Many readers of this blog will manage online communities of their own. One issue that you may have thought about is whether to allow children to join your community. Is it morally acceptable to allow children to join a community that is also used by adults? This article will attempt to address the key issues and help you make the right choice.
How old is a ‘child’?
How do you define a ‘child’? Is it anyone under the age of 16? 18? Maybe even 21? In any case, it is difficult to come to a universally accepted definition of how old children can be before being classed as adults. For argument’s sake, let’s say anyone under the age of 18 should be considered a child. Surely it is acceptable for 17 year olds to mix with 25 year olds? Is it fair to place 17 year olds in the same age group as 8 year olds?
What is the subject matter of the online community?
An online community based around adult activities such as gambling or even dating shouldn’t allow children to become members. Children are vulnerable members of society and there are some types of content that they need not be exposed to.
On the other hand, if an online community is based around video games is it fair to ban everyone under the age of 18 from registering? Should people be allowed to share their interests on such a topic with everyone, regardless of age?
What proportion of members are children?
If a community has a large majority of adults, it is clearly not a place where children should be. If your online community has only a tiny minority of under 18s, you should consider only allowing adults to be members. The last thing you want is for that child to come across inappropriate content. Not only does this become a moral issue, but it could also cause you problems if the story made the press, or even if a concerned parent decided to pursue a legal complaint against you.
In any case, if the vast majority of a community’s members are adults, children will not add value; indeed, they may even turn its core audience off.
What safety features does the online community have?
All online communities have a duty to keep their members as safe as possible. It doesn’t matter if a site is only for people over the age of 50; it should still incorporate basic safety features such as a system for blocking or ignoring certain users, and a system that allows users to report content they are uncomfortable with.
Online communities should also offer clear, prominent safety advice at all times, regardless of the demographic they are targeting.
So, should you allow children to join your online community?
I don’t allow users under the age of 18 to register or use Just Chat. This wasn’t always the case, though. When I started the site back in March 2000, I had no age restrictions whatsoever – indeed, I actually had a ‘teen’ chat room. Although the site was open to all, I enforced a clear ‘family friendly’ ethos – no adult, sexual or abusive content was allowed.
As time went on and the site gained in popularity, I decided to only allow access to users over the age of 18. I did this because I felt increasingly uncomfortable with having what I consider to be vulnerable users on my website. Just Chat is moderated as often as possible, but this doesn’t ensure safety – children could still be contacted by adults in private chat which couldn’t be moderated on a ‘live’ basis. Similarly, the fact was that the vast majority of visitors to the site were adults – therefore I decided that such an environment wasn’t suitable for children.
To this day, I have kept the ‘family friendly’ ethos of not permitting sexual content. Just because a site is for adults, it doesn’t mean it needs to be full of sex and vulgarity. This has allowed the site to develop a far more mature identity, which both I and my members are more comfortable with.
Consider your potential audience and your site’s content
I will soon be launching a brand new online community. Once again, I will have an age restriction for new members although I may be a little more flexible this time around due to the content I will be offering and the fact that there will not be a live chat room (at least initially). If I were to lower the age though, it would only be to 16. I personally feel it is inappropriate to allow users under this age to mix with adults in an online environment.
The best way to decide whether to allow children to register for your online community is to put yourself in the shoes of a parent. Would you want a ten year old child of yours to register and get involved in your community? Would you want a thirteen year old child of yours to register? How about a sixteen year old? If you think honestly, morally and maturely on the basis of your existing member demographics, the subject matter of your community and the amount of moderation you can offer, you should be able to make the right decision.
Do you allow children to use your online community? Do you have any hesitation or concerns about children and adults sharing the same online space? Share your thoughts and experiences by leaving a comment below.