Almost lost in last week's debate after The Wall Street Journal reported that Facebook was considering admitting children under 13 is the fact that there are already some excellent social networking services designed specifically for young children and preteens.
Everloop, which requires kids to be under 13 to sign up, offers games, videos and chat for the younger set. Like a bicycle with training wheels, it's fun on its own and helps prepare kids for less restrictive social networks they'll undoubtedly explore as they get older. Ohanarama is designed specifically for families of elementary school-age kids and is optimized for enabling out-of-town grandparents and other extended family members to play games together.
Both of these services comply with the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, or COPPA, that requires verifiable parental permission before a child can provide any personal information -- including basic sign-on credentials -- to a commercial site. If Facebook is to admit kids under 13, it too will have to comply with COPPA.
But the biggest issue when it comes to children and the Internet isn't about safety, privacy and protection but about creating an environment that is compelling, fun and educational. We don't send our children to school just to be safe; we send them there to learn. The main purpose of engaging in sports is not to avoid injury but to have fun, get exercise and learn sportsmanship in the safest way possible.
I like to think about social networking the way we think about the physical world. There are certain places -- like bars -- where children aren't welcome. There are some places designed specifically for children that not only are safe but also offer compelling experiences. The Palo Alto Junior Museum and Zoo, for example, is optimized for kids. There are other places, like restaurants, where children and adults intermingle, sometimes with age-based rules. For example, parents can bring children to most restaurants that serve alcohol, but the kids aren't allowed to imbibe.
Everloop is kind of the social networking equivalent of a children's playground and museum. It's a place for kids to interact, learn and have fun together with adult supervision.
Like Facebook, the service is both friendship and interest-driven. Kids can interact with kids they know or can join "loops" that enable to them to "find and share things they love," whether sports, crafts, music, movies, current events books or even jokes. They can chat with each other and there is an "Everloop Arcade" with more than 1,500 games, according to the company.
And, as in the real world, kids can play pranks on each other. Obviously, the service does all it can to discourage bullying and mean pranks, but it does offer what it calls "goobs," which it describes as harmless pranks "that kids can play on each other's' profiles," such as throwing "a virtual pie or virtually teepee a friend's profile page."
As on children's playgrounds, there are adults present just to make sure things are OK. The service has moderators who make sure kids behave themselves, and filters to ban inappropriate phrases, words and activities. There is also a "parent panel" that allows parents to review incoming and outgoing communication with the option to approve friend requests and acceptances.
With all of these precautions, kids can still misbehave, but that's not always a bad thing -- sometimes kids learn from their mistakes. Everloop CEO Hilary DeCesare told me about an 11-year-old girl who posted inappropriate videos and made some racially insensitive remarks. The child's parents were notified and the child was placed on a "three strikes" list and was eventually expelled, which got the attention of both the child and her parents.
The parents then engaged with the service and received transcripts of their daughter's inappropriate remarks and, eventually, the child was allowed to rejoin. DeCesare told me that the girl is not only now behaving herself, but has become an exemplary member who has started some popular "loops."
Even kids on bicycles with training wheels sometimes fall over. What's important is that they don't hurt themselves too badly and learn to ride more safely, which will serve them well when the training wheels come off.
Everloop has just launched a mobile app for iOS called Goobit that allows for moderated texting, posting and "goobing."
Ohanarama has a different but equally compelling model. Instead of isolating kids from adults, it encourages families to interact online under the supervision of the child's parents. In addition to playing games together, families can form teams and "challenge other families for bragging rights." What I like about the service is that it encourages intergenerational play, which, sadly, has become an endangered species in the offline world of far-flung families.
Contact Larry Magid at email@example.com. Listen for his technology chats on KCBS-AM (740) weekdays at 3:50 p.m.