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The Online Mom provides internet technology advice and information to help parents protect their kids, encourage responsible behavior and safely harness the power of technology in the new digital world. Social networking, photo sharing, video games, IM & texting, internet security, cyberbullying, educational resources, the latest on tech hardware, gadgets and software for kids 3-8, tweens and teens, and more.

Social Networking

Life is interesting with a social butterfly of a child. It's that much more interesting when that child also is technologically adept, too.

Teens have MySpace. We parents have LinkedIn. Facebook has both groups. So it should come as no surprise that tweens have their own slice of the social networking pie. Their niche, understandably, comes in a different flavor than those of their older siblings.

It's peppered with cute animals, clever make-believe worlds, fun games, fashion and entertainment. Oh, and sometimes they chat, too.

Online social networking for tweens has blossomed in the last couple of years. From Webkinz and Neopets, which create an online world for real-life toys, to Nicktropolis and Pirates Online, built upon television and film content, to Allykatzz, which closely resemble social networking as we know it — there is a bevy of options for online tweens. The most popular sites tend to fall into a handful of categories: sites linked to toys and games; online extensions of existing media; dress-up and make-believe; and beginner social networks.

Toys and games
Sites that are connected to real-life toys and games often provide a gentle introduction to online use in general, and social networking in particular. The popular handheld game Animal Crossing — which takes advantage of the Nintendo DS Wi-Fi feature to allow players to interact — has a companion site, AnimalCrossing.com, which extends the game community.

Webkinz and Neopets — popular mainly among girls — are cute, collectible critters which enjoy lives online as well as in your daughter's toybox. Each Webkinz comes with a passcode to create its online world. Neopets operates similarly, but the toy purchase is optional.

Popular among boys is Pokemon Indigo, stemming from the popular Pokemon collectors' cards and handheld games. While it primarily is a game site, its team format and popularity nudge it closer to the world of social networking.

Media sites
Sites such as Nicktropolis (Nickelodeon's game site), Disney Channel and Pirates Online (partner to Disney's "Pirates of the Caribbean") give kids an automatic common interest: They've watched the TV channel or the movie. To the extent they can chat, kids are more likely to chat about Zack and Cody or Captain Jack Sparrow than school or soccer. Indeed, many tween-focused sites limit how kids interact with each other, from scripted dialogue on some sites to encouraging community members to report others who ask for, or offer, personal information.

These sites also walk a thin line between pure gaming and social networking, and with good reason: Tweens still like to play games.

Dress-up and make-believe
While sites like Webkinz and Animal Crossing let children interact in a world of make-believe, other sites have kids chatting and modeling real-life activities, if in a fantasy setting. Furnishing a home on Club Penguin, or dressing an alter-ego doll on Meez — and comparing notes with friends — offers practice for real life on a couple of levels. It's a sort of teen lite activity. It also gives tweens a chance to practice asset management: Club Penguin and other similar sites require points to "purchase" items; those points can be earned through winning games, or through a paid membership or gift cards (which can be a sore spot with parents; more on that later).

Beginner networking
Tweens who are more aware of popular culture, or who are socially more sophisticated, will feel comfortable at sites like Allykatzz, Beacon Street Girls and Imbee. These sites are more focused on actual networking, with existing or new friends. Some, like Beacon Street Girls (based on the book series), have a built-in interest base. Others, like Allykatzz, are akin to a Sugar network for tweens and teens. Hot topics there recently ranged from back to school to the Olympics. Messages can veer toward the serious; it's not uncommon to read kids' posts on coping with two households, blended families and other issues. And just as in the adult world, there is advice offered and virtual hugs extended.

The benefits of social networking
Most parents feel there are definite benefits for their kids if they can safely interact with other kids within these online social networking communities. A National School Boards Association study in July 2007 found that:

  • 76% of parents feel that social networking could help reading and writing skills;
  • 75% of parents feel that social networking can help self-expression; and
  • 72% of parents feel that social networking can help children learn to work together

What parents should know
Ideally, parents should check out social networking sites that may appeal to their children ahead of time. In reality, you probably won't know until they sign up — when you get an e-mail seeking your approval for their new account. Most sites also take this opportunity to invite you to create your own parent's account, so that you can easily monitor your child's activity. Seize it: Create a profile, tell your child about it and remind her that you'll be keeping an eye on her. Monitor chat and content, with an eye to potential bullying and inappropriate material. Encourage your child to report to you any exchanges or content that makes her feel uncomfortable.

Take this opportunity also to review the site's terms and conditions — don't blindly click "accept" — and make sure your child understands them clearly. Many sites will ban members who distribute spam through their network — even seemingly innocent chain letters with pictures of kittens and puppies.

While most sites are free, others feature a pay-for-play component. Club Penguin, for example, has both free and paid memberships; $5.95 a month entitles members to fancier accoutrements for their penguins. (Chat is available in free memberships.) For parents who are understandably wary of a potential drain on a debit account or credit card, gift cards are available. Also, there's an implicit pay-for-play element to sites that rely on purchased playthings, such as Webkins or Pokemon Indigo, to attract kids to the site.

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