Hilary DeCesare made a career out of helping executives put strategic frameworks around their products and services. It wasn’t until her three children entered the tweens, though, that she realized how under-served that population is when it comes to social media.
Now a co-founder and CEO of Everloop, DeCesare is evangelizing her company’s protected online environment as a way to provide young digital citizens with a safe space to learn social skills. Three core rules in the code of conduct — Be Cool, Be Clean, Be Confidential — form the foundation for Everloop’s social media training.
That training isn’t just for the kids interacting on the site. Everloop also educates parents about how kids make use of social media channels. Parents can help shape the online experience for their kids, but they aren’t allowed to participate in the tweens’ space.
Everloop is a Toolkit for Parents
There is a growing trend toward use of monitoring for digital parenting. Location services can be buried deep in the firmware of smartphones and other mobile devices to allow parents to keep tabs on their kids. CheckPoint, an internet security firm, offers software to alert parents to patterns of destructive online behavior on Facebook without granting direct access to the content. Facebook itself has taken steps, including an upgrade to their Family Safety Center, to improve education and member reporting of destructive content. Everloop focuses on a user group younger than these technologies address.
Initially, DeCesare launched her community in 2009 under the name Girl Ambition. It was meant to be the first on-ramp for girls to get to the Internet, and DeCesare wanted that experience to happen in a safe place that improved self-esteem. Although the project since expanded to include boys (and access to brands and other content providers), Everloop still clings to that original philosophy.
Safety is achieved through several levels of moderation. In addition to the initial two-party registration requiring an adult to join, too, the site’s virtual currency is verified with a credit card, offering another source of identity. Software automatically analyzes activity to measure digital citizenship and alert administrators to content that is likely to lead to cyberbullying situations. Human moderators intervene with the most problematic kids, offering insights about their behavior to “stop them in their tracks.” Finally, there are mechanisms for self-monitoring of the site, where members can flag content as inappropriate.
The COPPA-compliant service will be launching in 56,000 schools this fall, reaching over 20 million students. Everloop will incorporate i-SAFE digital literacy courses, bringing classroom curriculum that empowers youth to safely, responsibly and productively use technology. Parents can oversee how a child’s online network is allowed to grow and which invited adults are white-listed into the groups, or “loops,” around special interests. By creating this safe environment for tweens, the parents get an education on digital literacy, too.
Young Kids Are Already Using Social Media
In March, Facebook revealed they routinely ban 20,000 underage users each day and seven million over the course of the year. One fifth of European tweens successfully dodged the age floor of 13, however. According to research Everloop conducted with C.A. Walker in the spring, kids claim a higher level of Facebook visitation than parents are aware.
What Everloop offers is a place for a Facebook-esque experience among tween peers. For kids 13 and under, this beginner social network tries to offer many of the features and functionality expected of Facebook. Members can play games, post pictures, chat, and share some aspects of their lives with each other. Registration is free, and adults aren’t allowed to participate (with a few exceptions). What kids can’t do, however, is friend people they don’t already know.
Befriending strangers is a big part of digital social networks. Most services require a “handshake” agreement that grants two parties mutual access to each other’s content; Twitter changed that paradigm by uncoupling the relationship into a “follow” (much like subscribing to a blog). Social networking platforms are often designed to encourage friend collection, but Everloop actively discourages the practice. In the heavily-moderated community, attempts to share where you live get blocked.
“It’s exciting to find new people,” DeCesare admits. “Kids can talk around a common interest [with people you don’t know], but they can’t friend each other.”
Having a proving grounds to learn digital skills is critical. Whereas adults are experienced communicators who account for context of a message, kids are much more likely to read things at face value. DeCesare points out that the first point of cyberbullying is often a misunderstood email. Everloop mitigates these mistakes through their moderation strategies.
The Everloop research confirmed a key insight: kids like being able to share content freely without ridicule. “The kids’ number one concern online is safety,” says DeCesare. “That’s something we didn’t understand that about them.”
