Professional networking site LinkedIn announced this week that it’s lowering the age limit for signing up from the current 18. From September 12th, in most parts of the world you’ll be able to get an account on your 13th birthday, although teens in some countries will have to wait a year or more.
Cue shock, horror and accusations that LinkedIn is a sleazy destroyer of all that’s good about childhood.
Security expert Graham Cluley dubbed the move ‘shameful and creepy’, while Jack Rivlin, writing in the Telegraph, claimed that it’s official that we’ve now ‘ruined childhood’.
And LinkedIn’s case against its accusers wasn’t helped by the choice of an orthodentally-perfect Stepford Teen to illustrate its new Family Center.
So, what’s the truth?
Why is LinkedIn doing this?
While LinkedIn currently boasts 238 million adult users, it’s seeing its biggest growth opportunity amongst students and recent graduates, who are signing up in droves.
This week LinkedIn also launched University Pages. With the lowered age limit, it’s aiming to entice in prospective students early, giving them the opportunity to connect with the colleges they’re interested in, get a flavour of campus life, and start building their network.
Is LinkedIn destroying childhood?
It’s the idea of young teens obsessing about their future career, padding out their digital CV with badges, clubs, and paper rounds, and “networking” instead of having fun with their mates that’s giving some commentators the heebie jeebies.
But laying the blame for a premature end to childhood at the door of LinkedIn seems harsh. With youth unemployment at a record high, competition for university places intense, and new graduates facing the prospect of an eye-wateringly large bill for their studies, the career pressures on today’s teens are there already.
And while it may not be the norm (yet), some kids are scarily precocious in starting their business life. Think 17-year Nick D’Alosio, developer of Summly, subsequently sold to Yahoo! for a cool $30 million.
How will LinkedIn protect kids?
When a networking site built for adults opens its doors to underage users, the first question is how it will keep them safe?
Under-18 accounts will have restricted privacy settings – photo, full name and location will be hidden, they won’t appear in search engine results, and they won’t be targeted by ads or marketing messages from LinkedIn or its partners. However, they can change these settings.
What’s not clear is how these restricted accounts will protect teens who become active on the site – join groups, follow and comment on posts from others, etc. Will other users be able to send connection requests, for example? But LinkedIn has set up a Family Center with advice for parents and teens, and help in reporting abuse.
For any parent whose child is thinking of signing up, the best advice is to educate yourself – make sure you understand the risks, know how to help your child mitigate them, and are clear on where to get help if needed.
And what about adult users?
LinkedIn’s biggest headache may not be protecting its new young recruits, but ensuring its existing members stay happy. Is there a danger that allowing teens in will turn LinkedIn into the digital equivalent of ‘Bring your Son/Daughter to Work Day’?
And how will it ensure that its more high profile members don’t get pestered by precocious young business wannabe’s, keen to connect?
LinkedIn will have to manage a delicate balancing act between developing a site that’s engaging and appealing to the young audience it wants to attract, and keeping existing users onside.
But in the end, it’s unlikely that hordes of young teens will be jumping into LinkedIn just yet. Many adults find the site hard to engage with, beyond its function as a digital rolodex. And I can’t imagine many of the pre-GCSE kids I know finding the strictly professional focus particularly inviting.
As Will Oremus wrote in Slate, “more likely, 14-year-olds will find LinkedIn at least as boring as the rest of us already do.”