Google is widening the potential user base for Google+ by lowering the age requirement from 18 to 13 years old -- a move that could help it grow in Facebook's shadow.
Last week, Bradley Horowitz, vice president of product at Google+, announced the change in a blog post. He noted that Google wants to help teens share with their friends, while also helping them keep from over-sharing, especially with strangers.
"Teens and young adults are the most active Internet users on the planet," wrote Horowitz. "And surprise, surprise: they're also human beings who enjoy spending time with friends and family. Put these two things together and it's clear that teens will increasingly connect online."
Teens were allowed onto the site immediately.
Ezra Gottheil, an analyst with Technology Business Research, noted that by opening up the social network to younger users, Google+ is instantly widening its potential user base. And with an estimated 62 million users now, Google+ still has a long way to go to catch up with Facebook, which has a reported 800 million users.
"This will help Google+ add more users to the site and that's important right now," said Gottheil. "Facebook has a lot of younger users. That's how they got their start. This just makes sense for Google+."
Right now, Facebook requires that users be at least 13 years old to join the social network. However, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said last year that he'd like to lower that minimum age limit. While he wasn't actively working on that issue at the time, he said he'd like to study it more.
Horowitz pointed out in his blog post that Google+ is adding security safeguards to help protect teens that might be joining the site.
"The difference between friends, acquaintances and strangers is a crucial one -- especially for teens," he wrote. "Google+ includes circles to help people manage their different relationships, but we're going a step further for our younger users."
Horowitz explained that with Google+, teens can share privately with their circles or publicly with the world. "Posting something for everyone to see is a big deal, however, so when teens try and share outside their circles, we encourage them to think before they post," he added.
Google+ is set up by default to only allow people in teens' circles to contact them and it's designed features that enable teens to block someone with just one or two clicks.
Google also is setting up special rules around Google+ Hangouts.
"Google+ Hangouts bring people together using live multi-person video, and the results range from heartwarming to awe-inspiring," wrote Horowitz. "However, we recognize that connecting face-to-face is special and serious, so if a stranger outside a teen's circles joins the Hangout, we temporarily remove the young adult, and give them a chance to rejoin."
The social network also just set up the Google+ Safety Center, where it details the new safeguards.
Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her e-mail address is email@example.com.