A Social Network Frequented by Children Tests the Limits of Online Regulation

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In the folklore of the start-up world, few figures loom larger than the teenager. Teenagers see the future, set trends and spend money, or compel parents to spend it for them. Their behavior has become an obsession for entrepreneurs.

This would seem to bode well for Musical.ly, an app that is young in every sense of the word. The Shanghai-based company founded in 2014 claims over 100 million users, most of whom, the company says, are in the 13-20 age bracket. In August, the company partnered with MTV for a promotion tied to the Video Music Awards.

What is striking about the app, though, is how many of its users appear to be even younger than that. Musical.ly hasn’t just found the coveted teenage audience — it may have overshot it. And it points to a growing tension between younger users, technology companies, and the norms and laws that regulate them both.

The app encourages a youthful audience in subtle and obvious ways. It lets users create short videos in which they can lip-sync, dance or goof around to popular songs, movie scenes and other audio sources, and then post the videos to an Instagram-style feed. Its featured feed includes stars popular with young listeners, including Ariana Grande and Selena Gomez, as well as lesser-known talent and social media personalities who have crossed over from services like Vine. And its tool for posting videos includes an entire category for songs from Disney films and TV shows.

The app does not collect or show the age of its users, but some of its top-ranked users, whose posts routinely collect millions of likes, called hearts, appear from their videos and profile photos to be in grade school. Until recently, the app had a feature that suggested users to follow based on their location. In New York, that feature revealed a list composed largely not just of teenagers, but of children.

“This is no question the youngest social network we’ve ever seen,” said Gary Vaynerchuk, the chief executive of VaynerMedia, an advertising agency that focuses on social media. Mr. Vaynerchuk, who has helped clients produce campaigns for the platform, said he first spotted the app in the iTunes App Store charts, and through Musical.ly videos reposted to other services like Instagram.

“I would say that Snapchat and Instagram, they skew a little bit young,” he said. But with Musical.ly, “you’re talking about first, second, third grade.”

This puts Musical.ly in a strange position. Websites and online service operators that target users under 13 must meet federal requirements regarding the collection and sharing of personal information, which is defined broadly to include names, photos or videos, or persistent identifiers, such as usernames. The restrictions are part of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule, often called Coppa, enacted by the Federal Trade Commission.

Like most social networks that operate in America, Musical.ly’s terms of service prohibit users under the age of 13. But the app doesn’t collect age information about its users, a convention often used by networks that, at least anecdotally, are widely used by children. (Those networks that do ask for an age, like Facebook, tend to take the user’s word for it.)

“The approach taken by most operators is to avoid triggering Coppa — to claim ignorance,” said Denise G. Tayloe, chief executive of Privo, a company that assists online services with Coppa compliance. Enforcement is both difficult and relatively rare; the rule neither requires social platforms to screen for age, nor does it hold companies accountable for users reporting false ages.

According to a spokesman, the F.T.C., as a law enforcement agency, cannot comment publicly about individual companies. In an email, the agency said: “We support the development of robust, easy-to-use mechanisms companies that collect kids’ personal information can use to seek the parents’ consent.”

Services that are more openly marketed toward children often stringently adhere to Coppa’s privacy rules. Vine Kids, for example, is a limited and largely passive service with no usernames or video posting capabilities; similarly, YouTube Kids is essentially an app full of streaming children’s programming, walled off from the rest of YouTube’s ecosystem. In contrast, Musical.ly, like Snapchat or Instagram, is a full-functioning social network, popular with young people but not openly marketed to them.

Such discussions about privacy can feel strained against the backdrop of technological change. The first version of Coppa became law in 1998, almost a decade before the iPhone was introduced. Last year, the research firm Influence Central said that, on average, parents who give their children smartphones do so at age 12. And once they have a phone, they get apps.

In a study of the law published in 2011 by the academic journal First Monday, researchers suggested that Coppa created intractable issues. To remain compliant, tech companies either cut off young users or claimed ignorance of their presence, while parents, for whom the law is meant to provide guidance and comfort, often ended up helping their children circumvent sign-up rules. Increasing the current style of enforcement, the report concluded, would only encourage firms to “focus on denying access rather than providing privacy protection or cooperating with parents.”

In short, children are using their smartphones much like the rest of us, whether or not they are comprehensively addressed by regulations or by broader cultural conventions.

Alex Hofmann, president of Musical.ly, said the company tries to be mindful of its popularity with younger users. “One of the differences to other apps,” he said, “is that we don’t only talk to the musers” — the company’s term for users — “we talk to the parents.”

He keeps close counsel with a network of a few dozen top users, and some of their families, and frequently asks for feedback from both regarding everything from user safety to new features. (The company’s support page contains an entire section directed toward parents — one that notes the app is “intended for 13+ only.”)

Ultimately, Mr. Hofmann said, he expects the app to diversify its audience. “We really see ourselves as a real social network, and as a network for different age groups,” he said.

For now, the company will have to navigate a peculiar if widely envied situation — capitalizing on its apparent popularity with an audience that it cannot fully acknowledge, watched over by wary but increasingly complicit parents.

“A year ago, there was basically nobody who was 40 years old on Snapchat,” Mr. Vaynerchuk said. “If Musical.ly can hold on, they will age up.”

Asked whether an app attracting such a young audience might be a liability, he cast the matter of children using social apps less as an argument than as an inevitability. Children are using these apps, he said. And besides, in the beginning, it was the children who chose Musical.ly, not the other way around.

What remains to be seen, he said, is whether any particular service is too much, too soon — something that is largely out of the company’s hands.

“There’s no campaign, there’s no money to be thrown at it, it will just become something you get used to,” Mr. Vaynerchuk said. “There’s nothing to address. This is about social norms.”