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New social networks offer ‘training wheels' for young users

It's a virtual jungle out there, especially for the young, with cyberbullies, online predators, smut and targeted advertising lurking around every corner it seems.

Even those ubiquitous social networking sites are a worry for parents, who sometimes react by trying to keep their children from interacting online.

But there are sites offering social networking services specifically designed for kids. And their creators of such say they offer a safer, more age-appropriate opportunity for children to interact online and prepare to be good digital citizens, although some observers fear they still expose children to advertising and put their privacy at risk.

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Mainstream social networking sites such as Facebook have age restrictions to keep younger users off but those rules aren't stopping kids from signing up. Facebook requires users to be at least 13 but Consumer Reports estimates 7.5 million users below that age have accounts.

Kid-friendly social networking sites reverse that and go for those younger users, with some such as Disney's Club Penguin targeting children as young as six, and try to keep out adults. Parents are allowed to monitor their children's activities.

Togetherville, also owned by Disney, links accounts to parents' Facebook pages, while users facial recognition technology to verify users.

Chad Perry, founder of ScuttlePad, a site for users aged 6 to 11, says his service is designed to provide a safe space while preparing children for their online lives as they grow up. Once a parent signs their child up, young users on ScuttlePad put together a profile, add friends and can share photos and updates.

"ScuttlePad . . . teaches social networking fundamentals and encourages developing language skills in a safe and secure environment," Mr. Perry wrote in an e-mail.

"Most kids don't know how to protect themselves from online predators or bullying. Just like we teach our kids to cross the street safely, we need to teach them to use social networks safely as well."

The site has created a list of about 6,000 approved words that members can use, explains Mr. Perry. Inappropriate language is kept out, as are any identifying words such as street or city names.

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Moderators watch over the site and all photos are manually approved before appearing online.

"These layers of safeguards let (children) learn how to use social networks without being exposed to Facebook or Twitter," he says.

"Online social networking has become a common part of our everyday lives – our kids' lives too. Children using social media are better adjusted as teens and more likely to successfully use social media in their early 20s."

Cathy Wing of the Media Awareness Network, which runs the "Be Web Aware" campaign to teach kids and their parents about protecting themselves online, says such sites can make social networking safer for children, but she still urges parents to do their homework first.

In particular, Ms. Wing says some of these social networking sites, particularly those owned by large corporations such as Disney, expose children to marketing through ads, product placements in games and surveys about products, the results of which are then sold as market research.

"The good thing is that on a site like Togetherville – they call it Facebook with training wheels – parents are completely involved and you can start to teach kids the skills they need for when they get into a real social networking site," says Ms. Wing.

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"However, Disney owns it. The one aspect of these sites that's a concern for us as a digital literacy organization is the commercialization. That's something that's never really on parents' radar. These sites have a very strong commercial component."

Togetherville declined a request for an interview. has received positive reviews from groups such as Common Sense Media, an American watchdog group that monitors websites and entertainment targeted at kids.

The site requires parents to verify who they are using a credit card and uses webcams and facial recognition software when kids log on.

WhatsWhat has many of the same features as Facebook – users can create groups, share photos and post on each other's profiles, although those comments are approved by the user before they appear.

Like other sites, WhatsWhat's founder, Vincent Cannistraro, says the aim is to teach children how to navigate the online world.

"It's getting kids to think about what they share. We want to give them the support and the environment so they can think about how best to express themselves on the web," says Mr. Cannistraro.

Right now, there is no advertising on WhatsWhat, but Mr. Cannistraro says that will soon change.

The site is exploring ways to start making money, and Mr. Cannistraro says that will likely take the form of sponsorships, which could include pages dedicated to a book, for example, or product surveys.

Mr. Cannistraro prefers the world sponsorship, rather than advertising, and says it will be tightly controlled to ensure the content remains appropriate and no identifying information about users will be shared with outside companies.

"The difference with this is, our sponsors don't get any information about our users," he says.

"We're not at this point yet, but the plan is, for example, a book publisher comes out with a series and we say, 'Here are the results: 5th grade girls gave it five stars, third grade boys gave it two stars.' There is no information about who they are or where they live. It's what we call sanitized data."

Cannistraro, who has three children of his own, says kids will be using social networking sites anyway, so they're better off on sites that are designed with them in mind.

"Some parents react by just saying, 'OK no computers for my kids at all,' and as a parent I don't think that's a realistic philosophy," he says.

"The philosophy that my wife and I have followed is: be involved, stay involved."

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