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Friday, October 10, 2008

New sites & services for kids, tweens, teens

I haven't done this in a while - written about products and services - so here's the caveat up front: These are not product reviews or tests; they're meant to spotlight options for parents to consider and trends in youth tech.

1. Safe playgrounds for kids

It's like there's a "walled garden" trend afoot! Four of these services - three new ones and one tried and true - immediately come to mind. The one caveat about typical kids' safe playgrounds is that they're a lot more about consuming than producing media - in other words, pretty Web 1.0. Kidzui and Glubble are exceptions, you'll see. Though we want children to learn safe, constructive surfing and searching, kids' browsers are only one tool in the online-safety toolkit. Kids also need training wheels for constructive media-producing and -sharing in the very user-driven online environment they're growing up in. It's really a blend of 1) safe browsing, 2) civil and mindful play (virtual worlds, multiplayer gaming, etc.) and communications (phone texting, IMing, etc.), and 3) engaged parenting that foster kid-parent communication and therefore safe use of technology. So here are some creatively created walled gardens:

  • Kidzui - walled garden plus new social-networking features to be unveiled next week! Designed for kids 3-12 (with a 6-10 "sweet spot"), this browser+ now contains 1.5 million pre-approved Web sites, images, and videos. Kidzui has also gotten the most media attention of late. Both free and paid versions ($4.95/month or $49.95/year) are available, the latter with Homework Help for pre-K-8 and extra parental tools. Kidzui employs 50 "editors," who preview all content (a lot of it YouTube videos, I'm sure) and who are parents and teachers all over the US (kids tag and vote on content). "Social-networking" features include a Facebook-like newsfeed.

    If not already, Kidzui social-networking features will be available starting this Monday, 10/13. They include the Zui avatar kid members create and customize to represent them in the service; profile pages that members can customize; member-created "channels" for the photos, videos, and sites they pick (KidZui lets kids see what members' collective top picks are); and a mini newsfeed like its big brother on Facebook (allows member to keep up on each other's moods, opinions, and personal news).

    Parents can receive emails showing where their kids are spending time on this walled-off part of the Web. They can also choose to have kids locked into Kidzui (in "full-screen mode" that requires a password to use other software on the computer) or to have is as an option kids go into on a computer the whole family uses. Kidzui says "all friend requests are subject to mutual parent approval."

  • Glubble - walled garden plus family-only "social networking." Speaking with one of its founders in Amsterdam, it occurred to me that the word "glubble" could be a cute, kid-like way of saying "global." Certainly, Glubble's the most global of these children's offerings, with offices in the Netherlands, the UK, Costa Rica, and the US (Palo Alto) and partnerships on both sides of the Atlantic. Free for the downloading, Glubble has two parts: the walled garden for children ideally around ages 6-10 (2,500 pre-approved sites in 100 collections or "glubbles," such as the Nickelodeon one - parents can also add their own picks) and the family-interaction part (calendar, photo album, chat, and - soon - a family blog).

    The idea behind the kids' section is that they learn how to surf, search, and chat only in this closed environment, unable to stumble upon any inappropriate content or contacts out on the Internet, and only with family members (they're locked into Glubble by default, behind a password the parent has as account admin). There's a monitoring tool for parents - not for spying but for the purpose of learning about their kids' interests and browsing patterns. Aimed at an online/offline balance in children's lives, Glubble also has non-Web content for kitchen-table activities such as printable pictures and cut-outs called "gotchas" for coloring and kid origami.

  • KidThing - like a children's book that has been moved online. It even looks like a storybook (quite beautiful). In KidThing, kids (ages 3-8) are on their computers, not the Web, and they're interacting with content (which you buy and access with KidThing's free downloadable media player), not with other kids or anyone else. Certainly this is fine for little kids (and peace of mind for parents!). Content for purchase (the price range is $.99 to $7.99) includes books, games, coloring, and videos from the publishers of many much-loved titles and brands: e.g., The Little Engine that Could, Corduroy, The Icky Bug Alphabet Book, Dr. Seuss, The Berenstain Bears, and Wee Sing. Most books are narrated for pre- and early readers.

