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Social Parenting: A Toolbox

Facebook responded to Congressional inquiries last week that legislative attention to online privacy would be a bad idea because it would hinder consumer experience.

“Privacy by design does not mean privacy by default,” Bret Taylor, Facebook’s chief technology officer informed Senators. “As services evolve, so do people’s expectations of privacy. At Facebook, we believe that providing substantive privacy protections means building a service that allows individuals to control their own social experiences and to decide whether and how they want to share information.”

In other words, if it’s bad for Facebook, it must be bad for the social web. I beg to differ.

I am not anti-Facebook, per se. But I am pro-Internet. I believe that a healthy social web is comprised of an ecosystem of diverse platforms, not one that is locked inside a single walled garden. There is no question that Facebook is spearheading essential new experiences in social connection. But according to Facebook’s own litmus test of user preference, a truly social web engages every web citizen, across a number of sharing platforms, not just Facebook users. In other words: is the web that Facebook built something we can all participate in…  with or without Facebook? The answer would seem to be no.

The more that organizational websites are replaced by Facebook company pages…

…the more Facebook seems to be returning the open web to the good old days of Prodigy dial-up access. Yes, it opens up new opportunities… but at a cost. And unlike dial-up services of yesteryear, Facebook’s price for admission isn’t a subscription fee, but deep visibility into your “social graph” and behavior online.

Which is why I take issue with Facebook’s seemingly pro-consumer stance above, in light of other remarks made last week regarding the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) which strives to “place parents in control of what information is collected from their children online” by requiring strict parental notification, disclosure, consent and access to any information collected by online services from children under 13.

“That will be a fight we take on at some point,” Zuckerberg said in a talk at the NewSchools Venture Fund’s Summit in Burlingame, Calif., last week. “My philosophy is that for education you need to start at a really, really young age.”

Now I  am no Luddite. It is perfectly fine for consenting adults to “pay” for that content and experience by granting access to our digital selves. But it is an entirely different matter for minors and, arguably, even young adults, who stand to be the most compromised in the future by giving away too much in the present. Sexting, cyber-bullying, compromising photos of youthful indiscretions. All the folly of growing up stands to be amplified by social media without the active participation of loving families working in the interest of those placed in our care.

Nor is this a matter solved by simplistic minimum age requirements. Sure, Facebook’s own rules don’t allow children under the age of 13 to legally register as users, but it’s not like they are carding. As Forbes’ Kashmir Hill pointed out:

The real fight for Zuckerberg to start legally recruiting youngsters is with his own legal and engineering department to institute onerous mechanisms to obtain “verifiable parental consent.”  In order to get parents to signal that they’re on board with their kids living the self-exposed life, the FTC would require Facebook to have parents give their consent “through use of a credit card in connection with a transaction, a toll-free call answered by trained operators, a print and send form, or another consent mechanism that provides reasonable assurance that the person providing consent is the parent of the child.” In the meantime, Facebook can just ignore the fact that it has millions of underage kids on the site, as long as the kids keep lying about their ages and as long as Facebook does deactivate any account when it’s notified about a minor’s profile.

As a parent, working to equip my own children with the tools they need to function and learn, I realize this is ultimately about maturity, not age. I would suggest the following rule of thumb for anyone having the Facebook conversation: if they’re too young to have their own unsupervised credit card, they are also too young for an unsupervised social media presence.

Digitally savvy parents in California would seem to agree. Last week, the California Senate rejected State Senator Ellen Corbett’s SB 242 that would have required all social networking sites operating in California:

  • not to display the home address or telephone number of a registered user of that Internet Web site to the public or other registered users,
  • to establish a process for new users to set their privacy settings as part of the registration process that explains privacy options in plain language
  • to make privacy settings available in an easy-to-use format
  • to remove the personal identifying information, as defined, of any registered user, and would require removal of that information regarding a user under 18 years of age upon request by the user’s parent, within 48 hours upon his or her request  

As photographer Peter Doyle of Atlanta observed on Twitter:

Apparently so, given that only 16 of the 21 votes needed to pass the bill were mustered amid heavy industry opposition. On the one hand…

Internet companies opposing the measure said in a May 16 letter that the bill would violate constitutional free speech protections. They argued it would undermine consumers’ ability to make informed choices about the use of their personal information “while doing significant damage to California’s vibrant Internet commerce industry at a time when the state can least afford it.”

