Some of the children's social-networking sites that are out there make a big deal out of being for kids only, as if allowing kids and grownups to interact is inherently dangerous. It's not. If it were dangerous for kids to be around adults, they would never be around teachers, coaches, or even family members. The issue isn't who kids are hanging out with, but how they are treated by them and how they behave around them.
Of course, we don't want our young children to be hanging out online with random strangers, but I think it's a great idea for them to be able to interact with family members and other trusted kids, teens, and adults, including family friends. That's why I'm in favor of Facebook finding a way to admit children under 13, though I know it will be a challenge for the company to do so in a way that isolates kids from marketing hype and potential privacy intrusions. And it would have to comply with COPPA (PDF)--the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act that makes it a federal requirement for parents to provide verifiable consent before allowing children under 13 to provide personal information to commercial online services.
Despite a recent comment by Mark Zuckerberg that Facebook should admit pre-teens, people inside the company have assured me that it's not going to happen any time soon.
But there's no need to wait for Facebook. There is a new site that does encourage younger children to interact with family members--including older family members and friends. Ohanarama, which entered public beta last month is a COPPA-compliant site designed to bring children ages 5-12 together with other children and adults they trust. The goal of the free site is to "connect families around the world with a social, fun, all-inclusive online experience."
The site, which has received $1.5 million in funding from Softbank Capital and Contour Venture Partners, provides games, quizzes, contests, and other activities for kids and their families. Parents have the option of using their Facebook credentials (via Facebook Connect) when setting up an account. Your Facebook profile picture becomes your Ohanarama photo, but you can also select an avatar that you can design on the site. There will be other connections between Ohanarama and Facebook (such as apps that enable interaction between adults on Facebook and kids on Ohanarama), but kids using the site will not be directly exposed to Facebook.
Games that run on the site have an "identified educational category and skill, by grade, that conforms to the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and National Council of Teachers of English standards," according to the company.
Once a parent has set up an account, he or she can then add additional family members, including kids, aunts, grandparents, siblings, cousins, or even a "family friend." That sure makes sense to me. When I was a kid I had an "Aunt Kitty" who wasn't actually a blood relative but was a very close friend of the family. If there had been social networking back then, I would have definitely wanted to "friend" my aunt by association.
Ohanarama is a nicely crafted site and worth a visit for anyone who has kids under 13.