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The Search For The True "Facebook For Kids"

A new site, GromSocial, wants to be a Facebook for kids. But is a childproof social network a social network at all?

Posted on January 3, 2013, at 2:56 p.m. ET

"I am 11 years old," wrote Zach Marks, the now-12 founder of GromSocial, in his site's founding message. "My dad was never big on me joining the popular networking sites where kids are exposed to adult content, but all my friends had accounts."

His situation is a common one: Facebook is nearly ubiquitous among young internet users, and while its terms of service prohibit users under the age of 13, it does little to prevent children from joining. All they need is access to a computer and an email address (Gmail technically doesn't allow users under the age of 13, either, but nobody's checking).

The allure of social networking is as obvious to children as its dangers are to their parents. That's why Zach, with the help of his father, who runs an energy drink company, and a web designer, started a social network of his own: with the hope of somehow combining the freedom of Facebook with the safety of, well, not Facebook.

GromSocial's plan is two-pronged: On the kids' side, it offers both a familiarly structured social network (it's somewhat Facebook-like, with status updates and a newsfeed) dressed up in child-friendly (though sort of Nickelodeon, early-web-style) interface, and a variety of content around which new users can rally, including games and talking video characters who are also preloaded as friends. It's also got some lighthearted posts for and presumably by kids. Some evoke a sort of preteen BuzzFeed — one post, called "Things You Don't Know," is either the platonic ideal of the listicle or a perfectly damning parody.

On the parents' side, Grom purports to offer peace of mind: kids signing up for the site must supply a parent or guardian's email address before their account is approved. Once the account is approved, parents get regular updates as to their kids' activity. There are profanity filters on all posts and anti-bullying content scattered throughout.

The site is both interesting to kids — its founder says that while it's only getting a few thousands visitors a day, it's been growing quickly — and endearing to adults. But it's a small operation facing some large hurdles, which becomes apparent after just a few minutes on the site.

The signup process works as follows: The child registers an account, which triggers a verification message to a parent or guardian, whose email address is supplied by the child. The account is activated as soon as the parent clicks the verification link. Here's how the site describes it:

A: No system is fail proof but GromSocial makes it very difficult for these people to enter.

Step One: Fill out a membership form and enter a valid e-mail address, home address and phone number.

Step Two: Electronic signature agreeing to the terms of the site.

Step Three: Get a current adult member and child member of GromSocial to approve you.

As a way to link parents' accounts with kids' accounts, it's a good solution. As a way to prevent kids from signing up without their parents' permission, it won't be too effective. As a safeguard against adults joining and masquerading as kids, it won't stop anyone. I listed my editor as my father and had access instantly. I could have just as easily listed my second email address and approved myself, giving Grom less of a feeling of security than a feeling of extra vulnerability. (Also a security concern: when I signed up, it emailed me my password in plaintext).

Other sites have taken more aggressive authentication measures: YourSphere, the slick, clean LinkedIn to Grom's rough-edged MySpace, uses a similar email authentication system but one which requires enough information from parents to run an online background/sex offender check. It hasn't gained much traction (nor is its proof-of-ID system perfect — it would be possible to submit someone else's identity).

Nintendo's Miiverse isn't explicitly a social network for kids, but is heavily moderated and might become popular with young children. That said, it isn't to sate a kid who's demanding to join Facebook to talk to his friends at school. None are positioned to "halt Facebook's growth," as Eileen Brown claimed in her writeup about Grom on ZDNet (not least because Facebook is doing a fine job of this on its own).

Grom is certainly useful for one thing: elucidating the limits of the "social media for kids" concept. Freedom and privilege and the presence of peers are what make sites like Facebook attractive to, and dangerous for, kids; increased security, oversight and safety are what would make a social network acceptable to parents, but would be crippling to Facebook.

The first successful social network for kids may have to look like nothing we've seen before — perhaps nestled within preexisting a social structure, like a school class, or in small clusters managed by parents who know one another in real life. What it won't look like is Grom — a sweet and earnest attempt to child-proof the edges of a proven social networking concept that might be philosophically irreconcilable with good parenting. (Though evidence suggests millions of under-13s are using Facebook anyway, with parental consent.)

Ben Smith, BuzzFeed editor and my temporary GromDad, tells me he's had a good experience using Path, a small scale and fully private social network, with his family. But his use case isn't social networking as much as family networking. The ability to meet new people — a defining promise of social networking as we know it — has been surgically removed.

And that makes a lot of sense: Facebook is the closest thing the internet has built to a mirror of the real world. Isn't protection from the real world what parenting a young child is all about?