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, 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."

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Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of another community
on Jul 9, 2010 at 6:48 pm

Sounds like another innovative Palo Alto start-up - Facebook for kids. Hope it stays in Palo Alto. Good luck guys.

Like this comment
Posted by parminder Dhillon
a resident of another community
on Jul 10, 2010 at 2:26 pm

I love interacting with my grandchildren and the other 25 in my Togetherville neighborhood. Living on opposite coasts, a three hour time difference, it is difficult to talk to them on the phone. It is either too early or too late, or they are in school or some after school activity.
On Togetherville, I can applaud them, encourage them, share their videos and sometimes try to beat their scores in the games they like to play. I must say, they are much better!

Like this comment
Posted by resident
a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 10, 2010 at 5:07 pm

It's disgraceful to see people trying to lure kids into becoming hooked onto a completely nonsense online activity like social networks at that tender age. Very sneaky and underhanded approach to doing business akin to selling heroine to kids in parent-approved dosages. Kids need exercise, need real social interaction and not such nonsense sites that keep them glued to computers in the guise of educational experience. People will do anything to make a quick buck, even so much as to pawn off their kids. Shame!

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 11, 2010 at 9:18 am

DTN resident

Don't know if you have kids or how old they are, but kids are getting hooked on the internet nowadays at places other than home. It is better for parents to be able to put down some guidelines rather than play ostrich and imagine that their kids are outside playing and getting exercise rather than at friends' homes or the library on the internet!

Like this comment
Posted by anonymous
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jul 11, 2010 at 12:18 pm

I don't know about this...could come to resemble internet lite, like how we have some dreadful abridged versions of books for children or Disney versions of Pocahontas etc. that are not the 'real' thing...

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 11, 2010 at 2:59 pm

Just another means of teaching or enabling behavior that does not require accountability.

And one day when these kids realize they can not deal with actual face to face interactions because they were always dealing with computers, and they get depressed and then WHAT...

How sad.

Like this comment
Posted by Ken Shallcross
a resident of another community
on Jul 12, 2010 at 10:23 am

The bottom line is that if parents REALLY want to keep their kids safe online, they need to know what they are doing on the computer, and what is happening in their online lives. Blocks and filters are easy to get around, and talking alone will get you nowhere… (if you think your kids are going to tell you, honestly, everything they are doing online – you are only kidding yourself). Education is a great thing, and very necessary, but how can you consider yourself educated if you don’t know the simplest information – like what your kids are really doing on the Internet to begin with. If you have monitoring software, like our PC Pandora (Web Link), you will know everything they do and will be able to talk to them about it. If you aren’t monitoring and don’t know what they are really doing, how can you be sure they are safe? It’s not an issue of privacy (I have no idea where and when kids were granted endless privacy because they exist – in my day privacy was earned through trust and an established good behavior record), nor is it an issue of trust – it’s called being a 21st century parent. If you don’t know what your kids are doing online, you aren’t doing your job as a parent. If you aren’t monitoring what your kids do online and watch them, someone else will…

Like this comment
Posted by Adolescent Counseling Services (ACS)
a resident of Community Center
on Jul 12, 2010 at 11:05 am

Adolescent Counseling Services' most recent e-newsletter focused on how to keep your teens safe online. Check out our blog to read our e-newsletter and our new blog series called "Parenting Teens and Technology": Web Link. You can also access our blog and other great parenting tips at our website: Web Link.

Like this comment
Posted by RT
a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 12, 2010 at 11:06 am

As a parent, I limit my children's screen time to one hour a day. By the way, "screen" means ANY screen - computer, TV, hand-held game, cell phone game - ANY screen. Our kids need to use their brain - not have something else use it.

Like this comment
Posted by Julia
a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 16, 2010 at 10:34 pm

This article presents the perspective that the "opposite" of exciting technology in a child's life is mundane coloring books and crayons.

The balance that is needed in the article is that play, as in child-directed, open-ended play is the opposite of "playing on a computer."

Have you ever seen a child build a waterfall out of wooden blocks and train tracks?

The learning and development that goes on every moment that a child plays using his/her own ideas is richer and far more beneficial.

Like this comment
Posted by Blake
a resident of Los Altos
on Feb 7, 2011 at 9:12 am

It's really fun

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