Right this second, parents around the country are arguing with their children about using the computer—in particular, whether they’re old enough to start accessing social-networking sites like Facebook. Parents worry about how kids behave with each other online and if they’re interacting with strangers. A new site being launched Wednesday aims to ease those worries by providing training wheels to young kids looking to social network.
Togetherville (Togetherville.com) is designed to function as a safe, kid-centric social network. The site guides kids ages 6 through 10 on how to communicate online with others, using canned responses and parental participation. Togetherville links into Facebook so parents who use the popular social-networking site can have a say in who their children are connecting with and can even interact with their kids online.
While there are many kid-friendly sites like Disney’s (DIS) Club Penguin that have a social-networking aspect, Togetherville offers young children their first taste of social networking like grown-ups, using their real-life identities (not cute avatars) and real-life relationships.
Togetherville smartly restricts certain online activities, but does so in ways that don’t make a child feel too restrained. For example, there aren’t any places on the site where a child can enter free-form text. Instead, kids choose from several pre-set quips, including sayings that they or other kids submitted for approval. The quips can range from questions kids ask one another (“Who saw ‘Avatar’?”) to “I (heart) my family.” And rather than directly sending friend requests to other kids, children first send a request to their parents, who give their consent and send the invitation to make the connection.
To review this site, I used accounts for both kids and adults. I was impressed by the clean interface of Togetherville, which is free of advertisements (though ads may be added to the parent side over time). The three core themes of the site are art, entertainment and education. The content is hand-picked by adults—many of whom are either parents on the site’s staff or are volunteers. And includes 2,000 videos from YouTube and 34 games, some of which are educational. Kids can easily save or share content they discovered on the site or created, like their artwork.
This site is available to the public Wednesday after operating in private beta with 800 test users for six months. A couple things about the site still need work. First, if an adult isn’t Facebook friends with another child’s parent, the two children can’t become friends on Togetherville.com. This is something that Mandeep Singh Dhillon, co-founder and CEO of Togetherville Inc., says he intends to change by late summer. He realizes that many kids are friendly with one another irrespective of their parents’ friendships and envisions classrooms using Togetherville by next fall.
Second, Togetherville is still working on the details of an allowance feature, which will be available this summer so the kids can pay for virtual things like premium games or apps. Parents will be able to add money to their kids’ accounts, and just like real money allowances, they’ll be able to take it away. For now, allowance isn’t an issue since everything on Togetherville is free.
To access Togetherville, adults must be Facebook users, though Mr. Dhillon says access through additional platforms and networks will be available later this year. Adults sign in on Togetherville.com by using the Facebook Connect app to link their Facebook account to the website. Then adults can create accounts for children and grant additional administrator access to a designated person, like an aunt or caregiver. Kids sign in on Togetherville.com with their own login and password, so it feels like their own site.
On the adult account’s home page, the adult’s kids are listed in the top left of the screen, with quick links to view each child’s profile and online activities, or to manage his or her friends. For parents wondering who their kids online friends are, there is a section that shows how a child’s friends are connected by displaying other members in the friends’ families, including parents, siblings and other relatives. When kids ask parents for permission to connect with friends, adults are notified via email and with Togetherville.com alerts.
Using a kid’s account, I played games like Mooncakes, which asks users to rank images with the most egg yolks in descending order as fast as possible. A helpful feature in games and videos lets users hit a light bulb icon to dim everything else on the screen, making the activity easier to see—much like what Hulu.com can do while videos are playing. Leaderboards for games list All-Time High Scores, Neighborhood High Scores and My High Scores. This provides something for everyone to feel good about without taking away the thrill of competition.
I watched a video of Hannah Montana singing “The Climb,” and while watching, read video comments from other Togetherville kids, noting that all comments were made using pre-approved quips. I played with a Mother’s Day Card Maker app to drag colorful images and pre-set text onto a screen, creating a stylish design. I saved both the Hannah Montana video and the card in My Trunk, a virtual repository where videos, games and art can be saved. Every activity I did as a kid was visible to others in My Neighborhood (network) on a stream much like Facebook’s “Most Recent” list of friends’ activities.
Parents can engage with their kids, which the Mr. Dhillon says is still acceptable for this age group of kids. Though the pre-set quips were originally designed for helping kids know what to say to one another, parents can use them to better fit in when interacting with their kids online.
Togetherville will continue adding more content, but as is, it provides a social-networking environment that kids can enjoy and that parents will feel comfortable managing.
Edited by Walter S. Mossberg
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