What to Look For in Safe Online Destinations for Kids

Registration Processes:

  • Personal information
    • What do they collect? Do they collect your child’s real name? Your child’s email address? Address? Any type of information that can identify your child?? If they collect this information they should ALSO ask for your child’s DOB (Date of Birth) or Age.
    • And if your child is under the age of 13, the site should ask for your (THE PARENT’S) email address and EMAIL you promptly regarding your child’s online registration process (either a “head’s up, your kids on our site, and here’s some info about why we’re safe” or “Your child signed up and here is your child’s login information, have questions? ask” emails).
    • If they DO NOT collect any private/identifiable information (they only collect: username, M/F, DOB, and/or zip code) that’s fine. They do not need to email you– but personally– if they’re under 13 years of age, it’s my preference to see the site always email the parent. But again, in this case, not necessary for the information attained (yet…)

User Generated Content:

  • User Generated Content (UGC) is ANYTHING your child creates of their own free will (and then shares online). Whether it be a screen name, a blog/forum comment, a blog/forum post, chat comments, a drawing, a story, and uploaded photo, etc.
  • It is my professional opinion that all UGC from U13 users should go through filters & screening processes. Always. But that’s not necessarily always the case.
  • This goes ESPECIALLY for usernames. Registration processes always ask for username identification. The uber-safe sites provide a mix&match screen name builder. Others screen moderate.
    • Eyeballing the usernames: are they screened? How to tell:
      • Freshly created usernames that haven’t been approved yet have four processes:
        • 1) the user is dubbed “Guest” (or similar) until the screen name is viewed by staff (sometimes the user can see his/her own name, but others cannot– they see “guest”);
        • 2) the username has gone through a filter and deemed appropriate by passing through without hitting a blacklisted word/phase (this is NOT my ideal method of screening names);
        • 3) the user cannot play (only set up profile, etc) until approved by staff;
        • 4) the site is stupid and has no corporate responsibility (aka, they don’t care about personal safety or inappropriate content appearing live on their premises)
      • In my HUMBLE professional opinion… filters DO NOT ACCURATELY SCREEN USERNAMES… EVER. Why? Because kids… they are clever. Like the Raptors in Jurassic Park. They’ll find a way. If you have filters first & human screening before a user name goes live? That’s a lot better. Spelling, phonetics, numbers, etc make it very easy to make things look/sound like inappropriate content (remember “80081355” on a calculator? If not, go ahead– stick that in your ancient calc… we used to come up with words like that in 3rd grade)
  • If you– the parent– agree to a child’s participation online, you agree to all that the site has to offer. Technically, once a site gets your sign off, the kid can do anything– because you gave your permission. SO, if the site hasn’t done its darnedest to make you feel safe and assured by their obvious practices… you might want to take a closer look at the site’s offerings, privacy policy, and TOS (terms of service).
    • Further clarification: if you agree to your child’s registration process, you MAY be agreeing to your kid participating in unscreened, unmonitored viewing & uploading of personal photos, sharing information, speaking freely, etc.
    • Most sites for kids make sure that they cover your basis and protect the kid… but some are lazy and do not. So it’s good to double check.
    • If the site DID NOT take any of your child’s personal information, and then they ask for UGC, three things happen
      • 1. The UGC is screened (a moderator/screener– adult– looks at the content and scans it for inappropriate behavior, personal information, etc)
      • 2. The site NOTIFIES you of the child’s wish to display UGC on the site, and either gives you a link TO the child’s material (if already screened and deemed appropriate by staff) or keeps the UGC in a queue until you approve it yourself.
      • 3. They suck: aka they post the information without screening and/or notification (which is shady)… and basically just expect the fact that the child is “nameless” in the registration process to be enough for protection & to appease COPPA legislation (which it isn’t… kids sometimes slip email addresses, phone numbers, pictures of them & their best friends, etc into UGC to make or sustain friends). This again goes back to my humble professional opinion that UGC should ALWAYS be screened by moderators & adults.

Staff and Q&A

  • Something I like to check is:
    • how readily available is the staff? (24 hour?)
    • Are they roaming the site visibly? Or are they the “flag&come” sort that appear when a whistle is blown?
    • Does content go live, or is it screened first?
    • Where do I contact the site’s staff? And how easy is it to find that info?
    • How do I report inappropriate content? And is it visible for kids to use quickly, simply, easily, etc

    Look: you don’t have to bombard the staff with these questions (especially, since then you’re taking the time away from their jobs). Just cruise around and see for yourself. If they don’t bother to share this info with you in a parents-corner or in FAQ, etc… then maybe think again about how you feel regarding the site & your child. Chances are, they’re safe & sound… but really, it’s something to think about. It’s ALWAYS your choice. If you don’t like it, find someplace better. The market grows by day.

