Teen Chat Network, which bills itself as a cool place for kids, warns children under 13 that they are no longer allowed to participate in its chat rooms--even the one formerly called "Preteens."
But with a simple click of the mouse, any 10-year-old can enter a fake birth date and--presto!--gain access to the Web site's renamed "Younger Community" chat room, which recently included participants such as "hotsexycheerleader" and "hornybigboy."
Now federal regulators and children's watchdog organizations are starting to scrutinize these hormone-driven teen sites--not because they are exposing children to racy material but because they might violate federal privacy-protection rules.
The 1998 Children's Online Privacy Protection Act requires commercial Web sites aimed at kids younger than 13 to obtain parental permission before collecting or selling personal information about kids. It also applies to e-mail and chat rooms because of the risk that children might reveal too much about themselves.
The Web sites realize that asking Mom and Dad for permission is strictly uncool with kids, and the costs of collecting parental-consent forms can add $200,000 to their annual expenses. So some youth-oriented dot-coms, including Teen Chat Network, argue they do not fall under the privacy act because they do not target children under 13.
Critics say such teen sites simply want to avoid the hassles and costs of complying with the rules, which took effect last April. They say that placing a statement on a Web site warning kids younger than 13 to go away is not enough to exempt teen sites from the law.
"We think there are some kid sites out there that, since the law took effect, have decided that now they're teen sites," said C. Lee Peeler, associate director at the Federal Trade Commission, which is investigating several cases and expects to bring enforcement actions as early as next month. "We are concerned about teen sites whose compliance strategy seems to be to tell kids that they should [falsely] register as over age 13."
The FTC earlier this month named the Children's Advertising Review Unit, an arm of the Council of Better Business Bureaus, as the first self-regulatory organization to help enforce the law.
"You can't just say to a kid: 'You must be 13 or older to enter. Now . . . how old are you?' " said Elizabeth Lascoutx, the unit's director. "There has to be some kind of effective age screening."
Her watchdog group has pressured nearly a dozen companies--including Walt Disney, Oprah Winfrey's Oxygen and the Britney Spears-backed Sweet16.com--to improve their sites' age-verification and parental-consent practices. It has reported several others--including Teen Chat Network, Lisa Frank Inc. and WiredReality.com--to the FTC for alleged violations.
As recently as last fall, Lascoutx said, Teen Chat Network offered chat rooms titled "Preteen" and "12 and younger" but made no effort to obtain the required parental consent.
After the Children's Advertising Review Unit complained, the site renamed the rooms "Younger Community," which it now says targets the 13-15 age group.
Officials at Teen Chat Network, based in Roswell, N.M., could not be reached by telephone and did not respond to an e-mail request for an interview.
According to the company's Web site, "Anyone under the ages of 13 years are not permitted to use any of our services, whether it be our chat rooms, message boards, email, or anything else. We do not target our Web sites towards children and we do not plan to in the future."
Such warnings might not be enough. The FTC has sent hundreds of warning letters to Web sites it believes might not be complying with privacy rules.
Among other things, the FTC wants Web sites to use "neutral" age-verification methods that will not tempt children to lie. Officials also encourage the use of technological devices to prevent kids from altering information once it is put in.
Walt Disney, for example, started using "session cookies" during the registration process to prevent children from clicking the back button and entering a higher age. The cookie, a tiny file placed on the computer, records and remembers the child's first response. It expires after the user signs off.
Peeler would not identify any of the Web sites under investigation, but he said teen-oriented chat rooms remained a chief concern because of the risk that children younger than 13 might reveal personal information about themselves, such as their names or addresses.
Lisa Frank, which caters to girls, decided against trying to outsmart kids with age-verification tricks and now requires parental consent for all chat-room participants, regardless of age, said Rhonda Rowlette, executive vice president of the company.
Some say it is unfair to crack down on teen sites or require them to comply with costly regulations, saying such steps could backfire by forcing kids to turn instead to adult chat rooms and e-mail services, where children are far more vulnerable.