Parenting the Internet generation
Website offers social networking for kids — with adult supervision
Stay-at-home-mom Teri Spanner was shocked to see 8-year-old son Blake killing American soldiers in an online World War II game last year. A National Guard veteran herself, Spanner told him that the website was off-limits.
When she and her 12-year-old, Evan, came across pornographic videos while searching for a capella renditions of "Danny Boy," YouTube joined the blacklist.
A Facebook profile is a no-no for both boys, despite their pleas, at least until they turn 13.
Like many parents, Spanner has struggled with allowing her kids to use the Internet while guarding against inappropriate content and safety risks. Banning them from the Internet altogether is not an option; Blake, now 9, has had to cite Web sources in schoolwork since the third grade.
As parents and experts come to terms with plugged-in kids, they are trying to figure out how to rear the Internet generation — and a pair of Palo Alto entrepreneurs say they can help.
Last May, one-time consultants Mandeep Dhillon and Rajveer Tut launched Togetherville, a social networking website designed for children younger than 10. Togetherville allows children to build a "neighborhood" of parent-approved friends and grown-ups with whom to share videos, play games and trade messages for free. Parents can monitor all activities and interact with their kids online. Children are identified by their real names.
"There's a reason 500 million people use Facebook," said Dhillon, Togetherville's CEO and a spirited father of three. "Let's give kids the Web for adults that's appropriate for them and make it safe."
Many parents seem to be on board. Togetherville's 10-person team has been working around the clock to accommodate rapidly growing membership (the company is not disclosing exact numbers) since the site went live. One young staff member said he spent a night in the start-up's basement office on University Avenue, napping on the carpet.
"It seems that we've hit a specific need in the market," observed Dhillon, who expects the website to catch on around the globe.
Some are hailing the site as an answer to parental concerns about privacy, safety and propriety in social networking and a tool for teaching responsible online communication.
Anne Collier, a member of President Barack Obama's working group on online safety and co-director of ConnectSafely.org, is enthusiastic.
"I just think it's great — it's very cutting edge," said Collier, a member of Togetherville's advisory board. "I am not aware of another company that has really addressed safe social networking for little kids."
Togetherville screens content and mostly limits kids to pre-written "quips," such as "I love Taylor Swift's hair," "If you were a booger, I'd pick you first" and "I love Togetherville." Users can also post their own one-liners, pending approval.
Safety was the main reason Spanner signed her sons up for the website during a test phase that began two years ago. Since Togetherville filters suggestive and excessively violent material, she no longer worries about inappropriate content.
"I know if it's on Togetherville, it's been pre-approved," she said. "It won't have the tanks or the guns."
Spanner has encouraged friends and family across the country to join Togetherville.
"I don't really understand why other people are so nervous," she said. "Maybe they're unsure because they don't understand it themselves."
Blake, a talkative boy with white-blond hair, has 74 online friends (including Dhillon's son, Zoraver, a former classmate) and mostly uses the site to play games. Spanner logs on weekly to track his activity and post comments. She recently sent Blake a koi fish as a virtual gift. When he scored 6,340 in Bouncing Balls, she posted: "If only you were this good at cleaning your room."
This kind of communication can help families keep in touch, said Dhillon, who posts notes for his kids from the office. "It gives them the notion of connectedness."
It also makes surfing the Web less solitary. Unlike anonymous "virtual worlds" such as the popular Club Penguin and Farmville, kids keep in touch with real-life friends.
"It's a normal, human social experience," Dhillon said.
Online communication may be useful in a spread-out society, but it's no substitute for face time, according to Dr. Sam Sweet of the Children's Health Council in Palo Alto. He recently taught a class on Internet use for parents.
"It doesn't mean you shouldn't stop sitting down for family dinner and that you shouldn't all unplug at some point and connect," he said.
He's found that children with social anxiety gravitate to virtual communication, which can help build social skills but is not a substitute for real-world interaction.
"I would just be watchful as a parent: Is your child on the computer all the time because they're avoiding whatever might be difficult in their lives?"
The Internet, fast-paced and interactive, also attracts children who have trouble focusing, although there is no proof that it reduces kids' ability to concentrate, Sweet said.
As far as whether logging on early can cause addiction, Sweet "wouldn't rule it out." He noted that South Korea, which he called "the most wired society in the world," has rehabilitation centers for young Internet addicts.
Catherine Crystal Foster, a nonprofit consultant in Palo Alto, is one mother who wants to prevent her two boys from developing an online habit.
She does not allow her 9- and 12-year-olds on social-networking sites.
"You don't want to do things that set up the 'always on, always connected' mentality," she said. "It's important to interact more face-to-face with people and to do other things with your life. Not everything should be tied to a device."
She admitted, however, that she and her husband spend too much time on the computer.
The example that parents set should not be discounted, however, Sweet said.
"I think we need to look at what we're modeling," Sweet said. "Kids are going to emulate that. It's hard to tell your kid not to want to get on the computer if you're always on your iPhone."
Spanner, who has more than 450 Facebook friends and uses the site "way more than I should," limits Blake's screen time to one hour per day on weekends and 30 minutes on summer weekdays, and only in public rooms (if he could, Blake said, he would spend 70 percent of the day on the computer). Evan has unrestricted access, but the whole family logs off every few months during "no-technology weekends."
"I hate those weekends," Evan grumbled.
Restricting Internet use can be a tool but parents should also set expectations for online behavior by talking with their children and monitoring their activity, according to Collier.
This remains true for sites like Togetherville, which she said may give a false sense of security.
"We can't abdicate our responsibility to stay engaged. ... It's really extending your parenting into cyberspace," she said.
And despite safety measures on a site like Togetherville, "there's no guarantee of 100-percent safety anywhere," Collier said. "That's too much to ask of any school, of any public park, of any virtual world."
Dhillon's own children inspired him to help make the Web safe for kids. Formerly a lawyer and management consultant, Dhillon conceived Togetherville four years ago after watching his son entertain himself on the computer. Four-year-old Zoraver figured out how to use a webcam to take pictures of himself while watching DVDs.
"He was more interested in that than a stack of coloring books and crayons."
Dhillon became determined to harness the potential of the Internet for kids.
Dhillon's own fascination with the Web also had an early start. His father, a doctor with an interest in technology, got him a computer when he was 8. Growing up surrounded by tobacco fields in rural North Carolina, Dhillon found it a good companion.
His zeal has not diminished. "The Internet-connected computer is the greatest learning device that's ever been created," he said. "Why are we keeping our kids out of it?"
With more than half of American teenagers using social networking websites, according to the Pew Internet Project, denial may no longer be a realistic option.
"It's here to stay," Collier said. "It's a reality of our lives now, so let's learn safe constructive use of social networking as early as possible."
Editorial Intern Katia Savchuk can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.