If you have a school-aged child, chances are you’ve been the recipient of urgent requests to join a social network. But no matter how many times you hear, “But all of my friends are members!” or, “It’s just for fun—I’m not going to do anything bad!” you might still be experiencing reservations. After all, the news is full of frightening stories about youngsters who have encountered child predators, experienced cyberbullying, been exposed to inappropriate content, and much more on social media platforms.
But wait: You don’t have to ban all social media use until age 13 (the minimum age for users of many popular sites like Facebook and Twitter) or beyond. According to the popular For Dummies® series, there are several precautions you can take to protect your children—and social networks other than Facebook that they can join.
“It’s true: At younger and younger ages, kids are anxious to join the world of social media, which they may see their parents or even older siblings using,” acknowledges Amy Lupold Bair, author of Raising Digital Families For Dummies® . “The best option is often to actively work with your child to set up rules and guidelines that will keep both of you happy.”
Lupold Bair points out that since social media is here to stay (whether you like it or not), it’s smart to introduce your kids to this ever-expanding digital world while you’re still in a position to control and supervise what they’re allowed to do.
“Preparing your kids to be smart and responsible in all online interactions can save them a world of trouble in the future!” she comments.
Here, Lupold Bair shares four things to do when devising a plan that allows your kids to dip their toes in the social media waters while providing entertainment that you’re comfortable with:
Understand how social platforms for children differ from adult networks. When you hear the words “social media,” platforms like Facebook—where interaction and sharing is the primary purpose (and in which users can freely post all types of explicit and inappropriate content)—probably spring to mind. But did you know that there are other, more age-appropriate social media platforms aimed at children younger than 13?
“Many of these sites designed for younger users require parental approval for account creation and feature moderated interactions between users, including the deletion of banned words and cyberbullying,” shares Lupold Bair. “Many will also notify parents of their child’s account activity. Not only do these platforms act as social media training wheels for kids who are growing up in a digital world, but they can also foster things like supporting friends’ achievements, collaboration on projects and group goals, awareness of social causes, increased technical literacy, and more.”
Research and monitor platform safety. Even though social media sites created specifically for children typically have rules in place to protect their young users, you should always research each platform before allowing your children to create an account. And if a particular site provides parental monitors that allow you to keep an eye on your children’s activity and select appropriate account settings, take advantage of them!
“There are numerous sites that rate and review social media platforms for kids,” Lupold Bair comments. “In my opinion, one of the best is www.commonsensemedia.org. Its reviewers are trained to adhere to child development guidelines when writing their evaluations, which include information on privacy and safety; exposure to positive messages; warnings about violence, language, sex, drugs, etc.; and more. Also, always read a social media site’s privacy before allowing your child to join. Pay special attention to what type of information about your child will be collected, shared, and seen by others.”
Know how to access your child’s profile information. No parent wants to monitor their child’s every action online. (And, of course, that type of supervision misses the point of allowing our children to grow and learn.) However, Lupold Bair does recommend maintaining access to your children’s profile information so that you can protect them from sharing too much or inappropriate information and guide them as they craft their digital presence.
“Many sites created for children younger than 13 allow parents to create a parent account, which acts as a master account for all child accounts within that family,” explains Lupold Bair. “You can use this parent account to change settings, monitor usage, change profile information, and more. But regardless of whether or not you are able to create a parent account, I recommend setting rules for your family specifically regarding parent access to kids’ online accounts. Consider keeping a list of account names, passwords, and settings for each child. You may even want to create your own user account on sites that your children frequent so you’ll have a better understanding of what they are experiencing online. And remember: You aren’t being ‘mean’ or ‘overinvolved’—you’re keeping your kids safe.”
Create social networking rules. Did you know that social media for children expands beyond websites to include interactive functions on platforms such as gaming consoles, online worlds, and handheld games? That’s why it’s so important to create very specific rules regarding social networking. (In fact, Lupold Bair recommends creating and having your kids sign a document called a Digital Family Policy, which should include rules and expectations not only for social media, but for all computer, tablet, game, and phone use.)
“Create specific rules for each type of social media platform,” Lupold Bair suggests. “Include rules about the days and times when kids are allowed to use social media, whether they should ask for permission before making changes to account settings, whether they can participate in multiplayer games and chats, what to do if they see something inappropriate, etc. Make these platform-by-platform and age-group-by-age-group guidelines clear to your children. Equally important, include associated consequences with each rule.”
“When it comes to keeping your younger children safe and secure in the world of social media, knowledge really is power,” concludes Lupold Bair. “Make sure you’re familiar with the sites and platforms your kids are using and what they’re doing within these digital environments. And remember that in the rapidly changing social media landscape, sites change often. Read updated reviews of your children’s favorite platforms from time to time and consider how they’ll affect your child’s experience online.”
