by Melissa Puno, Middle School Director, Palisades Episcopal School
Online communication, especially via social media, is becoming an increasingly necessary skill for children to acquire. But, exposing our children to social media can be a daunting thought for most parents, especially when many of the most commonly-used social media platforms provide little to no filtering of adult content, offer only minimal identity protection, and are rarely monitored. However, as much as it is a parent’s job to protect their children from the dangers of social media, we also have a responsibility to help our children learn to engage with peers online in appropriate and healthy ways.
Thankfully, there is hope in the growing number of safer, regulated social media options available for kids, as well as in the availability of websites such as commonsensemedia.org that enable parents to read critical reviews on apps and websites prior to their children’s use. Commonsensemedia.org thoroughly reviews apps and websites for kids in order to identify the strengths and pitfalls parents should consider.
Below is a list of several safer apps and websites for kids organized by age and interest.
Kindergarten Through Early School Age
Of the many options available for younger children, most websites offer opportunities to explore digital “communities” largely centered around games and toys. In many cases, these websites are designed to stoke a child’s interest in the toy or game for marketing purposes. Because young children have not yet acquired the communication and interpersonal skills for chatting and “friending,” the focus of these websites is on communal game-playing and earning points to buy virtual accessories, rather than socializing. There’s some messaging between friends, but most sites allow young kids to post messages using only prewritten, generic phrases or words from a tightly restricted dictionary. Kids can’t share personal information like a home address. Some of the most popular include:
Webkinz.com: Free for one year with purchase of a Webkinz or Lil’Kinz toy. Owners feed and clothe digital versions of their plush “pets” and play games to earn virtual “KinzCash.” They can play video games against other kids or take quizzes designed for players 5+. They’re rewarded for spending lots of time on the site, so you may need to impose time limits. Unless a parent approves a child’s access to the “KinzChat PLUS” area, kids can only post words and phrases from a pre-set list of options.
ClubPenguin.com: This Disney-owned website charges a membership fee (about $5/month, depending on the plan you choose). To further protect a child’s identity, kids are represented by penguin avatars rather than by images of themselves. By playing games, they earn virtual money to clothe and accessorize their penguins and decorate their igloos. They can send other penguins a “buddy invite,” visit their igloo, chat using pre-set phrases, and send postcards. Like Webkinz.com, kids can also chat freely with their parents’ permission.
Elementary and Middle School
As children develop greater language, communication, and interpersonal skills, social media websites and apps offer more opportunities for connecting and communicating with other users. While these websites are filtered and offer restrictions designed to protect the identities of users, parents will still need to vigilantly monitor their child’s use of them.
Kidzworld.com: This social networking site lets tweens and teens communicate with people they don’t know but uses humans and software to protect kids’ privacy and safety. A live staff member moderates the chat room during the hours it’s open. Staff moderators approve photos, videos, and articles kids post and write. Filtration software monitors comments, forums, and blogs and passes flagged content onto staff members for approval, but parents should bear in mind that no filtration software is perfect. Kidzworld outlines clear guidelines for chatting and posting in their kid forums. Reviewing these guidelines with your child would be an excellent starting point for conversation about online communication protocol.
Whyville.com: Free, designed for kids 8-15. Like Webkinz and ClubPenguin, it involves playing games to earn virtual money (in this case, “clams”) for use in building an avatar. Rather than being represented as a cartoon animal, Whyville members create avatars that represent their physical selves. While these human-like avatars make the platform feel a little more like adult social media, Whyville is still more of a virtual world/gaming space than a true social networking site. Chat among new members is restricted to prewritten phrases; however, kids can pass a “chat license test” (to show they understand online safety) in order to gain more freedom to type personal messages to friends.
YourSphere: This app offers games, prizes, avatars, and “spheres,” or interest groups centered on sports, television, art, music, humanitarian causes, and more. Tough filters verify identities, require parental consent, perform a “predator check,” and include real, live human oversight of site activity.
While there are more options than ever for kids to engage in online communication safely, it’s still just as important to educate kids about Internet safety and appropriate online behavior as it is to create technological barriers between them and unsafe situations. Talk with your kids about the importance of not sharing personal information with strangers, not posting photos that could embarrass themselves or their friends, and fending off cyber-bullying. Teach your child about maintaining a positive online identity. Many colleges and universities, and future employers can easily uncover embarrassing or incriminating information about your child even years down the road. Most importantly, your child should never accept “friend requests” from people he or she doesn’t know well. Stay on top of your child’s online use by joining these sites along with your kids and setting up a “friend” connection with them. As touted by a new public service campaign, the bottom line is “Stop. Think. Connect.” Careful consideration before interacting in any way online is critical for both children and adults alike.
Ultimately, social media and online communication will become critical components of our children’s young adult and adult lives. By providing them with safer arenas to hone these necessary skills and by guiding our children as they navigate this tricky environment, we will be better equipping them for a positive and productive future in online communication.
Other helpful tips can be found at the following websites: