As parents, we spend a lot of time and energy talking to our kids about how they shouldn’t be using the internet, and how they can’t use social media and why everyone is stalking them a little bit. It’s true that the online world can be a dangerous one, but banning social media all together is not the only option.
In fact, there is a whole world of social networking out there designed just for kids. With more schools than ever encouraging computer and internet use during class time, these sites can be a great opportunity to extend classroom friendships and create opportunities for meaningful computer time at home. Most combine entertainment and education, and to be honest they look like a whole lot more fun than Twitter!
Each of these sites give parents the ultimate control: choose who your kids can send IMs (instant messages) to, who they can add as friends and what features they can use. Maybe that sounds a little like 1984, but with just a bit of virtual supervision from you – mostly via email – they can have the feeling of social media freedom.
Club Penguin is the original and best. It limits the conversation to a set of pre-approved phrases, so one can't say anything that’s not in the guidebook. All chat is filtered and moderated by real people. Its educational tools are American, but there are some great maths and problem solving tools. Better still, Disney has a great ‘global citizenship’ offering that encourages kids to become active and generous members of their local and worldwide community.
Targeted at tweens, Fantage is an online adventuring site designed to build friendships and solve problems. It’s a kind of Second Life for over 9s: each member has his or her own avatar that can be customised with cool clothes, hairstyles and other features. Besides just chatting with their friends, kids can ride rocket boards! That sounds like a good enough reason to join, but the whole site is also filtered for profanity and identifying information.
This is a great site for budding musicians. Like Fantage, members have customisable avatars and houses that can be upgraded by completing quests and tasks. It offers similar puzzle and adventure games, but its real appeal is the music education. Franktown Rocks does, as the name suggests, rock! It gives kids a series of online tools to create their own music and share it with their communities, even allowing them to design and launch their own video clips. All content is controlled by predetermined phrases and monitored by real people for profanity and high risk activity.
Moshi Monsters is all about having fun (and not much about learning!). Something like a tamagotchi for the internet age, kids can raise their own monster and earn points to buy bigger and better accessories, treats and other upgrades. There are free and paid membership options, with monthly vouchers available to purchase in Australian supermarkets (at $6.95 a month, it’s proving a popular way to spend pocket money!).
Watch out for …
Although they are designed to be used by a younger audience, these sites are not immune from unsavoury characters. Make sure you keep an eye on the tone of the messages your child is receiving. Look out for anyone asking for photos or identifying information, or trying to take the conversation to another platform (like email).
Most social networks for kids have built in word filters and approval processes designed to protect primary school minds. With small amount of spying and a solid “internet stranger danger” talk, your child can enjoy a whole new world online.