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Ten Social Networks Especially for Kids
With social media infiltrating nearly every aspect of the Internet (and our daily lives), it’s no surprise that you can easily find social networks created specifically for children. These sites typically mimic adult platforms (with account profiles, gaming options, and even chat functions), but they do tend to offer more privacy options and kid-friendly themes.
Despite these safeguards, though, you should always visit each site and get to know its features before allowing your children to play on their own. Also, pay close attention to how each site protects privacy before you allow your child to create an account. Finally, find out how other users may interact with your child before allowing them to have unsupervised time on these networks.
Club Penguin . Perhaps the most well-known of the social networks for kids, Disney’s Club Penguin is a massively multiplayer online game (MMOG) site for children. Game play is moderated at all times, and parental consent is required before children can join the site. Children may play at Club Penguin for free or upgrade to (and pay for) membership, which begins at $5 per month and offers a few more features:
• Unlimited access to member-only areas
• Exclusive gifts at special events
• The ability to style your penguin character with new outfits
• The ability to upgrade and decorate your igloo (your home on Club Penguin)
• The ability to adopt up to 20 puffles (Club Penguin pets) in any color
Children need their parents’ e-mail address to create an account at Club Penguin. To activate a new account, parents click an activation code that arrives by e-mail. Clicking the link takes you to the site, where you can set a chat option for your child:
• Standard Safe Chat: Players type their own messages. The Club Penguin word filter and moderators stop the use of inappropriate language and personal information sharing.
• Ultimate Safe Chat: Players can choose only from a set menu of phrases and see other Ultimate Safe Chat messages.
In the Parents section of Club Penguin, parents can create their own password-protected access to their child’s Club Penguin account. There, you can see your child’s account activity, edit chat settings, and set a play timer.
ScuttlePad. ScuttlePad is a free social networking site designed for kids ages 6 to 11. Much like Facebook, users can upload photos and update their status, but status updates and comments can include words only from an approved list. Images uploaded are all manually reviewed before they appear on the user’s account. There is currently no advertising on this site. ScuttlePad teaches kids the basics of social networking but doesn’t have any extra games, activities, or applications like many adult social networking sites.
ScuttlePad provides kids with the chance to learn the basics of social media, but it doesn’t contain much else to entertain kids or hold their attention. Still, it’s a great resource for parents looking to teach their children about social media without exposing them to too much content or allowing them unsupervised interaction.
Webkinz . Webkinz was one of the first online worlds created primarily for children. The site connects the offline and online worlds by providing an online code with every Webkinz stuffed animal that is sold. Kids can type these codes into the Webkinz site to play with a virtual version of their stuffed animal.
This site includes a Parents Area where parents can manage their children’s use of chat, limit time spent on the site, and even turn off third-party advertisements. In addition to the many games and activities available for free on Webkinz.com, there are also opportunities to purchase virtual goods, so you may want to include a rule in your Digital Family Policy about whether your child is permitted to spend real money on virtual products. Note: This incredibly popular site is used by adults as well as children.
YourCause . This platform is more than just a social networking tool for teens. YourCause allows kids to raise money for a favorite charity while Friending other account holders, sending e-mail, and posting testimonials. A basic account on this site is free. Account holders must be 13 years or older to create an account and may choose from a list of pre-approved nonprofits. The user then creates a page and asks people to visit and make charitable donations. Account holders can choose from more than 1.5 million available charities.
Sweety High . Sweety High is a social network for girls ages 10 and older. All members younger than 13 must have parent-verified accounts, though, and parents of those users are given parent access to their daughters’ accounts. This site is carefully moderated with strong privacy settings. Member profiles are visible to member friends only. User-generated content is moderated, as are comments from other “Sweeties.” The themes of this site rely heavily on style, fashion, and celebrity.
Parent tools on Sweety High encourage parents to help their daughters become “Savvy Sweeties.” This includes talking to your daughter about issues such as keeping private information private and bullying. Because Sweety High is a closed community, nonmembers cannot access or view profiles, photos, or user-generated content.
Yoursphere. This social networking site for children age 17 and younger includes a virtual world where kids can play games, participate in shared interest “spheres,” write their own blog, and earn credits for positive interactions. Yoursphere members who positively contribute to the community can redeem credits in the Gift Gallery for music, electronics, magazines, and more. Users can also play hundreds of games and interact within a virtual world.
Yoursphere strictly adheres to its membership rules and even compares account requests against a database of registered sex offenders. The staff at Yoursphere includes teens who help ensure that the content is relevant to its teen users, but also includes a Law Enforcement Task Force to advise the site on how to best protect its users.
