If you have young children on Facebook or MySpace, they shouldn’t be — at least legally. The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) prevents websites from collecting personal information about children who are under the age of 13 without their parents’ permission.
Many children bypass this law, even on sites that enforce it, by simply adjusting their birthday. In a recent study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 75% of seventh through 12th graders surveyed said they had a profile on a social media site.
Clearly children want to use social media, and the evidence suggests that they will do so despite COPPA or the many justified parental fears that helped create it. Parents can, however, make the experience safer by directing their children to one of these five age-appropriate social networks.
Parents can sign up their children by using their own Facebook accounts to create a profile for their kids on this Facebook-like site. Once parents have selected friends for their children by searching other students at their child’s schools, adding family friends from their own Facebook profiles, and sending e-mail invites, children have access to selected YouTube videos, games, and creative projects. The site has other features that mirror Facebook, like the ability to “heart it,” buy and send gifts using a virtual currency (the twist is that parents give the currency to their children free of cost as “allowance”), and share videos and other parts of the site with their friends.
Where the site departs from Facebook puts many parents’ minds at rest: no outside links, no unapproved friends, and no private conversations. In order to post original comments instead of pre-set options, children must agree to this 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.”
Togetherville’s target age group is under 10, which makes pre-set comment options like “Hampsters are so CUTE!” understandable. The site also facilitates parents’ participation in their children’s introduction to social media by encouraging parent-child interaction. Not only can parents view their child’s social network activity, but they can also post messages to his or her wall, allocate “virtual allowances,” and send virtual gifts.
2. What’s What
This site is probably the most secure social network for kids on this list. In order to sign their children up, parents need to submit their credit card information to verify their identity and they must submit three mug shots (taken with a webcam) of their child for the site’s records. As with every site on this list, I was still able to create a profile as an adult and therefore browse friends in “my grade,” which I selected as seventh. Unlike the other sites, however, the What’s What team had discovered my adult presence (via those mug shots) within about six hours and blocked my profile.
While children are free to interact with people they don’t know, they can’t make friends with people who are out of their age group (in their grade or one grade below or above theirs) without parental permission. Beyond this, the network functions much like the others: users can exchange messages, make friends, join and create groups, and view their friends’ profiles. Parents can edit or delete their children’s profiles at any time, and everything posted on the site is monitored.
The intended age group for the site is between 8 and 14, which seems realistic given that two big draws of social networking — the ability to “make friends” with new people and share your thoughts with others — are retained.
To sign up for ScuttlePad, kids provide their birthday, favorite color, first name, and parent’s e-mail address, and they’re not allowed on the site until their parents approve it. Once logged in, they’re free to post messages, make friends, upload photos, and make comments — but with a catch. All comments on the site need to follow a given format and use a given set of words. Messages are composed within the framework, “I’m click, click, click,” with each click leading to a choice of words. Photos are manually approved by ScuttlePad, and only first names are used on the site.
The comment outline feature makes the site more secure. Realistically, anyone of any age, with any malicious intention, could sign up, but it’s hard to do much damage with the pre-set communication options. Similarly, it’s impossible to cyber bully or even really hurt anyone’s feelings using the preset options.
On the other hand, this feature can be restricting to the point of making the online experience dull to older kids. The site is intended to teach children ages 6 to 11 about how to use a social media site, and it definitely accomplishes that goal. It might be most engaging, however, for kids on the younger end of that age group.
Parents can verify their identities and sign their children up for giantHello by either providing the last four digits of their social security number or by charging one cent to a credit card. Beyond that, the site provides the social networking experience that comes closest to mainstream social media networks, making it more appealing to older children who want more autonomy than is allowed on some of the other sites.
Profile pages function much like a Facebook wall: friends can leave comments, children can update their status, and activity on the site — like joining groups — is reported on their page. Children also have options to send private message, upload photos, and join the fan pages of celebrities like the Jonas Brothers and Ryan Seacrest, which are updated via the celebrities’ Twitter feeds.
As far as the social media experience goes, giantHello parts from its mainstream counterpart by removing the “search for friends” function, much like the sites that buy Instagram followers, they remove all of those features. Children need to either invite friends via an e-mail or print out as page with an invitation code to give them. Therefore, they can’t make friends with people who they don’t know.
5. Skid-e Kids
Skid-e kids relies on staff moderators for most of its security features: if a comment is flagged by a filter for inappropriate language or disclosure of personally identifiable information, it is sent to human moderation; all photos are checked by a moderators; users submit articles and stories for a “written by you” section that are edited for inappropriate language and personal information before they’re posted; and interest group pages are moderated.
Unlike most sites, parents and children both are encouraged to create profiles on the same network. Users can exchange messages, update their statuses, upload video (which needs to be approved before it is posted), and compete against each other for high scores on any of the free games on the site. Unfortunately most of these games are prefaced by ads, and although they are advertised as educational, it’s hard to see how something like “Powerpuff coloring” fits this description.
The advantage of this site, especially for older children, is that much of the moderation is provided by the site itself. Parents aren’t required to constantly check in or approve decisions, but can instead focus on interacting with their children on the same network.