  • Kidsnet - designed for kids to about age 12, it's the granddaddy of safe Web playgrounds. I first wrote about it back in 2004 , but it reached the ripe age of 10 last month, and the company is still reviewing and adding to its database of safe Web pages. The collection has reached 800 million pages (Kidsnet is quite probably the largest collection of human-reviewed Web sites in the world). The Kidsnet filter is usually $49.95, but CEO Bob Dahstrom tells me NetFamilyNews readers can download it for free till the end of the year here . You can install with one click if onto a PC. Mac and Linux computer owners will have to install the software manually. You can also have your kids use the search engine, which turns up results that are only in the Kidsnet safe database (if you want them only to use that search engine, you'll probably have to establish a family rule, because they wouldn't otherwise be restricted to Hazoo searches).

    2. New social sites and virtual worlds

    This is certainly not a comprehensive list (something more like that can be found at Virtual Worlds Management). You might call them a representative sample of new kids on the social-Web block:

  • - billed as safe, teen-only social networking, Yoursphere is subscription-based and offers users rewards for participating in content creation, contests, etc. (see this at the Sacramento Business Journal). The message to users is "we keep adults out of your business" - parents by easing their fears for your online safety and adult "creepers" by requiring verifiable parental consent and checking all who register against a database of convicted sex offenders, then blocking said.
  • - ad-free media-sharing and social site (chat's moderated) for girls 8-12, based on the magazine of that name
  • (presenting itself here ) - private virtual-world spaces, or "3D rooms" for voice chat, media-sharing, and product-placement-based e-commerce that target 16-to-24-year-olds
  • (presenting itself here ) - "celebrity pop culture environment, a celebrity blog, a blah, blah, blog for teen girls," according to founder and actor Ashton Kutcher
  • (presenting itself here ) - online banking and financial-literacy ed for three age groups, 5-to-11-year-olds, 12-to-17-year-olds, and 18-to-24-year-olds
  • (self- and user-presented here ) - a moderated social site for tweens to play games, host their pages, send email, and share their creations
  • - Mattel's virtual game world Terrapinia for tweens (more likely boys) that picks up on the urban vinyl trend, selling cute little vinyl figures (Funkeys) that go with the world (the Webkinz model). The vinyl toys become their owners' in-world avatars.
  • Pixie Hollow - Disney's virtual world for primarily elementary-school-age girls, who create their Fairy avatars to interact and play games in the Pixie Hollow world. "Clickables," or real-world products that "connect real-world friends and unlock special treasures" in the game (e.g., "Friendship Bracelets" and charms) can be purchased separately.
  • and - named in honor of Anne of Green Gables, these are safe chat and blogging sites for girls 6-12 and 13-15, respectively. The company uses ID verification of parent or guardian and fingerprinting to secure a child's experience.

    Meanwhile, more and more teens are creating their *own* social-networking sites, their own mini MySpaces and Facebooks, at, and new youth virtual worlds have mini apps that connect worlds to existing friends lists in MySpace and Facebook. As for some things to watch out for in virtual worlds, see also "Top 8 workarounds of kid virtual-world users."

    Comments from readers on their own experiences with these products and services are most welcome (via anne[at] or the ConnectSafely forum - and, with your permission, we publish them.

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  • How kids become bully victims: Very early signs

    A new study in the Archives of General Psychiatry offers clues to how children become targets of bullying, Newsweek reports. The first key finding was that bully victims in grade school are more likely to have been aggressive (e.g., "smashing a toy when someone takes their ball away") very early in life, as young as 17 months, in fact. "That may sound counterintuitive, but it's not surprising to experts in the field, who have known for some time that there's a link between being aggressive and being tormented." When an angry child acts out his or her frustrations, peers know there are buttons to push. Another predictor: when these very small children take their anger out on other children. Two other risk factors Newsweek mentions are "harsh or reactive parenting" and "lower income families." Here's the study.