On the other…

“It’s important to remember, our privacy information is not a commodity owned by the Internet,” Corbett said.

The bill would require websites to remove the protected information for users younger than 18 at their parents’ request. Corbett said she introduced the bill to “protect people from identity theft and to protect children from predators.”

“There is absolutely no evidence this will hurt business,” she argued. “It will build trust with consumers.”

Who can say? If some amended version of the bill passes, California could find itself be on the vanguard of state efforts to establish social networking privacy practices that are responsive to common sense and consumer preferences. On the other, piecemeal state-by-state privacy regulations make it especially difficult for online businesses to establish uniform practices and demonstrate compliance across borders, so a national strategy set by Congress would offer more universal guidance to the industry. Which brings us back to Facebook’s concerns at the top.

In the meanwhile, I am pleased to see a new ecosystem of social parenting solutions evolving to fill the growing need of families to raise digitally engaged children safely. There are still plenty of options out there for parents looking for Facebook-free platforms that offer social networking training wheels to kids.*

  1. Some take the form of alternative social networks for families of children too young or immature to consent to Facebook membership.
  2. Some leverage the social gaming experience for childhood development.
  3. Some offer monitoring and engagement tools for parents who wish to be a formative influence in their children’s social networking coming of age.
  4. Some are specifically anti-bullying solutions, either platforms for use documenting and combating abuse online, or crossover solutions from the above categories especially suited to address bullying through creative formation of online behavior and discernment.

Below are some of the resources I am learning about. This isn’t an endorsement or review, just a compendium with descriptions taken from each site. Please add to this list with your own discoveries, and share your experiences with these and any others your family enjoys. It is up to us to map this emerging category of social parenting solutions, so feel free to weigh in, and use the #socialparenting hashtag if you tweet about it.

1) SOCIAL FAMILY NETWORKS

Recently acquired by Disney, Togetherville is a social online community for families where parents create safe online neighborhoods for their kids (under 10) to play and connect with the real-life friends and family they already know and trust.

Yoursphere.com is a kids-only social network offering its members their own blog, hundreds of games, a virtual world, the fostering of shared interests through “spheres”, social interaction, contests, rewards and a scholarship program. No child has to pretend to be 13 to join. Yoursphere adheres to the federal Children‟s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) and is approved by the Privacy Vaults Online Safe Harbor of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Yoursphere‟s companion site, Yoursphere for Parents., equips families with practical tools for handling the online world to help ensure a positive and safe experience.

imbee is a safer social networking site that allows the young, hip and trendy to share and connect with friends, their lives and their world through a “one-of-a-kind” social media experience. Share playlists, make new global friends, chat with friends, share your videos, get your daily pop culture news, and much more. imbee has security settings and is COPPA compliant. imbee requires identity authentication via a credit card from a parent or a teacher, exactly how the US Post Office verifies identity.

Targeting tween girls and boys ages 8 to 13, Everloop’s mission is to give tweens a protected space where they can connect with friends they know, express themselves, play games, collaborate on projects and discover talents. Everloop’s Social Loop, a loop of safety around kids’ connections, introduces state-of-the-art privacy protection and monitoring, keeping tweens from sharing more than they should with people outside their approved loops.

ScuttlePad is designed exclusively for kids ages 6-11 years of age create a profile, upload their picture, and send and receive messages from friends all over the world. Predefined word lists allow for guided communication and all photos are manually reviewed and approved. No predators, solicitation, harassment or bullying.

Designed to give children the excitement of being on Facebook, without exposing them to all the negative things that comes with an open social network like Facebook and others. Skid-e-Kids puts parents are in charge, with special features that allow them to instantly view all the friends and activities of their child. Kids can play Video Games. They can watch full age-appropriate blockbuster movies. They can invite and socialize with friends and classmates. They can swap/trade, sell toys and video games. Most importantly, they can get help with school homework on any subject, by simply posting the question to get answers.

