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One of the users (let's call him A) of a site I own told me that there is a underage user (let's call him B) on our site; the Terms of Service say that you have to be 18 years old to use the site; but the underage user is just 14. A is not the only one who told me this; after his mail, more mails came telling that he is underage and should be removed. But B is not disruptive, he is a very valuable user and I would not like to lose him, though he is actually too young to use the site.

The age limit is not there because there is 18+ content on the site, so I can actually remove it but I'm afraid that the users who complain will also complain about this change, or leave the site. The ToS also says that the site owners can change it at any time they want.

How can I make sure that I don't have to delete him?

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If the reason to keep underage users off of your site is that you expect that they will be disruptive, can your ToS not simply disallow disruptive behaviour, without stating any age limit? –  hvd Aug 31 at 18:58
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I've seen forums with a rule saying you have to act 18. –  Buge Sep 1 at 21:34
    
"How can I make sure that I don't have to delete him?" only way is cryogenically freeze him and send him in a high speed vessel. due to time dilation, it will return within a short period of days but he will be 4 years older. –  Dude Bro Sep 4 at 1:45

10 Answers 10

up vote 46 down vote accepted

Firstly, this is an issue where you have to do something. Allowing a user to stay when they are knowingly in breach of the ToS means that you are devaluing the ToS, and whenever someone else breaks it they'll just point to B and say that "obviously the ToS doesn't count because he's still around". So you need to make sure that this infraction gets dealt with.

As you've already concluded, there are really only two options here. You either change the ToS and keep B, or you keep the ToS as is and kick B.

Given that your site doesn't have any "18+ content", and you actually do want to keep B, changing the ToS seems to be the best path. I'd recommend that you do so very publicly. Here's a suggestion for how to frame it:

"It's come to my attention that one of our highly valued users, who has contributed a great deal to making our community what it is, is younger than the stated age limit in the ToS. This shows me that putting the age limit as high as 18 was a mistake - it's obvious that people below that age are well able to contribute here, and there is no reason why they shouldn't.

Effective [now + 7 days], the new ToS will have an age limit of 14."

That takes care of the future. Now, you also need to handle the past. Because B, while being a valuable contributor etc, also did knowingly sign up despite not being allowed to by the ToS that he accepted. If your ToS allows for suspension, I'd suggest that you suspend his account for 7 days - that is, he'll be allowed back on the same day that the ToS starts allowing him to be there. That way, you can point to the fact that he was temporarily suspended when people complain that he was let stay despite having broken the ToS - but you'll also have shown that you appreciate his contribution and you were willing to change the rules in order to keep him around.

Edit:

As was suggested in comments, perhaps having any age limit at all may not be necessary since there is no "adult content" on the site. If you don't think it's useful, get rid of it. and rephrase the message to say "effective [now+7 days] there will be no age limit" instead. On the other hand, the site's content may not be the only reason to have an age limit - you may want users that are old enough to understand the topic and be able to participate in conversations in a way that contributes to the site's value. If so, you can either lower the age limit or you can add some other language, e.g. "persons under 14 allowed at the discretion of the moderators" or something else that seems appropriate to you. (I'm assuming that disruptive behaviour is already not allowed and that this is an issue about people who are not disruptive/abusive but also not very helpful for the site.)

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+1, good answer! –  ProgramFOX Aug 31 at 10:51
    
Thanks @ProgramFOX! It was a good question, too! –  Jenny D Aug 31 at 10:55
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Agree wholeheartedly with this post, except for the part where you change one age limit for another one. Age limits should be there if you have age limit+ content, if you're afraid they will be disruptive you should disallow disruptive behaviour instead of certain age ranges. –  David Mulder Aug 31 at 22:57
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Note that some age limits (such as Stack Exchange's) may exist for legal reasons. There are limits on collecting personal data on youngsters in some jurisdictions. –  TRiG Sep 1 at 15:37
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As @TriG notes in some jurisdictions there are legal limitations that may require you to enforce an age limit e.g. COPPA in the US which restricts operators from collecting personal information from those under 13 –  RobV Sep 2 at 16:42

I agree with this answer but want to add some nuance. You presumably had a good reason to set an age limit, and you are worried about backlash from your users if you remove it. What is their concern? Perhaps they are concerned about an invasion of disruptive 12-year-olds?

