Thursday, May 20, 2010

How Young Is Too Young? Social Networking and Children

Togetherville, the creation of Mandeep Singh Dhillon, is a social networking site for the under 13 crowd. It aims to introduce tech-inclined youngsters to the world of social media in a controlled and vetted environment. But some parents are wondering, how soon is too soon to get kids involved in the social web?

According to the NYT BITS blog, Dhillon developed the site after his four-year-old son learned how to take photos of himself using Dhillon's laptop. The son wanted to share the photos with online family members , but Dhillon was hesitant to let his son loose on the web.

Dhillon believes that it is important to help children hone their social web skills early. The FAQ on the Togetherville site states:
Togetherville is not just about entertaining kids or being a digital babysitter (there are plenty of those!). We're giving kids access to some of the best content for kids on the web while reinforcing positive online behavior, helping parents raise a generation of good digital citizens.

Togetherville is built around real relationships between kids and their friends, parents and trusted adults. We use real identities, not user names or avatars. By putting kids in this type of environment, we allow them to interact and be themselves with the people who are already in their lives. Friends and trusted adults in a child's social sphere come directly from their parent's network, so there is no fear of unknown or anonymous adults or children connecting with the child. 
The site is intended for children aged 6 - 10 (although children up to age 13 may enroll), and offers them a network that a guardian essentially create for them. They can interact with other users using options from a drop down menu. Children cannot register on their own—they must enter the email address of a parent or guardian who approves the membership. There is no cost for using the site, but Dhillon is counting on up-selling in-game features at low cost, a model which he likens to iPhone aps.

Children are indeed more digitally inclined, and teaching them how to interact on the web at this crucial moment in development can help them establish important social skills for the world they will inhabit. However, if this is to be successful, children need to be properly monitored and guided in this environment—even though it is designed to protect them from most immediate concerns. Unfortunately, given the state of sharing on Facebook, it doesn't appear that most adults have the ability to provide this guidance, so how can we raise "good digital citizens" if the role models themselves are unable to provide guidance? Togetherville cannot provide this structure and information, which is so important for development at this age. 

Five- and six-year-olds are learning how to form social groups and navigate relationships at this stage. Teaching them how to use the social web can perhaps bolster their social experiences and provide them with a solid foundation for future social endeavors. But they should not have to find their way alone.
Your thoughts, Readers?

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