a more practical approach: parents of children under the age of 13 who want their kids to access any Yahoo! services, including Yahoo! Mail, must create a family account and authorize each child independently.)

Interestingly, the comments on Charlene's blog post split about 50:50 when it came to apportioning blame for her daughter's Gmail slip-up. Some people blasted Charlene for being irresponsible for letting a 9-year-old use e-mail in the first place, while others agreed that Google was far too cavalier in rolling out such a powerful networking tool without realizing the implications for underage users.

But is it practical in this day and age to deny under-13s the use of e-mail? As Google, Facebook and other Internet giants continually roll back privacy protections and espouse the benefits of sharing information, should they be allowed to hide behind the fine print when it comes to protecting our kids?

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