You can modify the TOS to set a different age limit, as the answer I linked to suggests, but you might just be kicking the problem down the road a bit. What happens when that highly-articulate, well-behaved 13-year-old shows up? Do you change them again?

If an age limit is valuable to your community at all, then let me suggest a different approach: a limit, and a sanctioned process for granting exceptions. Maybe underage users can sign up on a probationary basis, and if they meet certain criteria they are granted full membership after that. (Such criteria should involve community feedback in some way -- votes, absence of complaints, or whatever. But don't make it something that a user can achieve all on his own, like "posts X on-topic messages".) Or you could allow people to come in if vouched for by a trusted user of your site. The point is that you have a rule (the age limit), another rule for exceptions to that rule, and therefore a repeatable, legitimate process that does not rely on moderator whim.

We had something similar in an offline community I belong to. Anybody is allowed to participate, but voting in officer elections was limited to people 18+ for some perceived legal reason. We had a situation where 20-year-olds who joined last month could vote but the 17-year-old who'd been participating all his life (his parents were already members) could not. We did not control the rules so we couldn't just waive them, but we petitioned the rule-makers to allow exceptions to their age rule, and they allowed us to do so. Underage would-be voters can petition the officers for an exception, and they will evaluate it based on participation and recommendations. So far this has not caused problems.

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I wouldn't change the age to something below 13 because of COPPA; when changing it, I'd immediately change it to 13. –  ProgramFOX Aug 31 at 16:27
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@ProgramFOX if the site owner is subject to US law, and if he chooses to handle COPPA by barring people under 13 instead of taking the specified precautions, then yes. He doesn't say where he is or whether COPPA's rules would be onerous for him. –  Monica Cellio Aug 31 at 17:00
    
Very good post, but please also keep in mind that allowing just-registered users to vote for anything is a plain mistake, no matter what. –  Lohoris Sep 4 at 10:14
    
@Lohoris true, but orthogonal to age -- I'm not suggesting that exceptions be made to whatever restrictions are already in place for new users. I agree that users should need to have positive contribution before getting to vote on anything that matters. –  Monica Cellio Sep 4 at 12:55

This started as a comment to Monica's answer, but grew to large. The rule exception that she mentions has worked out extremely well for my gaming community. We offer a "probationary" period for users that are under the age minimum for community members.

Very quick distinction - we allow anyone to post on the message board or join the game server, but "membership" grants a few additional perks on both the board on the servers (nothing game breaking, more moderator centred as members can deal with game server trolls with these benefits).

One of the criteria we have to advance toward full membership from this probationary period is that an existing member must be a sponsor. This means that any reward or punishment dealt to the probationary user also is applied to the sponsor. Prior to implementing this policy, we had several users that went through the steps to become members and once 'graduated' to full member displayed a maturity level more common with their age.

Once the sponsorship requirement was implemented, we noticed two things:

  • Members engaged with the probationary users much more, in an effort to get to know them. (Yay! Community building!)
  • Our members that went through this probationary period are some of our more active and better contributing members. They seem to have learned from the sponsors and community at large the behavior we expect.

In our migration from the original "we have an exception process" to "we require sponsorship", the community provided input on what they would like to see in these younger members. The biggest, by far, was maturity. One of the members suggested the sponsorship idea and after much discussion final details were nailed down.

From my point of view as an owner/administrator, very little has changed with this. The community took responsibility for the younger crowd. The younger users were given "mentors" (for lack of a better word) and encouraged to participate.

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Unless the "underage" user has self-identified as underage, you have no proof of this user's age and no obligation to act on the claims of other malicious users who are trying to get a valuable user removed from your site.

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As an aside, it might be worth adding to the ToS a clause forbidding the posting of private information (which would include age) of other users (or people in general) who do not consent to having it posted on your forum or whatnot. This would give you grounds to tell the malicious users to stop, and to remove them if they keep it up. –  R.. Sep 6 at 21:00

Keep in mind that it's your site, after all. You don't want to lose him; and as you are the site owner, you can actually adjust your Terms of Service to change the age limit. Yes, there is a risk that A and other users will complain about this and leave (while I don't think that they will leave is a big risk), but you will have to make a choice. Do you want to keep B? Then change the age limit. If you delete his account, there is a risk that he also doesn't come back when he is old enough.

