Just Because A Website Looks Like It’s For Kids…

I get asked a lot in media interviews about how safe certain sites are for kids and tweens (under 13). What I say is that while no site is 100 percent “safe,” in that an adult could possibly sneak on posing as a child or that your child might be bullied in an online community. But I definitely think sites that are expressly for kids under 13 are going to do everything they can to protect the kids on their services. Why? Because if kids under 13 are their primary audience, they have to get permission from parents for them to collect personal information when they register (it’s the law), and because if something happens to a child on their site, it could destroy their business. Most of these sites restrict what kids can say to each other in text chats and have active community managers engaged on the site for kids to turn to if something doesn’t feel kosher.

That said, I’m not saying the owners and operators of sites for teens 13 and up (where teens are their primary audience) aren’t doing what they can to make their sites safe. But it’s easier to put a lot more disclaimers out there when you have a site where 14 year olds can interact with 25 year olds on the same service. And, when you have millions of users like MySpace or Facebook uploading thousands of photos and videos or posting blog entries every hour of every day, you just can’t screen it all.

What’s confusing for a lot of parents are the sites that look like they are for kids but really aren’t. A lot of these virtual worlds use avatars that look like they would be popular with younger children and tweens. Sites like Zwinktopia, Gaia Online, WeeWorld, IMVU and Habbo Hotel. Parents: These sites are for teens 13 and up. You can find this out by reading the site’s privacy policy. Every site has a privacy policy — you can usually find it in a text link at the very bottom of the web page. It’s a lot of legalese and disclaimers, but it will say whether the site is for teens 13 and up, and if it does allow kids under 13, it will talk about the need to get your permission before they can collect your child’s personal information. The media might refer to the sites I listed as “tween sites,” but they are really teen sites. Part of being a totally wired parent means doing your own investigation (by clicking the site’s privacy policy) to make sure a site your child may be attracted to (because of how it looks) is really appropriate for them to hang out on. For a quick cheat sheet, check out this list composed by Izzy Neis.

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