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Yoursphere.com: For Kids, By Kids

The Internet, with its vast stores of information and its ability to facilitate communication is wide open with possibility and opportunity. However, it opens the door to many things better left shut out; creating a difficult situation for parents who want the positive elements of the Internet for their children but who want to keep their children safe from the negative elements.

Davis resident Mary Kay Hoal, corporate media entrepeneur and mother of five, had to confront this question when her daughter, Madison, wanted to get a Myspace account. Mary Kay did some research into the popular Myspace and Facebook, and looked at other social networking sites as well, and what she found was frightening. Needless to say, Madison was not going to get a Myspace page.

It’s not that Mary Kay had a problem with social networking. She knew it was beneficial to develop social networking skills and that social networking was the new version of “hanging out.” However, her problem was that sites like Facebook and Myspace were designed with adults in mind. Mary Kay feels “these sites are encouraging kids to grow up too fast.” The content of these sites often encourage kids to act more dismissive and casual about sex than they may feel. Mary Kay cites such things as quizzes on Facebook asking, “Are you horny?” and applications to “rate your friends” as ways that kids are sexualized. In short, these are all things adults can participate in and understand their place, whereas younger users may be unable to moderate these questions effectively.

It was clear that there was room for an alternative site, one that allowed for the positive participation of children in social networking. And perhaps more importantly, Mary Kay felt “an obligation to do something about this, because parents don’t know all that is out there.” If this is an issue that concerns you, please check out Mary Kay’s blog here.

In August of 2008, Mary Kay launched Yoursphere.com, a social networking Web site for kids through age 18. The goal of the site was to provide a place where kids could participate in the media surrounding them, and in Mary Kay’s words, “create their own version of space.” Yoursphere.com does this, fostering a place where kids can interact on social networking forums, all while mechanisms are in place to ensure that they do so in a way that is safe and secure.

Yoursphere.com looks out for the safety of its users in a few ways. When a child says he or she wants to sign-up for Yoursphere.com, they have to provide their parent’s e-mail address in order to verify their age and their approval. As an additional layer of protection, the parent’s names are funneled through the sexual offender database. These multiple checks help ensure people are who they say they are on the site. By eliminating the anonymous nature that characterizes most Internet services, Yoursphere.com is able to hold people accountable for their actions. Mary Kay sees anonyminity as one of the major reasons why the Internet is so dangerous. She points out that “you act a little differently when you are anonymous, especially if you have bad intentions.”

Building on that idea, Mary Kay has a motto in regards to what happens on the computer. She firmly believes that “if it doesn’t happen without a computer, it shouldn’t happen with a computer.” Consider this: if your 13-year-old daughter was having private interactions with a 17-year-old boy, this might cause you to raise your eyebrows. Why would a friendship online be any different? And yet, many parents have no idea how old their children’s Facebook or Myspace friends are. On Yoursphere.com, users are encouraged to make friends with other users in their own age group – private “chatting” between users with more than three years age discrepency is not allowed. Furthermore, the site uses monitoring techniques to watch for troubling interactions or behavoir that violates the terms of service. This helps combat instances of cyberbullying and, most importantly, it sets up a standard of expected behavoir for users on the site.

The core of the site is the “spheres” or a page, where a user can create a forum for discussion of something he or she is interested in. Mary Kay describes Yoursphere as “allowing kids to create their own online community, based on their interests.” So if your child is interested in fashion, there is an entire section of the site devoted to fashion, and subdivided into elements of fashion – to the point where a “sphere” can be devoted to something as simple as lip gloss. On this page, users can post videos about lip gloss, they can talk about which lip gloss is the best, and go into the subject as much as they want. When they get bored, they move on and create a new sphere. In this way, the site is constantly evolving and users are generating new content.

Furthermore, the site provides activities for users. So instead of crafting a profile and relying solely on social interaction as a form of entertainment, Yoursphere.com has games and contests to keep the users busy and happy. Mary Kay theorizes that much of the disturbing behavoir online stems from a simple lack of things to do on social networking sites. By providing rotating and fresh activities, kids are kept busy, happy and out of trouble.

Perhaps most importantly, users of Yoursphere.com are learning about how social networking works, and how to use these Web sites in ways that are positive and safe. So later on, when they move on to Facebook or Myspace, they will be cognizant of potential dangers and better able to navigate them. The site educates its users on Internet safety, and encourages that dialogue within families. Yoursphere.com coined the term “creepers” – a fantastically evocative name for people who create a fake profile for nefarious purposes, and this has encouraged awareness of people who would do that among Yoursphere.com users.

Mary Kay is hyperaware that the site must be seen as “cool” for the users to want to be there. This creates a unique problem: how do you maintain the “street cred” of a site for kids? Mary Kay figured out that some things are essential. First off, the site needs to be for kids – parents, despite their best intentions, need to give their children some space online. For this reason, parents are not allowed profiles and kids over a certain age are afforded some privacy. This has the side-effect of keeping Yoursphere.com, and the spheres created, authentic. Mary Kay also consults with a group she calls the Teen Advisory Crew to keep the games and the contests fresh and interesting, and she has even hired young writers to generate content for the site. But even with these measures, Mary Kay worries that the shadow of parent approval stretches far.

She finds encouragement in anecdotal evidence of children finding Yoursphere.com cool, even with parental endorsement. She tells the story of a daughter of a friend who wanted to get on a social network, and while her mother denied the Myspace and Facebook request, she did offer Yoursphere.com as an alternative. The daughter, skeptical, went into the other room and got online to look it over. She quickly came back, announcing, “It’s really cool, Mom,” with a happy smile on her face.

While being cool is important, Mary Kay also understands the site’s value as a teaching tool. Her blog is a thoughtful exploration of the issues of Internet safety for children, and she provides crucial information to parents. Some of what is on her blog is shocking, and Mary Kay admits that “I have to walk a line between being scary and being informative.” Along with the blog, the site produces a monthly newsletter for parents to keep them in the loop and to give them tools to manage any issues that might come up.

Issues of Internet safety for children are just beginning, and parents are faced with a problem that would have been impossible to imagine a generation ago. Through Yoursphere.com, Mary Kay Hoal is being proactive, and finding a way to bring out the best the Internet has to offer while sheltering children from the worst. Check out the Web site for yourself at www.yoursphere.com.

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