Of course, if you change your ToS and don't delete B's account, there is a risk that A (and the others who reported B) will be trolling B just to make sure that he goes away. If this happens and if B notifies you about this, then you'll have to listen to this and take action, as you already made the choice that you want to keep B. If you don't listen, then he might leave, which is just what you try to avoid.

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How you write a ToS for a website depends on the legal situation where you live and host your website. California, for example, has a law which gives underage users the right to delete their posts.

If you want to host a forum where users can’t delete their posts and you are within the Californian jurisdiction, it might be helpful to forbid underage users. Of course, I’m no lawyer so I don’t know to what extent that works.

If you aren’t concerned with legalities, then it’s your website and you can make exceptions whenever you feel like it.

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  1. Your site, your rules, and also your enforcement of those rules, for example: just because you written in the EULA that you can kick people out for being underage does not mean you must
  2. On many websites backseat moderation is considered an offence, so consider kicking A if he's being disruptive instead of B who is being constructive
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I think it all boils down to your rules. I don't really think you should change the age limit because you have a valuable 14-year-old on your site. When I was 12, I got kicked off of a site because the age-limit was 13. Nobody knew I was 12, nobody really cared—until I casually mentioned I was 12 (I was unaware of the rule). Rules are rules, so I was kicked off the site. It's part of the administrator's job (your job) to make sure the rules are enforced, and if you make exceptions for this one member, there is nothing to say more members won't join your site under-aged or break other rules because they think they aren't taken as seriously.

At that point, you may as well lower the age-limit since you aren't really enforcing the rule. So, the idea would be to go to the reason why you have the rule. What you may want to do is email his parents (if possible) and let them know of the situation. They will most likely get him to leave the site. If they don't, you might just have to tell him "sorry, but you can't be part of this site." He has violated your terms of service, and unfortunately, he must wait a couple years before joining the site again. You can try giving him some links to sites like yours, making it clear that you think he is a good guy, but he needs a better environment to be in and you are concerned that an 18+ website is not suited for him. Despite the fact that's not why you have the rule, it may be there anyway. Because it sounds to me that he is (unintentionally) being disruptive. Members are emailing you. And again, if you show laxness with your rules, people will be less likely to take them seriously.

One more thing: You definitely don't want to get in trouble with his parents. I know that it won't be your fault, but the parents will find out he is on this site sooner or later, and if/when they do, they might see things they don't think are appropriate. I can't say I've seen your website, but even so, I doubt his parents will have much of an open mind if they do, in fact, go on the site themselves. That, added to the fact that you did not enforce the rule will probably make them rather angry, possibly making a public forum post complaining about it and thus, deepening the hole. I'm not saying this is likely to happen. In fact, I don't really know what sorts of things are on your site or how concerned the parents are about his online safety, but it may be worth not taking the risk.

Bottom line, there are rules against what he is doing, and you are the owner. It's up to you what you do, but even if he is an exceptionally bright member, you may have to take action accordingly. He'll probably understand that you're just doing your job. And it's not like he's the only valuable member there. Just recognize that there are other things at stake here, such as the reputation of your site.

Good luck with whatever decision you choose, though. In the end, it's all up to you.

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I took it as "there is adult content, but that's not why." I'll change it. –  ColonelHedgehog Sep 1 at 0:22

Or, you could add a clause to your ToS stating an exception could be made based on contribution and behavior of user, and this is decision rests solely with you.

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But how can someone prove their contribution without ignoring the ToS anyway? –  Martin Smith Aug 31 at 18:34
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Can you elaborate on this a little @Sri? –  Andy Aug 31 at 19:54
    
I'm a mod of one of one of the game servers where we prefer to have all players over a certain age. But at times, we come across ages that are slightly underage but are mature enough. Such people, when they ask us for membership, based on feedback from atleast one existing member who knows them, a conditional membership is given. –  Sri Sep 2 at 2:22
    
@Sri, this still looks very similar to this answer. Can you elaborate more? –  Andy Sep 2 at 14:50

Just block him from adult content until he/she is 18. Don't delete him!
You can do so by changing the ToS and making a blocking mechanism.

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The question clearly states there is no adult content. –  Andy Sep 2 at 14:17
    
What Andy says, there is no 18+ content. Also, I state in my question that I'm afraid he won't come back even when he is old enough, because he could be disappointed that he's banned for some years. Or he might lose his interest within the years that he is banned. –  ProgramFOX Sep 2 at 16:07

protected by Andy Sep 2 at 14:16

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