Kids are hopping online at an increasingly younger age, so it’s no surprise that issues surrounding privacy, bullying and safe communication continue to mount. In fact, these safety concerns have spawned a new wave of innovative solutions from content creators, software engineers and virtual worlds. They’re all looking to provide an equally engaging and safe experience for even the youngest of web users.
‘The computer is an integral part of life and engagement is a big problem for kids who can’t write and read yet,’ says Gai Havkin, founder of Israel-based Kido’z, a now-global software solution that allows children to consume media via one browser without the need for parental assistance. Drawing on his own experience as a father in the digital age, the Israeli entrepreneur’s visual-based browser is designed for kids ages three to eight and has already found profit and international attention since launching in May. And with a new round of funding and distribution deals underway (computer manufacturer MSI is pre-installing Kido’z software on six million computers this year), Havkin forecasts that his product will be available on one out of four computers sold in the next year.
In many ways, Kido’z is a content aggregator for kids. It’s a conduit for tailored, pre-screened, kid-friendly content that’s linked and shared within the Kido’z community, whose membership numbers in the six figures and spans 80 countries. What sets Kido’z apart from other safe browsing sites, touts Havkin, is the fact that it caters to parental engagement. For a yearly subscription of US$39, parents can download the software, enter their child’s age, and then leave the hand-holding to the server that permits the viewing of safe content and blocks inappropriate stuff. So far, kids are spending roughly 11 hours a month using the browser.
In providing content that’s relevant and tailored to the user’s demographic group, Havkin relies on outlets, such as US pubcaster PBS, whose websites are compliant with the US government’s Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) guidelines.
And so far, the concept of kid browsers like Kido’z sits well with Sara DeWitt, VP of PBS Kids Interactive, who oversees the broadcaster’s two children’s websites as well as its content on other digital platforms (i.e. iPhone and iPad). But since most kids still surf without the aid of a child-friendly browser, DeWitt says her team wants to make sure they learn how to be safe within the broader internet environment.
‘PBS is often the first internet experience for kids because we have such high trust with parents,’ says DeWitt. And part of that trust is derived from PBS refusing to collect personal information from children. With nine million unique visitors a month, averaging six years of age, PBS Kids has enough at stake when it comes to protecting user safety on its websites.
‘If you think about the last few years, so many social media opportunities have exploded. Facebook is supposed to be for users 13 and up, but so many [younger] kids are aware of it,’ notes DeWitt. With the nature of the constantly changing landscape in mind, DeWitt and her team are launching Webonauts Academy this fall. The educational program targets seven- to nine-year-olds and is aiming to teach kids about web safety. Kids who work their way through the Academy’s online educational scenarios about cyber bullying, rumors and safety will then be eligible for a web-surfing ‘license.’ Additionally, the new login system on portal PBS Kids Go! will direct new visitors to the Webonauts Academy demo.
As for preschool PBS patrons, who DeWitt says play ‘within the clean walled garden’ of the PBS Kids sites, all user-generated content is censored by a proprietary triple-review process.
But the very young, it seems, aren’t necessarily the web’s most vulnerable user group. International virtual world Habbo Hotel, for one, is continuously amping up security features to protect its 15 million monthly visitors from cyber bullying and unsafe communication.
‘Our main concern is bullying, which affects almost all teenagers. You can catch people, but bullying is more difficult to monitor,’ says Sandra Welzenbach, the North American community manager at Sulake, the Helsinki, Finland-based company that owns Habbo Hotel.
As both a precautionary and reactionary measure, Habbo has resorted to enlisting the help of localized police forces in some communities to maintain order within Hotel walls. The Info Bus collaboration with Canada’s Ontario Provincial Police, for example, allows kids to partake in weekly 15-minute online chats with real police officers, where issues surrounding bullying, foul language and safety education are addressed.
While weekly police interactions have proven to be effective in Canada, the virtual world as a whole is patrolled 24/7, employing at least two moderators on every community site and automated filters. (Habbo’s own Bobba filter is in place to block prohibited words and info, especially personal information.) During a four-hour shift, moderators and auto-filters often field up to 1,500 reports from Habbo users.
‘We are much more aware of what can happen if they give out personal information as opposed to their parents,’ says Welzenbach. ‘When parents are really involved, kids know what to do online.’
And that’s essentially the motto driving Togetherville, Mandeep Singh Dhillon’s brand-new social network that allows kids to play and connect within a trusted community of friends and family. Unlike the Kido’z model, Togetherville relies completely on parents to create their children’s communities through existing Facebook connections and applications. (Togetherville is not affiliated with Facebook, but harnesses its interface.)
The new network, which launched in May and is operated by Dhillon and his partner in California’s Silicon Valley, emerged from a need to allow kids under 10 to participate safely in social networking. It’s designed to prevent them from having the same online experience as their parents.
‘Facebook was not made for them,’ says Dhillon. Instead, Togetherville allows parents to tap their own network of Facebook friends to build an enclosed separate community where kids play games, watch videos, send and receive gifts, and update their status with pre-approved phrases.
‘Adults are using social media more and more, and kids mimic adult behavior,’ says Dhillon, adding that leveraging the viral nature of the world’s largest social network has already proven successful for the free service.
‘We’ve seen really great adoption and user feedback,’ says Dhillon, who is now looking at making his product accessible via mobile device apps. ‘Our platform certainly will expect to have a presence on [mobile] devices,’ he says. ‘There’s a big difference between desktop and mobile. Privacy, expression and creativity are all part of it, so you need to match user interaction with the appropriate device.’
Certainly more US kids than ever own a mobile phone. According to an April 2010 study from the Pew Internet and American Life Project, roughly 75% of 12- to 17-year-olds in the US have their own phones, up from 45% in 2004. Children are also getting phones at younger ages, as the study revealed 58% of 12-year-olds now a own cell phone, a big leap from just 18% in 2004. And with an anticipated growth of internet usage within the mobile market, DeWitt at PBS says web-safety education needs to be applicable to the new age of portable browsing.
‘I think the iPad puts more pressure on broadcast distributors like us to think carefully about privacy and safety on an all-new platform,’ DeWitt says. Similarly, Ann Miura-Ko, a partner at venture capital firm Floodgate, which invested in Togetherville, underscores the importance of extending safe browsing experiences to mobile devices.
‘Mobile is going to become an increasingly critical part of any child or teen-focused product,’ says Miura-Ko. She also believes the idea of kids hiding behind avatars – whether on a computer or handheld device – is being rendered obsolete, as more kids want to present their real personalities online. ‘The pressing question,’ she contends, ‘is how do you allow them to do that safely?’