While some ponder what will come after the Age of Social Networks, the current question of how to introduce kids to online social practice is a growing concern both for parents and developers. For parents, the debate begins with how much of their children’s lives should be shared. For developers—the people responsible for creating and maintaining social environments on the Internet—the first question is probably how young is too young. The issues cascade quickly from there.
Mike Nakamura, owner of the 9-year-old Midwest publishing and electronics company Senario, is trying to address the concerns of both groups. Earlier this year, Senario released My Secret Circle as a the “first-ever secure social networking world designed for girls 8-12 and their Internet-cautious parents.”
The online community in My Secret Circle is a closed system. Access is granted not by logging into a website but by plugging in a USB thumb drive, pre-loaded with a Flash browser and a security key (courtesy QiGo). No personal information is requested or stored as part of the registration process. In fact, members of MSC are urged to avoid using real names, even in this protected environment.
Nakamura took a proprietary technology and coupled it with the premise that kids need a safer place to socialize than the web-based sites currently available.
Sociality is Learning
While many parents are urged to keep their young children off of social networks, participation in social media tools can provide opportunities to learn skills needed as adults. These tools are valued differently by our children, particularly where it involves privacy and control. As Microsoft researcher danah boyd writes:
Over the last three decades, youth lives have gotten increasingly structured. Many youth spend little to no time in unstructured social settings, otherwise known as “hanging out.” The practice of hanging out is consistently demonized by educationally-minded folks as a waste of time. Yet, it is in that space where youth learn to navigate social situations, make sense of impression management, and develop the social skills necessary to be productive adults.
She further suggests that rather than trying to “fix” problems in social worlds, adults should serve as guides in the process of learning social skills while exploring mediated spaces. It may do more harm than good to regulate away cyberbullying instead of cultivating individual and group skills to address that dynamic.
“We have spent the majority of our public relations time trying to educate parents about the need for safe social networking,” Nakamura says. “Parents need to know what, when and how their kids are communicating online.”
My Secret Circle might be an acceptable shared control between parents and kids. When the MSC key is plugged in, parents know exactly what their kids are doing online: The browser is stripped down to remove any means of navigating away from the site (“They can’t surf out, and nothing can come in. Just communciations with their close intimate friends.”) At the same time, kids interact with a group of friends they know and choose.
Friends are Who You See
We can debate what friendship has become in a hyperconnected online world, but for kids the term seems a bit more pure. Friends are who you see each day, in class or church or at the local LEGO group. It is only after children become adults with multiple schools, jobs, and recreational pursuits on their resumes does the concept of friend get fuzzy. The role of online social spaces is not to replace or expand those offline connections, but rather to give those small groups a place they control.
With MSC, each account starts with a default friend, “Serena Circle,” who acts as the information resource to help members navigate the online environment. Networks are then built offline. In order to add someone to her online circle of friends, a member has to generate a unique 12-digit friend code and give it to someone else already in possession of an access key thumb drive. If both girls accept each other’s friendship online, they can start communicating and sharing through the online world.
According to Nakamura, most members make use of the diary, which doesn’t require an established circle of friends to be useful. Friends of friends can’t connect without also exchanging friends codes with each other. There is no way to request friendship through the system; this is done exclusively through offline communication.
“Most circles are well under ten and most under five, which makes sense at that age,” explains Nakamura. “Bullying often becomes a pattern when too many people are too far removed from a close friend. MSC is built by name and by interface to keep the circles small.”
At the moment, the product is branded and targeted for tween girls. “For MSC, we started with a slow approach to make sure our product works well and delivers the right experience for the user,” Nakamura explains. That strategy included an initial limited retail launch at Justice that is paving the way for a national launch during the next back-to-school season.
The product can be bought in toy stores or online as a single thumb drive to access the site ($20) or a “BFF Pack” featuring two access drives ($30). In addition to the access keys, members can unlock additional features within the virtual world with Snap Caps—interchangeable parts that fit on the end of the thumb drive. The first cap adds a voice chat and comes with a headset. Nakamura says the caps will allow MSC to keep advertising out of the online experience.
“In the end, MSC gives a full networking experience that is appropriate for the age group and with the best level of security that we could provide today at an affordable cost,” claims Nakamura.
My Secret Circle works on Windows or Mac computers with about 2.6 GHz processing speed and 1 GB or RAM. For more information, try the Quick Start Guide, available as a PDF download.
Thanks to Megan Lawler for providing a couple thumb drives to allow me to take My Secret Circle for a spin. Our own little girl may be asking for a drive of her own in about a decade.