Bullying is a Learned Behavior
Last March, President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama joined the Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services in welcoming students, parents, and teachers to the White House for a Conference on Bullying Prevention.
The President dropped some statistics, including a staggering 3 million students who reported they were pushed, shoved, tripped, and even spit on. Technology is credited with being a great connecting force, but in some cases it can also extend agony:
Today, bullying doesn’t even end at the school bell — it can follow our children from the hallways to their cell phones to their computer screens. And in recent months, a series of tragedies has drawn attention to just how devastating bullying can be. We have just been heartbroken by the stories of young people who endured harassment and ridicule day after day at school, and who ultimately took their own lives. These were kids brimming with promise — kids like Ty Field, kids like Carl Walker-Hoover — who should have felt nothing but excitement for the future. Instead, they felt like they had nowhere to turn, as if they had no escape from taunting and bullying that made school something they feared.
He went on to say that the main goal of the conference was to dispel the myth that bullying is just a normal rite of passage.
Bullying as kids can lead to later problems as adults. Bullies, too, can be as much of a victim of their environment as the people they target. One in five bullies has an emotional, developmental or behavioral problem, more than three times the rate in non-bullies. Sleep also is a factor in aggressive behavior. Effective moderation can have life-changing consequences for both sides of the bullying relationship.
Michelle Obama noted that prevention goes beyond adjusting the behavior of kids. Adults have to reflect on their own behaviors:
We all know that when we as adults treat each other with compassion and respect, when we take the time to listen and give each other the benefit of the doubt in our own adult lives, that sets an example for our children. It sends a message to our kids about how they treat others.
Self-esteem is a crucial component to battling bullying. Adolescents who believe they matter are less likely to threaten or engage in violence. “Mattering” involves awareness (people know you exist), importance (they invest time in you), and reliance (you are a resource). These are qualities that social networks can promote.
DeCesare, who attended the White House event, was most moved by meeting Tina Meier, the mother of a 13-year-old who infamously committed suicide as a result of deception and bullying on MySpace in 2006. The two women had first met at a cybersecurity conference shortly after that tragedy. “She was the mom we all wanted to be,” DeCesare wrote of the experience. “She monitored her daughter’s internet usage, talked to her kids, did everything a savvy internet parent would do. But it couldn’t save her daughter.”
“Everloop treated cyberbullying like polio,” DeCesare continued, “something that we could eradicate from children’s lives if we concentrated attention on solving the problem.” The fatal messages Lori Drew sent to Megan Meier in 2006 wouldn’t be allowed on Everloop.
Empowering Kids to Engage
Everloop just announced on Monday that they had raised $3.1 million in funding. In addition to some leadership and creative additions, the site will be gearing up for the school launches with two functional enhancements.
The first is EverText, a porting of the moderation tools to cover mobile phone communication. Tween phones can be attached to their Everloop accounts, allowing a texting environment between friends that still falls under the Three C’s in their code of conduct. According to DeCesare, 58% of 12-year-olds have cell phones. “When they check out [from the desktop] and are actively out and about in their lives, we want to make sure they are constantly using devices safely,” she explains.
The second change is EverGive, a way to encourage members to engage with philanthropic causes. New loops can be created around a particular cause, sparking both discussion and donations to spread awareness. The first partner is Pencils of Promise (POP), a cause now championed by teen pop singer Justin Bieber. Members can get a virtual sticker for their profile wall to support educational development around the world.
The badges are also part of the way Everloop rewards involvement in the community. The “EverSquad” is a board of kids who help direct the community. There is some prestige to earning a profile badge that identifies you as a leader, reinforcing positive reputation on the site.
When Facebook is ready to have them, these tweens will graduate from Everloop armed with the skills to negotiate the challenges of digital communication and reap the benefits. “Everloop was designed to be a safe online home base where kids are allowed to be kids,” DeCesare says.