Ads & Content

  • If you are paying for your child to play in a site… Banner Ads, well… they tend to be very uncool.
  • If there are going to be ads, I’m a bigger fan of static ads than clickable ads (static = just a picture, clickable = go to another website)
  • Clickable ads (like banner ads) should ALWAYS warn kids, letting them know they are being jetted AWAY from the site.
    If banner ads, or clickable ads, do NOT give you a “Heads up, You’re leaving” page (usually the time count is 20 seconds before automatically sending the user along)… that is wrong. Not everyone agrees with me… but as a parent, you might.
  • Sometimes free sites for kids have less-than-desirable ads flashing by. Why? Because ad revenue systems sometimes slip a non-child-friendly link through. Personally– if a site is going to have ads, I would rather THEY be the middleman, picking and choosing ads for the site instead of someone like Google Ad Sense, yadda, doing it.
  • Off-Site Links: like ads, if it leads you FROM the site for kids, it should have a “heads up you’re leaving us” page attached. Kids click, click, click. Like buttons in an elevator, they tend to press them all. Better to warn then assume the kid knows what he/she pressed.
  • Links: It is IN MY opinion that if a site SHOULD place exterior links on their site, they should know exactly what kind of content is available on ALL PAGES within 2 or 3 site link/page clicks. What does this mean? Well… if I link my site to your site… i better know exactly what content is on every page of your site. And if you link to your brother, well it’s my business to know exactly what is available on his site too. And if either site besides mine has inappropriate content or links or ads… well, perhaps it’s time to stop that webring, yes? Yes.
  • Look for Forums:
    • Forums are a FANTASTIC way for kids to continue conversations & state opinions & explore typing skillz, etc… but, if not properly addressed, they become worse than an unmonitored school yard.
    • Do forum moderators participate?
    • Is the content live or screened to live?
    • What kind of commentary is being passed & chatted about?
  • And sadly… I know it’s wrong to say (and some people might call me out on it)… But i truly do subscribe to the DO JUDGE A BOOK BY ITS COVER. If a site looks less-than-stellar in aesthetics, doesn’t look well established or taken care of, seems to make the important information hard to find… then chances are, it isn’t a great site. The people who really do care about the kids & the community & the site will work their fingers to the bone– rolling with the times, improving, and providing.
  • As for safety– always check it out for yourself:
    • Registration process
    • Privacy Policy
    • Rules & TOS
    • Content: UGC, Ads, and Moderation (Staff)

That’s my tidbit of the day.  If you have MORE info you’d like to share… please don’t hesitate in the comments.  Thanks 😉

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  1. January 4, 2008 at 10:01 pm

    Awesome list of tips for parents, Izzy! Thanks!! I really like the parent reports that Imbee generates. It gives me a quick sketch of my daughter’s activities there without me having to look over her shoulder.

  2. January 5, 2008 at 4:32 am

    This is great, Izzy…very practical for parents, a ‘given’ for the media literate as well as a ‘huh?’ for the uninitiated. I agree with Lisa that Imbee has awesome reports, but I must also add the caveat that my tween ‘outgrew’ it fast…the key is to have it in place on the ‘older’ sites as well…seamlessly. (guess YouTube would be a hard one for the U13 crowd, but clearly, that’s where LOTS of holes are…the ‘forward to a friend’ music is viral to the point of ‘whoa nelly’ in terms of the messages being gleaned…that said, most of our advisors say they ‘like the beat, and don’t listen to the lyrics’…that goes for tweens AND teens.
    sigh.

  3. January 6, 2008 at 7:03 pm

    Great list! You seem to have tackled just about everything.

  4. January 6, 2008 at 10:29 pm

    So, this is a “tidbit”? More like a tidnormously smart post. I believe I learned a thing or ten.

  5. January 7, 2008 at 6:30 pm

    Oh, you all are too kind (Chris Rettstatt, you’re a rock star who helped create the foundations of security ideals for kids… so when you say “smart” you are referring to your own awesomeness… JUDO CHOP).

    Anyway… I figured I’d been making particular comments about the U13 virtual world experience for so long– I thought I’d explain a it of my thinking process & criteria.

    When parents start realizing that YOUTUBE is NOT for kids? I’ll be a happy camper. Until that time, I’ll continue my eye twitches whenever I hear a mommola or a poppola speaking about ‘that wacky thing their 8 year old saw on the youtube’… bah!

    Not to mention, the fury that comes to me when i see youngin’s hanging about Maple Story, Zwinktopia, Elf, or (the worst of ’em all) IMVU.

    Best of luck! May the good message be spread far & wide 😉

  1. January 5, 2008 at 5:41 am
  2. January 7, 2008 at 1:11 pm
  3. January 7, 2008 at 3:50 pm

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