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Oregon Family Magazine

Finding the Fun with Your Kids in Social Networks

09/03/2011 21:36 ● By Anonymous
They’re called “digital natives” - the teens, tweens (and younger) who were born into a world rich with technology. Their formative years have included surfing the web, playing video games with friends halfway around the world, navigating smart phones and tablets and being able to connect instantly to any information with a few keystrokes.

Kids are also creators with access to tools that let them connect, share and collaborate. Social networking is intuitive and natural. Information and experiences are shared as “currency” and a way to build relationships with each other. For parents (“digital immigrants”), this can all feel very overwhelming.

Which networks and sites are safe for your kids to explore?

Safety, of course, is paramount. Some features to look for include: - Focus on helping kids understand privacy and security - Requirement for parents to create, and have access to the account. - Limited access to outside links. - No (or limited) private messages. - Ability for parents to approve “friends” on the site. - Limited ability for kids to “friend” other users on the site outside of their age range.

For the kids, age-appropriateness is key. Kids won’t hang out on a network just because you tell them it’s ok, of course (in fact, quite the opposite in some cases!). The experts, parents and kids agree these sites are worth exploring.

Pre-Tween (ages 6 – 10)

The most popular sites for this age group are MoshiMonsters and Disney’s Club Penguin. But some newer sites have recently launched that are worth a look (and have fewer toys for sale).

Togetherville (www.togetherville.com), designed for kids under 10, is entirely monitored and approved by parents. Parents set up an account and monitor their children’s activities, including approving who is in their child’s neighborhood.

Hemu Nigam, A former federal prosecutor specializing in crimes against children online and off and co-chair of President Obama’s Online Safety Technology Working Group explains why Togetherville is one of his top picks, “Identity of parents are validated through Facebook accounts and credit card verification, thereby cutting the chances for predators to join to almost nill.”

Children can posts links to videos from YouTube, but no click will lead the child outside of Togetherville. Fun games and music keep kids entertained and engaged. Parents can also leave comments for their kids and distribute a “virtual allowance” that can be used to buy and send virtual gifts.

Scuttlepad (www.scuttlepad.com)

Scuttlepad, unlike other social sites for kids, is focused on solely on networking and not gaming. The site has a few safeguards in place. For example all photos – from profile images to photos for sharing - are approved by actual people before going live on the site. Chatting and status updates are limited to pre-approved words and can only be 3 or 4 words long – sort of Mad Libs style. This definitely keeps the language safe and as one reviewer put it, “the only danger is from quirky grammar.”

A parent of child with Asberger’s Syndrome recommended Scuttlepad for other parents of kids who have difficulty with social interactions. WriteNOWMom says on her blog, “The site is a soft landing pad for children like my own who are challenged by social interaction and can use a place to feel like they are social networking.”

This youngest group is tricky to find the best network for. The gaming and shopping focused sites seem a little consumerism-heavy, but they may not yet be interested in sharing updates and photos.

Tween (ages 11 – 13)

Tweens are not old enough to join Facebook, but are looking for a similar experience. Two sites provide this kind of experience but with more attention to privacy and safety.

Giant Hello (www.gianthello.com) is the most Facebook-like experience for kids, but with more privacy controls so parents can feel secure their kids are safe. One of the most interesting features of Giant Hello is that kids can only communicate with people they have invited as friends, via email or a code printed and delivered in person preventing them from connecting with people they don’t know or who parents don’t approve.

Everloop aims to provide kids a space to connect with friends, play games, share pictures and music, send messages and discover new talent. Its claim to fame is the patent-pending privacy technology that guards its members against bullying, bad language and sharing private information. Everloop’s partners help provide tween-focused entertainment and educational activities that keep kids involved and engaged.

Teen (ages 14 - 16)

Once your child is an actual teenager, he or she can legally join any social network and connect to, well, anyone they want. Whether it’s a mainstream site like Facebook or YouTube or a niche site focused on particular interests (there are hundreds and hundres of these), the focus for parents with teens needs to be helping their kids understand how to protect themselves so they can make good decisions on their own.

Whether your kids are just starting to explore social networks and social gaming, or you have teens who are spending more time on sites like Facebook, their “digital world” requires help navigating.

How do you do this? Common Sense Media, an independent nonprofit that focuses on how kids use media and technology, has some advice:

Teach kids the skills they need to use technology wisely and well. Parents have little or no control over the flow of information to our kids who see too much, too soon. We can’t be everywhere, so we have to teach them how to be responsible even when we’re not on their shoulder.

Keep an open mind. We aren’t helpful to our kids when we judge their lives through the lens of a non-digital world. We see the world differently, but it’s important to understand that our kids will spend their lives in a world where everyone is connected and participates in communication and creation.

Don’t be afraid. You can’t afford to be a technophobe. Kids adopt technologies faster than most of us and it also means they are way out in front. Get in the game and if you need to, have your kids show you how to do something you don’t understand.

Pass along your values. Online or off, one our most important jobs as parents is to instill our values in our kids. We have to be able to translate those values to a digital world where actions are often divorced from consequences.

To our kids, there’s no such thing as a “digital life.” To them, it’s just life. Consuming and creating media is an integral part of their world. The ability to communicate and connect is 24/7. As parents we need to prepare our digital natives for success by helping them see the possibilities and the perils, teaching them to act responsibly and take advantage of the amazing tools at their fingertips.

Kelli Matthews is an instructor of social media and public relations at the University of Oregon. Her son is five and a member of Club Penguin. He can navigate her iPad like a digital native and she’s certain his tween and teenage years will keep her on her toes.

Resources: Common Sense Media: Reviews, advice and recommendations (http://www.commonsensemedia.org/).

OwnYourSpace: A Guide to Facebook Security http://on.fb.me/rco19s

http://www.ikeepsafe.org/PRC/videotutorials/ - Video tutorials on social networks and safety

http://www.wiredsafety.org/ - Wired Safety says it’s the world’s largest resource for online safety with lots of tips, videos and tutorials.

http://bit.ly/teensafety - 8 Ways to Protect Your Kids on Social Networks from Consumer Reports

http://www.nsteens.org/index.html - For teens, NetSmart Teens has videos, games and tips.

http://www.safefamilies.org/socialnetworking.php - Tips for parents from Safe Families.