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    Online ID verification in South Korea

    The world's most connected country - South Korea, where 97% of the population has broadband Internet access - is conducting an experiment in Internet control that the world (especially the US) might do well to watch. I say "especially the US" because we're having a discussion here (at the Internet Safety & Technology Task Force) about online verification of minors' ages (see this about that). The Guardian reports that Seoul is trying to "curb online anonymity and debate." New legislation, some of which is "due to pass" next month would require all forum and chatroom users to make verifiable real-name registrations (South Koreans have national ID cards). The legislation would also make all news sites subject to the same restrictions as newspapers and broadcast media, answerable to the Korean Communications Standards Commission regulatory body, and give the Commission "powers to suspend the publication of articles accused of being fraudulent or slanderous, for a minimum of 30 days. During this period the commission will then decide if an article that has been temporarily deleted or flagged should be removed permanently." The Guardian suggests that includes blog posts, which is a problem: "Seoul's previous experience with such censorship suggest that unless the government hires thousands more people to staff the commission, which is already behind in processing some 2,000 internet-related objections, just addressing the initial complaints will be unworkable, untenable and unenforceable." The other problem is, the Korean government would also have to block all sites based overseas because it couldn't make them card Koreans at their virtual doors. Here's more from the Korea Times.

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    Thursday, October 09, 2008

    13-year-old detained on child-porn charges

    The Texas boy was one of an unspecified number of kids at his middle school who received a nude picture of another student on his cellphone, Dallas-area station WFAA reports. The 8th-grade girl in the photo had taken the picture of herself and sent it to "multiple guys," another female student told WFAA. So far, the boy is the only recipient who has been charged. "Police and the school district are not discussing actions against any of the other students," according to WFAA. The boy was "arrested Monday and suspended from school," then "spent the night in a juvenile detention center." The report does not say why the boy was singled or who informed the police. I'll let you know if any more info on this disturbing story emerges.

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    Xbox Live as virtual world?

    Seems everybody can get an avatar now - Zuis, penguins, fairies, and urban vinyl for kids and human-like ones in Second Life (teen and adult), Google's Lively, Sony Home, and now the Xbox gaming community. Microsoft is giving demos but says it won't be releasing the new "Xbox Live Experience" till "before Christmas," CNET game blogger Daniel Terdiman reports. But hardcore gamers for whom "Xbox Live is nearly as much a home as where they actually live" needn't worry, he says. The service is not becoming "a place for purely casual players" as they feared. He says casual gamers will like the "deeply customizable avatars," but there's also "all kinds of new functionality that will actually reward the dedication of the hard-core Xbox player." See the review for examples.

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    Anti-social networking

    If for some strange reason your kids want to lose friends in Facebook, now there's help. They can download a little "Anti-Social Networking" application with features like "Insult-a-friend" or "Doodle-on-a-friend" (allowing them to "deface a friend's profile picture and send it back to them"), The Telegraph reports. They can also thoughtfully send a warning that they're considering unfriending someone using "People You May Know (But Don't Really Like)." This, of course, is marketing 2.0. The mini app was "developed on behalf of Paramount Pictures International to accompany their new film, How To Lose Friends and Alienate People." By the end of last month, some 3,000 anti-social Facebook users had downloaded the application, The Telegraph adds, but - who knows? - this could also just be a post-modern way of making or keeping friends. [I wonder if it'll soon be possible to create a non-group?]

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    Wednesday, October 08, 2008

    Felony charges for teen nude-photo sharer

    A 15-year-old girl in Ohio has been arrested and charged for "taking nude cell phone photos of herself and sending them to high school classmates," reports. "On Monday, she entered denials to juvenile charges of illegal use of a minor in nudity-oriented material and possession of criminal tools. A spokeswoman for the Ohio attorney general's office says an adult convicted of the child pornography charge would have to register as a sexual offender, but a judge would have flexibility on the matter with a convicted juvenile." A prosecutor told Fox News that authorities are also considering charging students who received the photos. The girl spent the weekend in jail, the Arizona Republic reports. [Thanks to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children for pointing out this story.]

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    Teachers in SNS: 'Creepy treehouse' or ok?

    My headline's referring to "slang for how students feel creeped out by school teachers and college professors who are using Facebook and MySpace to interact with their students online," the Dallas Morning News reports, adding that "the term derives from urban legends about sexual predators luring children into treehouses." Of course that's not fair to a lot of teachers who are in social-network sites to understand their students' real, outside-of-school lives. In any case, there are now student Facebook groups on both sides of the question: "Teachers ... please stop going on Facebook," "Students should get over Teachers being on Facebook," and "No ... it's not awkward being friends with my teachers on Facebook." Check out the article to see what some principals says, as well as some examples of "Creepy Treehouse." See also "Online student-teacher friendships can be tricky" at CNN.

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    Tuesday, October 07, 2008

    Where do these parents come from?!

