On the Internet, the year 2000 was the year of the female. The number of women using the Web surpassed men for the first time last year, according to a study released by Media Metrix/Jupiter Communications in August. And girls between the ages of 12 and 17 make up the fastest-growing group of Web surfers. Web use by teenage girls is up 125 percent from 1999.
Sites like gURL.com are part of the phenomenon. Described by The New York Times as "a frank, detailed, and zealously nonjudgmental take on all aspects of girlhood," gURL.com is the most popular Web site for female teens in the United States; it claims visits from 40 percent of all American girls online. The tone is one of encouragement. Recent features include "Looks Aren't Everything: A Love/Hate Look at Beauty Culture" and advice from the "Help Me, Heather" column. Such Web sites (ChickClick.com and CitizenPhoebe.com are also popular) are touted as safe places for frank discussion, partly because appearance and identity remain invisible.
But where girls sense the benefits of online community, some online marketers see the next generation of active consumers. Indeed, buried deep within gURL.com's Web site there are disclosures about "third-party advertising companies" that "may use information about your visits to this and other websites in order to provide advertisements about goods and services of interest to you."
To acquire personal data, marketers design flashy, interactive ads, surveys, and polls, even for the most education-oriented Web sites. Some invite users to enter a contest or to "take this survey and win a prize." Those who fill out GirlsUnlimited.com's form "What kind of personality are you?" may not know that their survey choices are used to determine consumer preferences. Advertising firms such as NetSmart America claim that such information will "pay for itself over and over with its consumer insights."
Although the 1998 Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) requires commercial Web site operators to protect the privacy of children under 13 and to publish "clear and comprehensive" Internet user rights and policies, many site operators do not honor the spirit of the law. And most 14-year-olds will not choose to read fine-print warnings while bolder messages compete for their attention. Peter Grunwald, whose firm Grunwald Associates sells a market survey detailing youth Internet usage, admits, "although we tend to counsel our clients to avoid commercializing in inappropriate contexts, such as educational or support sites, there is no question that both sites and companies can misuse our information to manipulate kids and gain a profit."