Thanks to the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, social-networking sites like Facebook and MySpace are off-limits to kids under 13. That's not to say that preteens aren't using these sites--many are--but they have to lie about their age to sign up.
Aside from being "against the rules," there are some real problems with younger kids using sites designed for teens and adults. For one thing, signing up requires lying, which is bad in itself. But, as many adults are finding out, knowing how to protect one's privacy on a site like Facebook can be daunting and most young children are not developmentally ready to use these services. There are other issues as well; including how easy it is for kids to cyberbully each other on social-networking sites.
Finally, sites like Facebook just don't have the resources for younger children, including the types of videos, games, and experiences that 6- to 10-year-olds find compelling.
Enter Togetherville.com, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based company that has built what founder Mandeep Singh Dhillon calls a "neighborhood" aimed at "kids and their grownups." The site is set to come out of beta Tuesday evening.
In an interview (scroll down to listen to podcast) Dhillon called Togetherville "the first platform that really integrates young children's ability to use the Web with their grownups close by." Unlike some virtual words aimed at children, Togetherville uses the child's real identity. Anonymity, said Dhillon is not allowed. The site encourages parents "to create neighborhoods of the real people in their child's life to be around their kid as they grow up online."
The free site, which does not display advertising to children, lets kids play games, watch videos, and create and share art. There is a "chat" function but neither kids nor adults can type in text. The only way to say something to another Togetherville participant is to select a prescreened "quip" as the site refers to text that has been approved by Togetherville staff. This greatly reduces the chances of cyberbullying and abuse and eliminates the ability for a child to reveal personal information other than what is already available on the service.
Videos, which can come from a variety of sources including YouTube, are also prescreened by staff to make sure that they are age appropriate.
Although most of the activities are free, later this summer the site will add an "allowance" feature which will enable parents to give their kids real money to spend on games and other virtual goods. Kids will also be able to earn virtual money to spend on the site.
Unlike most spaces for young children, Togetherville isn't designed to separate children from all adults. Instead it encourages parents to interact with their children on the site and to enable other trusted adults--such as grandparents and other relatives--to interact with the kids in their lives, under the control of the child's parent. Also unlike other "worlds" for kids, there are no avatars. Kids really are who they are, which I find refreshing.
Another unique feature of Togetherville is that parents must be Facebook members to sign up their children for the service. Parents sign in with their Facebook user name and password. Children's information is never sent to Facebook so the only way information about a child can get onto Facebook is if the parent or another adult enters it--just as is the case with offline activities. Parents can also chose to allow adult or teenage Facebook friends to interact with their child but all of the interaction takes place on Togetherville, not on Facebook.
As a disclosure, Togetherville is working with ConnectSafey.org, the nonprofit Internet safety organization I help operate. To that end, we have vetted their safety and privacy features and provided them with a customized version of our Facebook privacy video to help Togetherville parents protect their own privacy on Facebook.
Listen to my interview with Togetherville CEO Mandeep Dhillon
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