The Littlest Social Networkers
Everyone knows teens are preoccupied with Web sites like MySpace and Facebook, but now children as young as 5 have social networking Web sites just for them. At Club Penguin, recently purchased by Disney, children posing as adorable penguins race sleds and visit each other’s igloos. At Webkinz.com and Neopets.com, kids play with other kids as well as virtual stuffed animals. Nicktropolis.com, Barbiegirls.com and GoLive2.com let kids spend more time with characters and toys they already know from offline venues while Whyville.com, Imbee.com and Kidscom.com claim young visitors to their sites will be surreptitiously educated while they play and socialize.
These sites and dozens of others combine interactivity with the animated games traditional on children’s Web sites. Kids are encouraged to design personal spaces that “express their creativity” and to engage with online “friends” sometimes as themselves and sometimes as personalized characters called avatars. The sites are exploding in popularity. One study by eMarketer found one quarter of all kids are involved in such sites now and predicted that the number would double in the next four years.
For parents of young children, networking sites raise obvious questions. First, are they safe? The answer is a qualified “yes.” The limits designed into most networking sites for young children make it less likely they will be hassled by bullies or predators (but not advertisers).
Second, are they worth the time of children who might otherwise be playing with offline friends? This answer is less certain.
Although it’s clear that, for teens and adults, social networking sites are a valuable tool for meeting like-minded people and strengthening bonds between existing friends, the benefits for young children aren’t nearly as obvious. Here are a few questions parents should consider before giving their blessing to a child’s membership in a social network.
1. Who created the site and why?
To find out, visit the corporate part of the Web site usually found in “About Us.” What is the company’s mission statement? Some Web sites such as the National Geographic group on Imbee.com are trying to educate kids; others such Barbiegirls.com hope to intensify a child’s connection to a brand. Still others, like Whyville, are surprisingly candid about delivering young eyeballs to advertisers. If you can’t find a mission statement, assume the worst.
2. What’s the revenue model?
Free sites supported by advertising are a dubious model for children too young to recognize commercial messages when they see them. Paying a monthly membership subscription like the one at Club Penguin protects kids from intrusive advertising. Other sites offer some content for free and charge for “premium” features. Before signing up with a credit card, be sure you and your child understand which features incur extra charges.
3. Do your child’s friends use the site?
The social benefits of online networking are magnified dramatically if young children use these Web sites with classmates, cousins and other people they know offline. Then, what children do together online reinforces offline friendship and helps kids understand the distinction between people they know in real life and those they know only from online interactions.
4. What can kids do on the site?
Nearly all social Web sites allow kids to invite “friends” to play games and participate in other activities. Be sure these activities reflect your values for your child. At Club Penguin, for example, girl penguins are pink and boys are blue, leading to lots of virtual pairing. Also, most sites allow members to design personal spaces, and some encourage uploading of original photos or artwork. Tell children under 13 they need case-by-case permission before uploading or downloading anything.
5. What do kids collect?
Nearly every virtual world includes some kind of virtual currency which can be used to buy clothes for avatars or furnishings for a personal space. Some observers worry these activities introduce children to the most superficial excesses of consumer culture. Others argue that these virtual economies can actually teach kids to work and save to achieve goals. Look for sites on which kids earn credits for cooperation and creativity as well as competition.
6. How do site members communicate?
So-called “safe chat” sites limit kids to pre-approved phrases, making it less likely they will be contacted by predators. On some sites, kids can step up to filtered chat which allows them to type what they want but edits out personal information (including all numbers). Don’t promote your child until he or she understands online stranger danger.
7. What are the sign-up procedures?
All social networking sites designed for little kids go through the motions of getting parental permission — usually by e-mail. A few try to be more rigorous. Imbee.com, for example, asks for a credit card number even though the site is free on the theory that most 10-year-olds can’t provide that information on their own.
8. Is there any monitoring?
Some sites actually have adult monitors who keep an eye on what happens. They can’t spot every problem but, like the lunch ladies at school, their presence may discourage young children from misbehaving.
9. Are there parental controls?
Check for options that allow you (not your child) to change the level at which he or she plays. Find out of if you can get e-mail reports about your child’s activities. Look for a timer that ends the game after a certain amount of time. Be sure you can delete any content your child posts.
Social networking sites evolve — fast. In the end, the only way to know whether a particular site is a good hangout for your child is to sit down together and have him or her show you around. Do this at least once a week with pre-teens and younger children.
At this age, children can’t go to a friend’s house unless you know the family, so don’t let them use a social network without comparable supervision. Ask who’s behind the friends and avatars your child encounters. Find out what activities he or she enjoys and why.
Finally, remember that social Web sites are designed to be addictive. Because there is always someone new to meet and something new to do, parents must enforce time limits. No matter how much hype you hear about how social networking sites prepare little children for an online future, don’t be fooled. For young children, the network that truly matters is the one that gathers around the dinner table at the end of the day.
Carolyn Jabs is a former contributing editor for Family PC and mother to three computer-savvy kids.