A free social network for playing games, sharing music and videos, taking quizes, finding friends and forming groups.

2) SOCIAL & EDUCATIONAL GAMING

Get children thinking—and reading—with exciting online games that they love to play! Unlike other learning games, Kabongo’s brain-boosting activities were developed by a cognitive psychologist and based in cognitive development research to help kids become more confident readers.

Ruckus Media Group is an independent family entertainment company, developing original apps for children to use on a variety of popular mobile platforms, including Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android. Launched in September 2010, Ruckus is now home to nearly 20 children’s apps including works by bestselling authors, illustrators and animators. In addition, Ruckus Media is the exclusive source in mobile media for the Rabbit Ears Library of classic children’s stories told by prominent celebrities as well as a recently announced a strategic licensing agreement with Hasbro to develop interactive storybook applications based on their Tonka Chuck and FriendsMy Little Ponyand Transformers Prime brands.

Oceanhouse Media, Inc. is a leading publisher of mobile apps for iOS (iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch) and Android devices. Based in Encinitas, California, Oceanhouse Media was founded in January 2009 by Michel Kripalani (founder and the CEO of Presto Studios, creators of The Journeyman Projectseries and Myst III: Exile). The company has licensing agreements in place with Dr. Seuss Enterprises, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, Zondervan (a division of HarperCollins), Hay House Publishers, Character Arts, Chronicle Books, and others. In many cases, the company works directly with authors to bring their beloved books to the mobile market, always staying true to the original content and intent of the books.

The giantHello™ website was designed for tweens (7 to 13 year-olds) who have outgrown the “kiddish” sites, but are not old enough to sign up for Facebook or MySpace. In addition to social games, the site”s many cool features include: friending, customizable profile pages, internal messaging, photo uploading, home page status updates, web based IM, award badges, and fan pages.

SecretBuilders is a virtual world for children 5 to 14 years old powered by a web 2.0 community of children, parents, educators, writers, artists and game developers. On SecretBuilders, children will explore virtual lands, undertake quests, play games, maintain a home, nurture a pet, and interact with their friends. Children learn through immersing themselves in the stories, themes, and concepts from the best in literature, arts and humanities. They are directly involved in creating this world with their ideas, critiques and contributions on virtually every aspect of the site and many of their ideas will be implemented! Children publish their works – writings, art, videos – making SecretBuilders their own personal store of creativity. They can invite friends and family to view their works, and comment upon them. Seeing their works published and enjoyed by others instills tremendous for self-confidence as well as motivation to do more.

Disney’s Club Penguin is a snow-covered virtual island where kids can play games and interact in a fun-filled, online playground that’s guided by an unwavering commitment to safety. Subscription membership required.

 

Poptropica® is a virtual world in which kids explore and play in complete safety. Kids create a “Poptropican” character to travel the many Islands of Poptropica and use gaming literacy to enjoy a narrative that is often rooted in factual history. Problem-solving skills are honed as kids discover and solve mysteries unique to each Island.

3) PARENTAL ENGAGEMENT SOLUTIONS

Billing itself as “the nation’s leading independent non-profit advocating for kids,” Common Sense Media is dedicated to improving the lives of kids and families by providing the trustworthy information, education, and independent voice they need to thrive in a world of media and technology. A non-partisan, not-for-profit organization, it provides trustworthy information and tools, as well as an independent forum, so that families can have a choice and a voice about the media they consume both online and off.

Monitor your child’s mobile phone use and get instant alerts if he or she receives unapproved email, text messages or phone calls. Monitor and block websites. Block applications and set time restrictions for your child’s phone usage. Phone notifications tell your child their phone activities are being monitored.

The KidZui browser gives your kids the freedom to explore the Internet, have fun, and build their sense of independence. The K2 browser makes it easy for little ones to search the Internet by providing suggestions while they type and displaying images with the search results. The KidZui K2 browser is stuffed with millions of websites, games, and videos which are all pre-screened and approved by our editorial staff, teachers, and parents.

