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Google has finally opened the doors of its Google+ social networking service to kids, but was careful to keep their ‘rents onside with new online safety features, as its desperate efforts to catch Facebook continue.

The service has up until now been the preserve of adults, although it’s likely that teens have used the site illegally in the past, given that duping Google is about as easy for an under 18-year-old as getting served in a provincial town nightclub.

Now, however, kids over 13 can sign up legally. In Spain and South Korea they have to be a year older, while the Dutch aren’t letting anyone under 16 use the service.

Google+ vice president of products, Bradley Horowitz, announced the news in a breathtakingly patronising post on the site itself, basically intimating that “younger users” need protecting from themselves, each other, and the big bad world.

“Teens and young adults are the most active internet users on the planet. 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. Unfortunately, online sharing is still second-rate for this age group,” he blathered.

“In life, for instance, teens can share the right things with just the right people (like classmates, parents or close ties). Over time, the nuance and richness of selective sharing even promotes authenticity and accountability. Sadly, today’s most popular online tools are rigid and brittle by comparison, so teens end up over-sharing with all of their so-called ‘friends’."

To help its teenaged users “build meaningful connections online” while keeping them safe, Google has come up with several new features, including a notification which will alert the user if they are about to share content with users outside their circle.

Teen users can also block anyone on the site they take a dislike to and by default only those in their circles can contact them, said Horowitz.

Finally, if a stranger from outside one of their circles joins a hangout session, the teen will immediately be removed, and then given the option to rejoin.

The change in user policy brings Google+ belatedly in line with Facebook, and can be seen as another attempt to help it compete with the social networking behemoth. It’s got a long way to go though – its estimated 90 million users are dwarfed by the blue giant’s 800m+.

In a move which critics will say didn’t go far enough, Google relaxed its policy on pseudonyms earlier this week, allowing nicknames to be displayed alongside a user’s real name.

The Chocolate Factory has also been prioritising search results from Google+ over those from elsewhere on the social web, a fact neatly exposed by a new bookmarklet which looks to offer users a wider choice of results from sites like Twitter and Facebook. ®

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