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U13s on social sites: Who’ll get the equation right?

The number of social sites aimed at children under 13 is suddenly growing again. Now joining Everloop (which just raised another $3.1 million, TechCrunch reported), YourSphere (for young people under and over 13), and Togetherville.com (recently acquired by Disney) is WhatsWhat.me. National Geographic-branded AnimalJam.com for kids 5-11 passed the 1 million player mark in a matter of months with no marketing (see this at NewsObserver.com), and an ID verification start-up of two years ago, FaceChipz, is now social-gaming site GiantHello.com for 7-to-13-year-olds. To name just a handful.

My ConnectSafely co-director Larry Magid and I just talked with the WhatsWhat people and learned about the site’s safety features, including facial-recognition technology for kid ID verification (the “MeKey,” allowing nobody over 12 on the site). Its safety features are impressive (including both in-house and outsourced moderation and keeping young users’ interaction on or close to their own grade levels in school), but it’s hard to tell if they or any of these sites have found the right balance between appealing to parents (with safety features) and appealing to kids (so that they’ll stay and play and make the site successful).

Kids’ nontrivial interests

But here’s what I think all these sites (and parents) need to consider: Kids – being the interesting, complex human beings that they are – have at least three interests when socializing online….

  1. They want to have fun by their own individual definition of “fun,” so these sites need to have a lot of features kids love – a variety of means for self-expression, socializing, media-sharing, individual and collaborative producing, and civic engagement, etc. (that last because many kids express themselves through creating, leading, and joining causes, e.g., saving an endangered species or meeting a local need).
  2. They want to breathe easy and be safe – express themselves freely without having to think of the implications all the time (like all of us). Even though it’s vital that we teach them alert, mindful use of social media, they’ll want to be on a site like Togetherville or Whatswhat as well as Facebook.
  3. They want to be a part of it all (partly because it’s cool but not only because of that). We need more research on this, but I think that’s a big reason why they want to be on Facebook, because “everybody’s” on FB – and not just “everybody” in their school’s 5th or 6th grade (Facebook is a platform and tool for global social change now, e.g. what happened in Egypt last winter). That desire won’t change, whether or not something replaces FB some day. It shouldn’t change, and there is a growing need for all of us to figure out how to close the “participation gap” for kids under 13 (see what USC Prof. Henry Jenkins means by that). Because the unprecedented thing about digital media, which children understand, is how these new media allow anybody to participate and make a difference now – on a global stage (see Clay Shirky’s talk on this). This has tremendous promise for, among other things, our children’s formal and informal learning in, after, and beyond school.

Close the participation gap for U13’s too

So the safety issue is important – we want our kids to have their own safe, delightful spaces for age-appropriate, individual and collaborative self-expression. But the U13 question is not just about safety. The other part of the question is: How can we close the participation gap for children under 13?

In other words, how can we foster – provide space for – children’s age-appropriate participation in the broader social conversation (“social” as in “social change,” not just “socializing”), when they’re ready? Thirteen is a very arbitrary starting point; many kids are ready well before they’re 13 – ready for the civic engagement that enriches our social experiences. They have causes and serious interests they care about, and – like us adults – want to participate in interest communities focused on those interests. Many children’s sites are already tinkering with and providing support for kid activists, but it’ll be interesting to see which sites do all three – safety, fun, and participation – most successfully. I suspect some will do so by partnering with causes, others by partnering with schools, but that’s another blog post. And as it thinks about the U13 question itself, Facebook needs too to think about how to leverage its global platform to support children’s participation in safe, enriching ways.

Meanwhile, some kids under 13 will just sign up for both kinds of sites. It’s not an either-or proposition for them. They want it all, and it’s inspiring to think about how best to give it to them – get their energy, joy, and expertise into the global discussion. When each one’s ready.

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