Iglu is the first platform to introduce the concept of “social whitelisting,” a collaborative parental tool made to simplify web safety. It keeps surfing the web within safe approved webspaces. Developed with experts from the Kiwi initiative, Iglu is a tool that reaffirms the role of the parent, encourages discussions about Internet usage and fosters critical thinking about online media. Most filtering systems rely on blacklisting which, in theory, blocks inappropriate or offensive websites. The problem with blacklisting is that it can’t keep up with how fast the Internet grows. With whitelisting, websites are gathered in exclusive groupings to create safe web spaces. Adults and children can work together to build a web that is based on a child’s age and maturity level. Once ICE is installed, children can browse within assigned whitelists. If they want access to outside content, a request to their parents will be sent explaining why. This process spurs conversation about Internet safety and helps to build mutual understanding.

Nearparent’s secure and easy to use mobile phone-based geolocation app and check-in service enables parents to build a support network of trusted individuals who can provide extra love and care for their children wherever they may be. Not only allows children to feel safe and us to be worry-free, it also provides a unique way to raise funds for charities. Every time a child is helped, Nearparent donates 50% of the proceeds from the service cost to non-profit organizations promoting the welfare of children around the world.

A free child-friendly internet browser, designed for families with children ages 3–7 and works on any computer; mac, pc, even Linux. The free download allows children to use their parents’ computer as if it were their own, while protecting your files and settings. The secure and child-friendly interface lets children interact with games, books, music, video, art and, of course, web sites. Kidos can help your child learn a new language, practice reading and math skills, and sing-along with fun songs and videos. Parents can download great content to share with their child, or easily add their own!

Mobicip is dedicated to helping parents protect their children from a new wave of Internet hazards stemming from mobility. By delivering an online safety net through its parental control solution, Mobicip gives parents the ability to safeguard their children’s mobile devices. With three layers to its filtering technology, Mobicip does more than block website addresses; the software dynamically views the entire web page to determine if there is offensive content even on an allowed site based on the parent’s choice of one of three Mobicip-provided filtering levels.

4) ANTI-BULLYING BEHAVIOR PLATFORMS

Sprigeo.com features a comprehensive system for reporting, tracking and documenting bullying and safety incidents. Kids, parents and schools across the United States use the Sprigeo online system to report bullying and safety incidents. The online reporting form can be accessed from any internet-enabled device (computer, cell phone, ipad, etc.). Sprigeo stores a record of all bullying and safety reports in a secure, online database before forwarding a copy of the information in a secure email to the individual school site administrator.

SocialShield is an online monitoring service dedicated to helping parents keep their kids safe on Facebook and other social networks. We save parents time and frustration by continually analyzing their kids’ public and private social network activity for risky or inappropriate behavior by strangers and online friends. We alert parents to a range of online safety risks including cyberbullying and predators, as well as postings which could compromise a person’s school or employment prospects. However, SocialShield does not “spy” on kids. Rather, we use sophisticated computer algorithms to search for suspicious and/or dangerous activity which is then “flagged” and sent to parents as summary exception reports. SocialShield strictly adheres to all applicable privacy protection terms and conditions. You might think of it as a sort of “virus protection” for your child.

WhatsWhat.me (Beta) is a “kids-only” Website that provides safe, secure social networking for kids ages 7 to 13 (“tweens”) and utilizes patent pending facial recognition technologies, moderation and kid-friendly features. Webcam and facial recognition software is used for login. Photos are encrypted and stored on secure servers. Only allows kids to “friend” within their grade, one grade above and one grade below. Exceptions require parental approval. All postings must be reviewed and approved by the recipient before becoming visible to others – effectively mitigating cyberbullying and teaching kids to “think before posting.”

*The irony is how many social parenting solutions are in fact Facebook-dependent, though often using Facebook’s API in an interesting way: to verify the identity of the parent granting consent, in order to serve as a portective proxy for their children’s identities.

Featured image by San Jose Library.

© Christopher W. Buckley and StoryWiseGuy, 2010-2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Christopher W. Buckley and StoryWiseGuy with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.