I haven't done this in a while – written about products and services – so here's the caveat up front: These are not product reviews or tests; they're meant to spotlight options for parents to consider and trends in youth tech.
1. Safe playgrounds for kids
It's like there's a "walled garden" trend afoot! Four of these services – three new ones and one tried and true – immediately come to mind. The one caveat about typical kids' safe playgrounds is that they're a lot more about consuming than producing media – in other words, pretty Web 1.0. Kidzui and Glubble are exceptions, you'll see. Though we want children to learn safe, constructive surfing and searching, kids' browsers are only one tool in the online-safety toolkit. Kids also need training wheels for constructive media-producing and -sharing in the very user-driven online environment they're growing up in. It's really a blend of 1) safe browsing, 2) civil and mindful play (virtual worlds, multiplayer gaming, etc.) and communications (phone texting, IMing, etc.), and 3) engaged parenting that foster kid-parent communication and therefore safe use of technology. So here are some creatively created walled gardens:
* Kidzui – walled garden plus new social-networking features to be unveiled next week! Designed for kids 3-12 (with a 6-10 "sweet spot"), this browser+ now contains 1.5 million pre-approved Web sites, images, and videos. Kidzui has also gotten the most media attention of late. Both free and paid versions ($4.95/month or $49.95/year) are available, the latter with Homework Help for pre-K-8 and extra parental tools. Kidzui employs 50 "editors," who preview all content (a lot of it YouTube videos, I'm sure) and who are parents and teachers all over the US (kids tag and vote on content). "Social-networking" features include a Facebook-like newsfeed.
If not already, Kidzui social-networking features will be available starting this Monday, 10/13. They include the Zui avatar kid members create and customize to represent them in the service; profile pages that members can customize; member-created "channels" for the photos, videos, and sites they pick (KidZui lets kids see what members' collective top picks are); and a mini newsfeed like its big brother on Facebook (allows member to keep up on each other's moods, opinions, and personal news).
Parents can receive emails showing where their kids are spending time on this walled-off part of the Web. They can also choose to have kids locked into Kidzui (in "full-screen mode" that requires a password to use other software on the computer) or to have is as an option kids go into on a computer the whole family uses. Kidzui says "all friend requests are subject to mutual parent approval."
* Glubble – walled garden plus family-only "social networking." Speaking with one of its founders in Amsterdam, it occurred to me that the word "glubble" could be a cute, kid-like way of saying "global." Certainly, Glubble's the most global of these children's offerings, with offices in the Netherlands, the UK, Costa Rica, and the US (Palo Alto) and partnerships on both sides of the Atlantic. Free for the downloading, Glubble has two parts: the walled garden for children ideally around ages 6-10 (2,500 pre-approved sites in 100 collections or "glubbles," such as the Nickelodeon one – parents can also add their own picks) and the family-interaction part (calendar, photo album, chat, and – soon – a family blog).
The idea behind the kids' section is that they learn how to surf, search, and chat only in this closed environment, unable to stumble upon any inappropriate content or contacts out on the Internet, and only with family members (they're locked into Glubble by default, behind a password the parent has as account admin). There's a monitoring tool for parents – not for spying but for the purpose of learning about their kids' interests and browsing patterns. Aimed at an online/offline balance in children's lives, Glubble also has non-Web content for kitchen-table activities such as printable pictures and cut-outs called "gotchas" for coloring and kid origami.
* KidThing – like a children's book that has been moved online. It even looks like a storybook (quite beautiful). It even looks like a storybook (quite beautiful). In KidThing, kids (ages 3-8) are on their computers, not the Web, and they're interacting with content (which you buy and access with KidThing's free downloadable media player), not with other kids or anyone else. Certainly this is fine for little kids (and peace of mind for parents!). Content for purchase (the price range is $.99 to $7.99) includes books, games, coloring, and videos from the publishers of many much-loved titles and brands: e.g., The Little Engine that Could, Corduroy, The Icky Bug Alphabet Book, Dr. Seuss, The Berenstain Bears, and Wee Sing. Most books are narrated for pre- and early readers.
* Kidsnet – designed for kids to about age 12, it's the granddaddy of safe Web playgrounds. I first wrote about it back in 2004 , but it reached the ripe age of 10 last month, and the company is still reviewing and adding to its database of safe Web pages. The collection has reached 800 million pages (Kidsnet is quite probably the largest collection of human-reviewed Web sites in the world). The Kidsnet filter is usually $49.95, but CEO Bob Dahstrom tells me NetFamilyNews readers can download it for free till the end of the year here . You can install with one click if onto a PC. Mac and Linux computer owners will have to install the software manually. You can also have your kids use the Hazoo.com search engine, which turns up results that are only in the Kidsnet safe database (if you want them only to use that search engine, you'll probably have to establish a family rule, because they wouldn't otherwise be restricted to Hazoo searches).
2. New social sites and virtual worlds
This is certainly not a comprehensive list (something more like that can be found at Virtual Worlds Management). You might call them a representative sample of new kids on the social-Web block:
* Yoursphere.com – billed as safe, teen-only social networking, Yoursphere is subscription-based and offers users rewards for participating in content creation, contests, etc. (see this at the Sacramento Business Journal). The message to users is "we keep adults out of your business" – parents by easing their fears for your online safety and adult "creepers" by requiring verifiable parental consent and checking all who register against a database of convicted sex offenders, then blocking said.
* NewMoonGirls.com – ad-free media-sharing and social site (chat's moderated) for girls 8-12, based on the magazine of that name
* Hangout.net (presenting itself here ) – private virtual-world spaces, or "3D rooms" for voice chat, media-sharing, and product-placement-based e-commerce that target 16-to-24-year-olds
* BlahGirls.com (presenting itself here ) – "celebrity pop culture environment, a celebrity blog, a blah, blah, blog for teen girls," according to founder and actor Ashton Kutcher
* Shryk.com (presenting itself here ) – online banking and financial-literacy ed for three age groups, 5-to-11-year-olds, 12-to-17-year-olds, and 18-to-24-year-olds
* Tweejee.com (self- and user-presented here ) – a moderated social site for tweens to play games, host their pages, send email, and share their creations
* UBFunkeys.com – Mattel's virtual game world Terrapinia for tweens (more likely boys) that picks up on the urban vinyl trend, selling cute little vinyl figures (Funkeys) that go with the world (the Webkinz model). The vinyl toys become their owners' in-world avatars.
* Pixie Hollow – Disney's virtual world for primarily elementary-school-age girls, who create their Fairy avatars to interact and play games in the Pixie Hollow world. "Clickables," or real-world products that "connect real-world friends and unlock special treasures" in the game (e.g., "Friendship Bracelets" and charms) can be purchased separately.
* AnnesDiary.com and AnnesWorld.com – named in honor of Anne of Green Gables, these are safe chat and blogging sites for girls 6-12 and 13-15, respectively. The company uses ID verification of parent or guardian and fingerprinting to secure a child's experience.
Meanwhile, more and more teens are creating their own social-networking sites, their own mini MySpaces and Facebooks, at Ning.com, and new youth virtual worlds have mini apps that connect worlds to existing friends lists in MySpace and Facebook. As for some things to watch out for in virtual worlds, see also "Top 8 workarounds of kid virtual-world users" .
Comments from readers on their own experiences with these products and services are most welcome (via anne[at]netfamilynews.org or the ConnectSafely forum – and, with your permission, we publish them.