Additionally, Yoursphere includes a resource site for parents at www.internet-safety.yoursphere.com. This site includes information about topics (such as cyberbullying), offers tutorials, and recommends products. Content is updated regularly and walks parents through a variety of technology-related parenting concerns. Both parents and kids can create an account on Yoursphere. That way, parents can monitor what their child is doing.
Fanlala. Formerly called Imbee, Fanlala is a social media platform for kids ages 8 to 14 with a focus on entertainment and popular culture. Content and activities are geared toward tweens, though. Fanlala creates its own web-based shows and specials, but account holders may also upload their own photos and videos, chat with other account-holding friends, and join groups. Only parents can create a Fanlala account for a child. You also are in charge of the security settings, so be sure to set age-appropriate parameters. Fanlala provides a base account for free but requires a $1 parental credit card verification.
Fanlala also includes a chat feature allowing the site’s users to chat with other users in real time. To chat with an account holder, you must be “Friends” with that account holder. These chats are not moderated, and users can create their own content during these interactions.
Unlike some children’s social media platforms that focus on learning the ins and outs of social networking, Fanlala is very content-driven and does include quite a bit of advertising with a heavy focus on celebrities and pop culture. Parents may want to supervise their children to be sure that the content they are viewing is appropriate.
giantHello. giantHello (formerly FaceChipz) is a social network for tweens and teens (ages 7 to 17) patterned off Facebook with a heavy focus on gaming. Friending another member allows account holders to send private messages to that user and to see the content that they’ve created, including comments on other accounts, group activity, status updates, and uploaded photos. To “Friend” another account holder on giantHello, users must e-mail their friends or print an invitation code to give them in real life. Accounts must be verified by parents via a small credit card charge or by providing the last four digits of their Social Security number.
The games section of the site is available to the public without a required registration. This section of the site includes advertisements and questionable content, such as games with violent and sexual themes. Even though this platform is open to the public, registered tween users cannot be contacted by strangers, nor can they contact strangers through their accounts. When creating the social networking section of your Digital Family Policy, be sure to discuss the varying functions of giantHello and set specific rules regarding which features may be accessed.
Everloop. Everloop was designed specifically for kids ages 8 to 13, although kids younger than 8 and as old as 15 may join. Account holders can create a custom profile, including changeable background images, color schemes, and stickers. In the Everloop chat function, users can interact in real time through instant messaging and chats within their approved loops. The site also contains an Everloop Arcade that contains more than 1,500 games. Account holders can earn credits that allow them to purchase virtual items, such as premium stickers for their profile page.
Everloop is different from other social networking sites in that it contains “looping” technology, which allows kids to locate what interests them, such as sports or fan groups, and then share those interests by joining loops. Within loops, users can share photos and information. Before kids are allowed to participate in loops, parents must give their approval. Everloop contains user-created loops but also partners with a variety of educational and entertainment partners to create branded loops: National Geographic, Mattel, and Monster High are a few examples.
Other features can be accessed only after parents have approved the account. For parents who are concerned by bullying and bad language, Everloop promises to filter both chats and posts as well as screen uploaded videos and photos. Not only does the Everloop staff monitor these messages, but kids can flag upsetting or bothersome site content. For even greater monitoring, parents can create their own accounts and receive notifications about their children’s actions on the site. Parents can also control the permission settings for their children’s accounts, including whether or not their children may participate in chats and whether their children can send messages through Everloop to their friends.
Jabbersmack . Jabbersmack (formerly Kidsocial) calls itself a “social entertainment network” and provides branded content and entertainment pages as well as access to streaming content. The site also allows kids to interact with friends and play social games. It’s open to kids of all ages, but children younger than 13 must have parent approval to create an account. Parents may also monitor their child’s account via a parent account. Many of the branded pages on Jabbersmack will be familiar to parents. Content from Grooveshark, Zynga, YouTube, Playmobil, and more is presented through Jabbersmack after being filtered for inappropriate content.
Jabbersmack allows kids under 13 to connect with real-world friends only through friendship codes. When children are invited to connect, parents are notified. Pages created by account holders under 13 are never visible to strangers. Users over 13 can join and connect with new Friends, much like Facebook users. Unlike some social networking sites for kids, Jabbersmack doesn’t have a maximum age requirement and adults can create accounts and interact with teens. You may want to discuss this public interaction with your children before allowing them to create an account.
Amy Lupold Bair is the author of Raising Digital Families For Dummies®. She is the founder of Resourceful Mommy Media, inventor of the Twitter Party, and developer of the Global Influence Network for social media-savvy bloggers like herself. Amy shares the wisdom of a mom and the feedback of a thoughtful consumer on her blog, ResourcefulMommy.com .