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This means that parents can help their kids game the system. Some make up new birth dates. Others, like Martin, get a little more creative. "The way that we ended up handling this was we entered my date of birth in that account-correction screen," he says. "So our current position on this particular e-mail account is I am the account owner, but my son is using it with my permission."
"It's kind of a weaselly way of working around the system," he says. "I suppose technically we're not really lying, but it feels uncomfortable to have to do this."
"People at Google are not idiots," says Adam Thierer, a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University who concentrates on issues of child safety and privacy online. "They certainly know that there are plenty of kids under the age of 18 using their service every day. And why wouldn't they use it? I mean, that would be like saying to me that we should have had a prohibition in the old days against kids using the Yellow Pages."
The irony of the Sutherlands' saga is that the dad wants his son to have a Gmail account in part to keep him safe, citing Google's excellent spam filters. "The Internet can be a hostile environment, but Gmail does a very good job of filtering out a lot of the nastiness," he says. Thierer agrees that what we need are not increasing legal regulations (which are in the works), but more parents who teach their children to behave properly and to be safe online. "We don't allow kids to run around with spears and just go crazy in the middle of a mall or a park," he says. "There are ground rules. And it's entirely reasonable for a major social-networking platform or user-generated site to lay down ground rules for acceptable behavior and conduct."
This summer Alex became the poster child of the banished underage Google user. The day he realized he'd been locked out of Gmail, his father wrote a blog entry titled "Google made my son cry," and then posted it on his Twitter account, and it went viral. Martin's decadeold blog typically gets 100 visits per day; on July 4, he had 40,000 hits.
A number of parents have told him and his wife through comments or e-mails that their kids encountered similar problems. Some admitted to telling a 30-cent fib.
Meanwhile, now that Google thinks the Sutherlands' 10-year-old is 39, Alex is back on Gmail but he's staying away from Google+ for now. "He's feeling a little bit burnt by the whole thing," says Martin, adding that his son is now "a little bit reluctant to do too much." In a way, that's what the regulations are aiming to do in the first place to keep kids safe, to keep them from doing too much in an online world, where their every move is tracked.
Then again, perhaps the biggest irony behind Alex's poster-boy status is that once enough kids hear his story, they'll learn they need to lie about their ages on Google+. When Google asks, they won't tell the truth. And they'll save their parents 30 cents in the process.