The challenges facing social media for kids

Kids want social media, but how do you do that while offering privacy and safety?

Technology trends and news by Faith Merino
November 26, 2010 | Comments (4)
Short URL: http://vator.tv/n/142c

Keeping kids safe online is becoming increasingly tricky with social media playing a larger role in everyday life for most Web users.  At the recent Amplify event for woman-led startups, I met up with Hilary DeCesare, the CEO and co-founder of Everloop.  Everloop is a social network for tweens aged 8-13, and it’s currently in private beta mode, but will be going public in February.  As the oldest of 11 children, I have a steady supply of guinea pigs to test out new websites on, so this week I helped my 11-year-old sister sign up.  One thing that has become increasingly apparent to me is the fact that kids want social media just as much as anyone else.  While talking to two of my youngest siblings, 11-year-old Kieranne and 6-year-old Nico, about sites like Everloop and Club Penguin, I learned some surprising facts about what kids want out of social networking sites.

First of all, they want something that’s accessible and offers full-inclusion.  Club Penguin requires a membership, and only members get to enjoy certain site features.  For those unfamiliar with the site, Club Penguin is a virtual world for kids, who can choose their own penguin avatar and socialize in different “rooms” in the penguin world. 

Nico is a Club Penguin member (you know those impulse buy candy racks at the front of the grocery store?  While the other kids ask for candy, Nico asks for a new Club Penguin member card, which is how he maintains his membership despite not having a steady income).  Kieranne, however, is not a member, and not only is she barred from certain members-only features, like being able to dress up her avatar, she has also found that in most cases, when she sends a friend request to a Club Penguin member, she’s turned down.  This bugs her, but she’s in Junior High and doesn’t want anyone to know that she plays on Club Penguin, so she refuses to get a membership.

A lot of kids also want age-appropriate content.  One thing that bothers Kieranne about Club Penguin is—surprisingly—the lack of supervision, which leads to a lot of inappropriate content swirling around the cute little brightly colored penguin world.  This doesn’t bother Nico so much because he’s still learning how to read, but Kieranne doesn’t like how many older kids use the website as a virtual dating world.  “Kids go on there and pretend they’re dating,” Kieranne explained.  I’m not sure if this “pretending” is sexual in nature, and Kieranne was shocked and appalled when I said the “S” word, but it does point to the fact that there are no social networks for younger kids (you have to be 13 to join Facebook), so they’re finding other spaces in which to socialize—and those spaces may or may not have any kind of security or supervision. 

Which leads me to the fact that kids want to feel safe online. Kieranne has given Everloop the thumbs-up, based primarily on the fact that there are human monitors keeping an eye out for predators.  For example, if someone continually asks the same question over and over again (like what is your name, where do you live, etc.), that person is flagged, and repeat offenses will get that person bumped off. Everloop was designed with safety in mind, so there are five layers of security on the site, including human monitors.  I thought this would have been a serious turn-off for kids, but Kieranne, who watches the news more than she should, is relieved to know that there’s someone watching out for her.

But kids are a fickle group, so how does any social networking site hope to keep their attention?  Everloop hopes to do that by allowing kids to make and join groups based on their interests that they can then leave when they’ve lost interest.  So in Kieranne’s case, she made a group called the Best Desserts group, where members post pictures of their favorite desserts.  The site also offers a number of games and other activities, like the ability to make stickers and decorate your page, or prank another member with a “goob,” like toilet-papering that person’s page.

But now the real test: is this a site that kids would rather join instead of Facebook?  It isn’t that hard to lie about your age to join Facebook (several of my siblings have lied about their ages to join Facebook and MySpace).  So I took Kieranne aside—out of earshot of anyone else—and asked her if she has made a Facebook page, and if so, would she use Everloop instead of Facebook? 

“If I had a Facebook page, I would do both,” said Kieranne, who swore that she didn’t have a Facebook page, but explained that Everloop doesn’t strike her as a Facebook alternative.  Rather, it’s a unique social network with its own offerings and features.  According to DeCesare, when kids reach an age where they can join Facebook, most end up using both Facebook and Everloop.

So after receiving a tutorial of Everloop, Club Penguin, the Annoying Orange, and Charlie the Unicorn, I walked away with the understanding that 1) kids are social, 2) they like really obnoxious, flashy things with annoying voices, and 3) despite that, they’re smarter than they look. 

Image source: Everloop.com

Related companies, investors and entrepreneurs

Description: Everloop provides kids under 13 a free, safe space where they can connect with friends, play games, share pictures and music, send messag...
Club Penguin
Description: In March 2005, the founders of Club Penguin set out to create an ad-free, virtual world where children could play games, have fun and int...
Hilary DeCesare
CEO and Co-Founder,

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Emile K, on November 26, 2010

Kids don't need social media; 'facebook for kids' will ultimately ruin Generation Z, or so-called "Digital Natives." I had to live with friends of family for about 4 weeks, and their 8 year old was obsessed with Club Penguin. The website is like crack for kids. They need to socialize in real life, rather than in front of computers.

Christopher Behnke, on November 28, 2010

I think its important to teach and train your children how to use social media... Frankly the internet and more specifically the internet as we know it are brand new. It's gonna change a LOT in the next 10 years so by the time our 10 year olds of today are 20 years old and out on their own the internet as we know it won't even exist. It will be totally different, and everyone will be connected to and through it... I have no idea exactly what or how it would look, but one trend is pretty sure, it WILL be a "social network" of some kind... There is no way to "protect" your children from technology and communication, the KEY is to figure out how to train and teach them to use things like social networking as a tool, and not a crutch!

my .02

Christopher Behnke

Faith Merino
Faith Merino, on November 28, 2010

I have to agree. While I think the last thing young kids should be doing is developing a hunchback and T-Rex arms in front of the computer, they do need to be trained how to be safe on the Internet. Once they get into their early teens and they're old enough to join Facebook, they will need to have those tools cemented in place.

Chris Getman, on February 25, 2011

It's interesting to hear how interested your sister was so concerned about moderation and safety. This post gave some great perspective on how kids prefer to interact with social media. I think it's important that kids learn how to act on social networking site in a safe environment prior to making the leap onto Facebook where there are far less protections. The question becomes is there a social networking site for tweens that offers the features they want while providing the safety and security they need?

Given your interest in this topic I believe you'd find http://www.WhatsWhat.Me interesting and relevant. WhatsWhat.Me is a safe, secure, “kids-only” social network for “tweens” ages 7-13 which uses patent-pending facial recognition technology, moderation and kid-friendly features to teach kids positive online behavior, Internet safety and related life skills. Especially relevant to this blog post is the fact that www.WhatsWhat.Me use facial recognition technology to ensure every kid who signs on is actually a kid, meaning each time someone logs on they have to have their picture taken with a web cam and matched against three secured stored images captured when they initially created the account. Additionally, human moderators review every picture to ensure the www.WhatsWha.Me site remains strictly kids only.

WhatsWhat.me was built for kids under the age of 13 in compliance with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). The WhatsWhat mission is to reach and proactively teach kids about positive online conduct in a safe, secure, kids-only environment, which we’ve developed carefully through technology, human moderation and enforceable community rules. Not only are the sign-ons moderated, the interactions are as well. If the WhatsWhat.Me moderators notice any hint of cyberbullying or inappropriate communications they use this as a "teachable moment" to intervene and address the behavior with both child and the child's parents.

It's important to teach kids/tweens social networking etiquette and skills prior to letting them lose on the world of Facebook.

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