Social Networking Sites for Children?: Togetherville

Social networking for kids ages 6-10?  Whether we like it or not, social networking is happening out there among younger children. Educators and professionals note that they are hearing more and more frequently that children as low as the 3rd grade have Facebook and other social network site accounts. How did they get them?  A friend, a sibling helped them, or they flat out lied about who they were and their age, to get online.  As one educator observed back to children without making a judgment about their choice: if you lied, there may be others online who are lying too, right?

A new site, Togetherville, has been created, this time for children ages 6 to 10.  Grown-ups act as the gate-keepers: Parents invite, approve and monitor all communications, and as initially released, parents have to be connected with parents before their kids can connect (but this policy is proposed to be relaxed). The site is set up to connect and make invitations from existing listings and postings on Facebook.  One of the site’s purposes is to promote good “digital citizenship”  under the watchful eyes of parents. The site is also a training ground for parents who may be for the first time cutting their teeth on how social networking technology works.

Ann Collier is co-director of Connect Safely, who, along with the Family Online Safety Institute, worked with Togetherville’s developers to include the social and technical activities that serve as the core competency for online interaction: self-expression, entertainment and education, but all in a digitally safe environment. As Collier points out in other articles about the media shift to product offerings with good reputation and trust, companies need to be integrating protection features into their products before they hit the market, rather than as a “fix” after the product is on the market. Consumers are becoming more savvy to the need for new sites to include protection features from the get-go.

However, others, such as Kevin Makice, note that while the site protects kids, because kids already have experience with other sites that don’t have the cumbersome monitoring and approval processes, they may see “value in the site limited [in comparison] to what they can do online by themselves.”

Other “educational networking sites” exist for slightly older youth, such as Elgg and Ning, which are managed through limited education hubs, such as within a school district itself.  Also, Superclubsis a school-hub based social networking site for 6-12 year olds in the U.K., Australia (and globally), and is also monitored and mediated by adults.

Our editorial. The big picture: Access to technology and connectivity is increasingly available to, and being used by, children inside and outside the home. Adults’ ability to control and influence how children use the technology is becoming increasingly complex.  We believe that the reaction to try to cut off access is probably counterproductive. Efforts are better spent at proactive training in social maturity, social skills, good digital citizenship and safety skills.  Any effort which includes adults being a part of the experience, building bridges with children, and reminding them that they are not alone on the cyber island, is preferrable to children learning without any help from adults.  A positive is that some of these new sites are being created in consultation with digital safety professionals. The challenge will be that kids who have access to other sites (whether their parents know it or not) may “vote with their feet” on a parallel basis and go “underground” to less limiting sites. However, hopefully they will have learned something from the good sites before they get there. Which is why it is good that educators and parents “jump in” with them early.

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