As a mother of both teenagers and preteens and a long-time internet user, I like to keep up to date on the various social networking sites around even though Im not strictly a fan of them myself. I hate myspace with a passion you wouldnt believe (although I do believe I have an account there somewhere, but I couldnt tell you what the details of it are!) I do use Facebook daily, as its a great way to keep in touch with family and old friends who I rarely see. For both Facebook and MySpace there is a minimum age of 13 for registering an account and if, like me, you have children under 13 who are more intelligent than they should be then this becomes a problem.
On the one hand, I dont want my children being in a position where they could come into contact with the more unsavoury types that lurk around social networking sites, but on the other I dont want them not having internet access or experience in the social networking phenomena. I firmly believe that my children should have a good knowledge of the net, how it works, whats available and the potential risks involved. My eldest daughter is 7 (going on 20!) and she often badgers me to allow her on Facebook. I know a few family members have botched their childrens ages so they can have their own accounts but thats not something Im comfortable doing. Facebook has a minimum age of 13 and so that, in my eyes, tells me that they are not in a position to keep safe children under that age. As a compromise I allow her to use my Facebook account to play the games (Farmville, Farm Town, Cafe World and whatever else she plays) and talk to family. I also monitor what she clicks while shes on there.
This got me to wondering what facilities are avialable for children who are more than ready to get to grips with social networking and the internet but arent at the age where they can legally use a lot of the sites around and so, armed with the trusty Google, I went on a quest to find some sites that my children can safely use and socialise on.
Here are my findings, which I hope will be of some use to any other parents out there.
Habbo seems to have the largest memberbase that I can see with over 135 million users, so well take a look at that one first.
Upon opening the site youre greeted with a black background with a centre image of what looks like a hotel, below this you are given the greeting In Habbo Hotel you can make and meet friends. so yes, that confirms its a hotel! Haboo is owned by the Sulake Corporation who, according to their blurb, are an online entertainment company focused on virtual worlds. They also own a site called Babbo Bar which is another virtual community for older people but back to Habbo. Habbo appears to be targetted toward teens, rather than pre-teens. On their main page there is a clear link to safety tips, and a decent Parents Guide which covers everything to set a parents mind at ease.
Habbo is free to register and play in but also has premium options available for purchasing furniture or a subscription to the Habbo Club which makes more options available. I am a little wary of their methods of purchasing credits which range from credit/debit card through to sending a text message or dialing a premium number from a landline. These do not make me comfortable as its very easy for a child to run up an unexpected bill this way. Apparently there is a limit on how much is spent, but I still dont think making such an easy way of buying credits available to children is advisable. Luckily for me, Habbo is for children of 12 or over!
Up next with over 76 million users, is Poptropica.
The homepage of Poptropica is blue so very blue! And there isnt really any visual indication as to what the site is about. There is no clear link to a Parents Guide, so FAQs is likely the next best thing. How wrong am I! The FAQs dont give any information for parents, but do explain that Poptropica is a virtual online world in which kids can travel, play games, customize their character, compete in head-to-head competition, and communicate safely with each other. It also states that Poptropica was developed by Family Education Network, which is a division of Pearson. Thats not bad, as the Family Education Network focuses quite a lot on children so one can assume that their safety measures are good. Incidently another good site that belongs to them is FunBrain (but its not social networking so we wont go into that one here.)
The targetted ages appear to be 6 through to 15 which makes this one idea for my oldest daughter.
Like Habbo, Poptropica is free to register and play on, with the added facilty to purchase credits for use on the site and there is also the opportunity get free credits through playing the various games.
Poptropica also has a very nice blog which gives screenshots, insights and all sorts of information about the game.
Unless you live on Mars, Neopets doesnt need any explanations. Its been around a long time and I remember our teenage boys playing on there a lot when they were younger (and hadnt discovered Facebook and xbox live!). I am surprised that theyre not at the top, but they still have over 54 million users.
StarDoll is aimed towards the girls (obviously) and, not being especially girly myself, I find it very unappealing in its pink and fashion-focused style but Im sure most girls will love it. At Stardoll, girls can make and dress up dolls fulfilling that fashion thing that they seem to love so much and with over 34 million users, Im sure they will find others on there who they can share fashion tips with.
Club Penguin just makes me smile. I think its the penguins all over the homepage that does it or maybe its seeing the subtle Disney sign in the topleft corner, which just makes you confident that the people behind the site know what theyre doing. The homepage has a very appealing design, full of cartoon penguins and the Parents Guide is extremely visible as one of the large boxes on the bottom right. I think of all the sites Ive spotted, this is the one Im happiest with my kids using and will likely not only allow my 7 year old, but also the 5 (almost 6) year old to use it too.
Again, like the others there are both free and purchase options available. And the membership prices are not at all bad prices. If my kids use it enough, I will consider purchasing memberships for them. Theres just something extremely friendly about the site and surprisingly theres only around 28 million users so far making this one of the less populated social networking sites out of this list.
Free Realms is a fairly new game and my two eldest daughters have been playing it for a short while already. The Parents Guide is in a visible position at the top of the home page and covers everything you need to know. There is the typical free and purchase options. The game is very similar to the likes of World of Warcraft (but without the violence!) Its nicely put together, with the ability for characters to perform tasks, gain abilities, pets and many other things. They can design their character and the things they can do appears to be linked directly to their age so my 7 year old can only use present words/sentences when talking with other members but older children would have the ability to write their own conversations.
So far they only have around 4 million users but Im sure this will rise considerably as the word gets out.
The last on my list at present is called Moshi Monsters and has a userbase of approx 2 million. Their homepage is colourful and easy on the eye with Parents Information being clearly visible at the bottom left of the centre image. This covers everything you need to know about what your child is able to do on the site and as per the others they also offer free and purchase versions at prices that seem fairly reasonable.
The concept appears to be that your child adopts a monster and then plays games, etc while on the site, so Im sure a lot of kids will find this interesting and fun. I know my own little monsters are wanting to give it a try.
This brings me to the end of this blog post. My two girls have happily agreed to act as guineapigs for some of the sites Ive listed StarDolls, Moshi Monsters, Club Penguin and Free Realms and have said they will give them a play and let me know what they think for a future blog post.
Feel free to share your own thoughts or let me know of any other social networking sites out there specifically for kids.