Over school breaks I work in childcare at my local YMCA. I love the kids and their endless imaginations, especially when they’re younger and mostly unhindered by the fads of technology. The older kids (and by this I mean 8 to 12ish) have a tendency of bringing in their Gameboys and Cell Phones. They want to show off, especially the ones with phones (why on earth an 8-year-old needs a cell phone is beyond me, and I will not get into that discussion right now). Growing up primarily in the 90s, my older brother and I coveted our video games, but there’s no doubt that as the years pass, the craze of technology is targeting younger and younger audiences.
Because of what I’ve seen, I really shouldn’t have been surprised to find out that there are social networking sites for children (13 and under)…but I was.
I first heard about this phenomenon when I read a headline that I thought indicated that Disney was starting a social networking site for children. Well, this was too much for me, and I couldn’t help but click the link to the article. Upon reading the full story, I realized that Disney was not starting a network, they were purchasing one that was already in existence. Worse yet, this site, known as “Togetherville,” is just one of many such networks!
According to an article (from last year, no less) off of Mashable.com, the Children’s Online Privacy Protections Act (COPPA) prohibits social sites to collect personal information from children under the age of 13 without parental permission. And yet, as a tech-saavy generation, many kids have learned to bypass this law…by simply lying.
A recent study revealed that 75% of kids, ranging from seventh to twelfth grade, have a profile on a social media site– and the numbers are only growing. Keeping this in mind, markets have opened up for ‘fun and safe’ networks for younger children. Five of the most thriving sites are:
The key to this site is the role a parent plays– they help sign their child up, create a profile for their child, and are even responsible for picking out the child’s friends by sending email invite. Information on the site is limited to child-friendly material– YouTube videos, games, and projects. In many ways, this site is a Facebook Jr. Instead of ‘liking’ something, a child can ‘heart it.’ They can also buy and sell items using virtual money that their parents, free of cost, can give to them; this is called an allowance.
To safeguard their audience, which is primarily made up of children under the age of 10, Togetherville stresses the importance of a parental figure. Children must also agree to a code of conduct: “I agree to not say anything mean or hurtful, not say embarrassing things about myself, my friends, or my family, and take responsibility for what I say on Togetherville.” By involving children in the application process such as this, one of the best lessons to come out of this site will certainly be the message it sends about appropriate internet conduct, especially in terms of internet bullying and safety.
2. What’s What
Lauded as the “most secure social network for kids,” parents are once again a key factor in registering their child. The main difference here, however, is that parents must submit their credit card information as well as three “mug shots” (taken with a webcam) to verify their identity. The intended market for this site is children ages 8 through 14. Drawing a slightly older audience than Togetherville, What’s What also gives the kids more freedom– they can interact with people they may not know in real life, but they can’t make friends outside of their age group (or grade year in school) without parental permission. In other ways, this site is again similar to Facebook– liking, making friends, joining groups, creating profiles. And, of course, parents have the control to edit or delete any information they may wish on their child’s profile.
Of course, this site also asks for parental permission, but kids also get to play a part in the process of registration. The site asks for their birthday, favorite color, and first name. After joining, they are free to use the site much as we use Facebook, but with one MAJOR catch. The site is programmed so that only a given set of words are allowed to be used in a specific format.
The site seems relatively secure, but possibly characterless due to its strict regulation. While the site may be fun for younger kids, older kids would quickly outgrow their stay.
Per usual, parents help their children sign up, this time by either supplying the last 4 digits of their social security number, or by charging their credit card a grand total of one cent. Reviews say that the experiences on this site are most similar to those on mainstream social media sites. This means that a larger portion of older children prefer giantHello.
Once again, the site mimics Facebook in several respects: the kids have “walls,” friends can comment, statuses can be updated, photos can be uploaded, and fan pages can be joined. Friends must be asked via email, or given an actual invitations– yes, I’m talking about on paper– featuring a code to enter to connect. Certain celebrities, including the ever exciting Jonas Brothers (or is that so one year ago of me?) have fan pages that are updated through their Twitter accounts. This is an interesting feature since it actually does connect them to a real social networking site, albeit a filtered one.
5. Skid-e kids
Rather than asking for the constant approval and permission of parents, Skid-e kids relies primarily on staff moderators to keep the site secure. Photos are checked, messages are filtered, and stories are edited to make the site kid friendly. But the parental element is not completely eliminated– parents and kids alike are invited to create profiles.
The site features plenty of free games, although many are introduced with ads. Kids can also upload videos, comment, message, and updated statuses. Skid-e kids tends to draw an older crowd due to the rebellious nature of 10 year olds who don’t always want to have to get their mom’s permission to make any move.
While skeptical at first, on completion of reading the article, I have to admit my mind had been changed a bit. Perhaps these sites are beneficial, if only because they keep children off networks such as Facebook and Myspace, where the material is certainly not always G-rated. The sites also seem to strive to connect with parents, as well as children. I also really the concept of teaching children, at a young age, about proper online etiquette. Hopefully such an early introduction can help cut back on cyber-bullying by instilling a sense of respect and understanding.
We live in a world of computers, and it’s only natural that this upcoming generation take to it from an even younger age. But still– sometimes it disturbs me to see the 6-year-old who refuses to go outside and play because he prefers his gameboy, or the 10-year-old texting some buddies from school.
What do you think? I’m not trying to make social commentary, nor is this some guide to raising children– I’m honestly interesting in other people’s opinions. Perhaps someone has a first-hand experience? So…tell me about it?