Like Facebook, Starter Edition: Togetherville Launches for Kids (and Parents)

Togetherville is a new social networking site launching today that’s aimed at young children under 10-years-old. Although some parents may balk at the idea of children this young establishing a social networking identity and presence, the purpose of the new service is to provide a training ground where parents can teach their kids important lessons about online communication, community building and what it means to be a good digital citizen.

Instead of pretending that today’s youngest Internet users aren’t socializing online (even the most watchful parent can be surprised sometimes), Togetherville acknowledges the fact that children can and do play and learn using social networking services.

The problem though, as any good parent will tell you, is that young children need to be taught how to use these types of services appropriately. They don’t instinctively know what details should and should not be shared, who is safe to friend and who isn’t (“don’t friend strangers” is the new “don’t talk to strangers,” it seems), and they certainly aren’t prepared for the real-world dangers of using larger social networking services like MySpace and Facebook where issues like digital stalking, harassment and cyberbullying are a sad consequence of public socializing.

Enter Togetherville.

Togetherville is Safe

In the press release, the site creators call Togetherville a social network with “training wheels” and the description couldn’t be more accurate. The network has been designed from the ground up as a safe place for children to try out social networking.

Here, parents can be highly involved with their children’s online ventures. They don’t have to demand the login from their kids – they’re given their own login where they can access their child’s account and activity, as well as interact directly with what the child is doing.

One of the most interesting aspects about the new service is how it establishes online friendships. Instead of leaving it up to the child to friend others, Togetherville uses the parent’s Facebook account (by way of Facebook Connect) to instantly build communities of trusted, real-world friends the child’s parent already knows. These communities, dubbed “neighborhoods” in Togetherville’s terminology, are made available to the parent who can then pick and choose which adults and children their child may connect to.

Facebook Connect allows the parents to discover other Facebook friends who have already established an account on Togetherville. It streamlines the process so parents don’t have to “re-friend” their friends, they just “discover” them. When a child logs into Togetherville, the approved parent and child combos are seen as neighborhoods where “kids” are separated from the “grownups.” There is no way for other, unknown users to contact a child outside of this process.

Another important element to the site is the lack of anonymity. On Togetherville, children use their real name and an actual photo. That may be startling to some adults who have traditionally been told that posting your child’s picture online is dangerous, but in Togetherville’s safe, stranger-free environment, it’s not a concern.

…And It’s Fun!

Beyond the stringent safety measures, which should assure parents, Togetherville is actually fun to use. Site activities include posting “quips” (pre-screened status messages like “Aced the test! Oh yeah!”), playing games and creating art projects via third-party, pre-approved apps, watching (age-appropriate) funny videos and cartoons, sending virtual gifts, earning badges for positive behavior and earning a virtual “allowance” that can be spent on goods, games and gifts. (Virtual goods and the allowance launch later this summer.) Games, videos and creations made on-site by the child can also be liked and commented on by parents, and can be easily shared back the parent’s Facebook account for “instant bragging rights.”

Growing Up Digital: Some Concerns

Togetherville is one of many new social networking sites aimed at introducing kids to the concept of digital identities in safe environments. Everloop, for example (still in private beta), is similar but is positioned towards older kids, tweens and young teens.

The idea of using sites like these as safe training areas where children can learn best practices and good online behavior is brilliant. The only downside is that a child’s history of interactions, creations and friend lists don’t come with them when they move from site to site as they get older. Although Facebook Connect makes the set-up process easier, we wish the exiting experience could somehow be improved so that the child’s creations are archived off-site for later access. At the very least, it would be nice to export the child’s art projects as digital photos.

One day, when these sites are no more (or simply forgotten about), so much can be lost. Unlike Crayola-made drawings hanging on the fridge, digital art and expression is harder to archive. Status messages that fade away into oblivion are more ephemeral than pen-and-ink diaries that are a kick to re-read after years have passed. But perhaps that’s just how it is these days. Impermanence is par for the course on grown-up social networking sites like Facebook; it’s best to prepare kids early on for that fact of digital life.

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