    This mom seems to have gone to the Lori Drew school of parenting. "Police are investigating whether an Elgin [Ill.] woman used nude photos of her daughter's 13-year-old ex-boyfriend as blackmail to get the two back together," the Chicago area's Daily Herald reports. As of yesterday (10/6), charges hadn't been filed, but the police say they're "actively pursuing counts of intimidation, harassment and child pornography possession." The investigation began when the boy's parents complained about receiving "hundreds of threatening emails and text messages" after the breakup. "The parents told police their son admitted he and the girl had taken naked photos of themselves while dating, sharing them with each other with their cell phones," according to the Daily Herald. "The parents said that after the breakup the girl's mother told the boy she'd tell his parents about the images of him and post them online unless the youngsters started seeing each other again." She also allegedly created an email account the kids could use unbeknownst to the boy's parents. A small but growing category of online-safety risk: parents. [Thanks to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children for pointing this story out.]

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    Homeschooling with World of Warcraft

    Actually, it's called "unschooling," but not many people know what the term means: basically, homeschooling "without the trappings of formal education," reports, such as textbooks or even traditional subjects covered separately. Subjects that are covered unconventionally, e.g., in World of Warcraft, are "math, reading, sociology, economics, creative writing and communications." Unschoolers such as a mom mentioned in the LiveScience article, Jill Parmer, teach by learning about and fostering the interests of their children. One of Jill's kids' interests is World of Warcraft, so she plays the 10 million+-member game with them and "helps lead a group of homeschool kids and parents in a WoW guild called 'Horde of Unschoolers'." She has watched her 10-year-old "make his own learning connections between WoW and other areas in life," according to LiveScience. "One day he became interested in the mathematical concept of exponential increases after his WoW character encountered a disease cloud." University of Wisconsin researcher Constance Steinkuehler told LiveScience she has seen 8th- and 9th-graders playing WoW go from "barely stringing together two sentences to writing lengthy posts in their group's Web site forum, where they discuss detailed strategies for gearing up their virtual characters and figuring out tough quests." She gets a lot of surprised looks, even from players, when she tells them that "85% of the conversations [in the official WoW forum] showed that players had decent levels of scientific literacy. Players used reasoned arguments, backed up hypotheses and even brought statistics to bear on issues that they faced near the higher levels of the game."

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    Monday, October 06, 2008

    Online harassment: Not telling parents

    Wow, I've never seen a number this high in relation to online harassment. Psychologists at UCLA report that 72% of 12-to-17-year-olds they surveyed were "bullied online at least once during a recent 12-month period," "only one in 10 reported such cyber-bullying to parents or other adults," and 85% "also experienced bullying in school." The harassment most frequently took the forms of "name-calling or insults" and "most typically took place through instant messaging." A bit more on frequency of incidents: The study found that 41% of teens surveyed reported 1-3 "bullying incidents" during those 12 months, 13% 4-6 incidents, and 19% seven or more. About two-thirds of the harassment victims knew their harassers and half knew them from school. The authors reinforced this finding with the point that "the Internet is not functioning as a separate environment but is connected with the social lives of kids in school."

    Let's look at the part about not telling parents: The most common reason cited by the teens surveyed was interesting: They said they "believe they 'need to learn to deal with it.'" Next (31%) was the one I would've expected to top the list: parents might restrict their Net access. "This concern was especially common among girls between the ages of 12 and 14, with 46% fearing restrictions, compared with 27% of boys in the same age group," the authors said. No. 3 among younger teens was the fear of "getting in trouble." Here's a good heads-up from lead researcher Jaana Juvonen: "Many parents do not understand how vital the Internet is to their social lives. Parents can take detrimental action with good intentions, such as trying to protect their children by not letting them use the Internet at all. That is not likely to help parent-teen relationships or the social lives of their children."

    In its coverage, CNET asks the intelligent question: "It's important to teach children the importance of not becoming bullies themselves, is it not?" The answer, from an analysis by the University of New Hampshire's Crimes Against Children Research Center, is yes: "Youth who engage in online aggressive behavior by making rude or nasty comments or frequently embarrassing others are more than twice as likely to report online interpersonal victimization," CACRC researchers wrote in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine. The UCLA study appears in the latest issue of the Journal of School Health. [See also "'Cyberbullying' better defined."]

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