With new social networking sites springing up daily, it has become more difficult than ever for parents to monitor who their kids are talking to online. We live in an age of connectivity where anyone with an Internet connection—regardless of character—can locate and engage a child in conversation. Undoubtedly, this places parents between a rock and a hard place: they want to encourage their children to be creative individuals—and blogging offers an excellent opportunity to learn to express thoughts and feelings—however, they must balance this against the risk of exposure to Internet predators.
Jeanette Symons, founder of San Francisco Bay Area-based Industrious Kid, thinks blogging is worth the risk, but believes that risk can be mitigated by limiting social networking to a familiar community. She put $6 million from private investments into development of imbee.com, a blogging site for children ages 8 to 14 years old, which launched in Beta in late April. "Instead of a kid publishing to the entire Internet," says Symons, "they're only publishing to their friends and family." Symons got the idea for imbee.com after her eight-year-old son asked if he could start his own blog. This inventive mom installed a server in her closet to make him think he was publishing to the Internet, when in reality the blog was only published within a controlled environment.
"Young people and even some adults don't know that the content they publish is able to be seen by everyone," says Tim Donovan, VP of marketing, Industrious Kid. "Kids on imbee are only going to be able to blog and share content with people they know."
In order for kids to register for imbee, a parent must enter a valid credit card number to help authenticate the user information. Once on the site, the only way for two children to become "blogging buddies" is for the parents of both children to approve a request to be friends. For example, Bob tells his parents that he wants to blog with Jim. Bob's mother says, "Sure, I'll send a ‘request for a friend' to Jim's parents, and if they say it is OK, then you guys can start blogging." However, if they think Bob is not a good person for their son to be friends with, Jim's parents will not approve the request. As a result, Jim and Bob would not be able to blog together. Notification will then be sent to Bob and his mother saying the request was denied.
As children blog with one another, imbee makes a point not to put a magnifying glass to content sent between friends; the closed-community aspect of imbee is designed to ensure that any inappropriate content posted to the site will not jeopardize a child's future. Should a child post inappropriate content, Donovan states that a parent can remedy the problem by "disengaging their child access to the content—contact the offender's parents and ask that the content be removed," or they can contact imbee.com directly. The bottom line is that the only people who have access to content on imbee.com are members and their friends. "We want to give kids the opportunity to develop organically online without allowing any of their potential mistakes, such as posting discriminatory or racial content, to put them at risk," says Donovan (citing the careful screening processes of some private schools as an example). Symons explains that "the important thing is to audit the domain" and monitor the context, rather than just the content.
Having imbee.com help create a safe blogging environment will cost parents a maximum of $5 per month, though Donovan says that the company will also offer services for free. (The Beta site and testing program will last for 90 days free of charge.) In order to continue to fund the site, he does say they might consider ad revenues in the future. "Right now, we're not opening the door to any advertising," says Donovan. "If we do use advertising, we would probably advertise to the parents and not to the children." Donovan adds that they never intended this product to make money, but rather fill a gap or need.
Free social networking sites like MySpace will continue to be scrutinized for their lax policies on who can post and view content, and new ways for kids to communicate online will continue to proliferate. According to Pew's Internet and American Life Project, already more than 12 million kids create their own content online everyday. The site hopes to provide parents with some peace of mind, at least in knowing with whom their children share content online.