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Wednesday, Jan 16, 2019
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Like Facebook, kids-only sites require parents' care

TAMPA - If you see your pre-teen child typing on the computer, "hang on mom's OTS", it means you're standing over her shoulder. Should you be? Holly Wagner thinks so. The stay-at-home Gibsonton mom allows 12-year-old daughter Katie to use Facebook but monitors everything she does – down to posting pictures for her. "I think it is safe enough because she has to use the computer in the living room and I have her password," Wagner said.
For those parents who aren't always there, a host of social networking sites catering to children – as well as monitoring groups that rate them – are popping up on the Internet. They tout protection from dangers such as bad language and predators. And many provide a safe online environment for children. But you can't always count on that. In just a few minutes, a reporter succeeded in creating accounts at four of these sites using a false profile, illustrating how easy it would be for anyone to do so – regardless of their age or intentions. While some of the sites say they require parental verification through email, this didn't prevent the creation of an account. And once you have an account, you can start looking for other children. Those sites were Scuttle Pad, Sweetyhigh.com, imbee.com and whatswhat.me. All are free.   * * * * *   At Scuttle Pad, the false account was deleted within 24 hours, after a reporter contacted the social networking site. Founder Chad Perry attributed that to the site's security measures, though he would not elaborate. Another site, Togetherville, blocked the creation of an account without the submission of verifiable personal information: The last four digits of a Social Security number. Togetherville also requires credit card information, another level of security, because it charges a small fee. False profiles are a problem that social media sites know they must address, said Ingrid Simone, senior editor for websites and apps with Common Sense Media. The San Francisco-based group promotes trustworthy digital information for families and children. "The sites with more robust parental controls will allow parents to keep a close eye on their kids' communication with others, so the parents themselves will be able to spot iffy people," Simone said. Common Sense, whose directors include Chelsea Clinton, rates websites created for children based on age-appropriateness. Perry at ScuttlePad said parents need to teach children to use social networks in a safe and responsible way. His site was created for kids 6 to 11 to interact online and connect with their friends. "We like to think of ScuttlePad as a bike with training wheels," Perry said. "Just as you teach your kids to learn to ride a bike, you should also teach them how to use social networks."   * * * * *   Facebook and Twitter, Perry said, are not designed with children in mind. "I am aware, as a business owner and an informed member of the community, that Facebook has no safeguards to protect children from online predators and against cyber bullying," he said. A recent Consumer Reports study reveals the scope of the challenge: Among the 20 million Americans under 18 who use Facebook, 7.5 million were younger than 13. More than 5 million were 10 and younger. Facebook requires users to be 13 and older, but it does not verify ages. Katie Wagner, for example, the 12-year-old Gibsonton girl, is listed as 22 on Facebook. Parry Aftab, author of "A Parent's Guide to the Internet" and founder of online children's safety organizations, said teens and preteens crave social media. "They all want to socialize and many aren't willing to wait until they are 13 because the U.S. Congress says they should, which is why they lie about their age," Aftab said. Social media websites catering to those under 13 must comply with the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, which spells out for operators how to write a privacy policy, how to get verifiable consent from parents, and their responsibilities for protecting children's safety. The Federal Trade Commission, which administers the act, must know whether the site is collecting personal information about children openly or in the background, through the use of cookies.   * * * * *   Another safety measure is the Socially Safe Seal from WiredTrust, a risk management consulting firm for mobile web and online gaming communities. Two seals are offered, one for general audience technologies and those catering to people over 13, and one directed at Internet users 13 and under. To earn a seal, a website must be transparent at all levels. "When we prove they have the right policies and practices in place, only then would they earn the seal," said Aftab, managing director of WiredTrust. "Social networks for preteens need more protection because they do and say on things online that they would never say in real life because they think that's what older kids do," he said. Parents need to know that kids are focused on finding their place in a social hierarchy, and sites such as Facebook can alter their self-image, said Douglas Haymaker, a clinical psychologist in New Jersey. "With social media it's instant, so it's easier to put something out there and you can't really take it back," Haymaker said. The American Academy of Pediatrics recently published a study on "Facebook depression," when children poring over friends profiles come to believe everyone is having a better life than they are. Parents can have a role in providing support when social networking goes bad. "Being in touch with your kids," Haymaker said, "and … have an open door policy so when they are upset they can talk. "Those are probably the best antidotes to some of the stresses social media can cause."

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