Today, kids start wading into the social networking waters as soon as their little fingers can type, exploring digital "communities," many of them designed mainly to stoke their fascination with particular toys. New sites launch constantly, targeting an ever-younger audience.
KINDERGARTEN THROUGH EARLY SCHOOL AGE
The focus is on communal game-playing and earning points to buy virtual things, rather than socializing. There's some messaging between friends, but most sites allow young kids only to post messages using prewritten, generic phrases or words from a tightly restricted dictionary. Kids can't share personal information like a home address. Among the most popular:
Webkinz.com: Free for one year with purchase of a Webkinz or Lil'Kinz toy. Owners feed and clothe digital versions of their plush "pets" and play games to earn virtual "KinzCash." They can play video games against other kids or take quizzes designed for players 5+. They're rewarded for spending lots of time on the site, so you may need to impose time limits. Safety-wise, kids can't type messages that go beyond select phrases unless a parent approves their access to the "KinzChat PLUS" area. In that area (recommended for ages 10+), kids can only use words from the site's dictionary.
ClubPenguin.com: This hugely popular Disney-owned website charges a membership fee (about $5/month, depending on the plan you choose). Kids are represented by penguin avatars rather than by images of themselves. By playing games, they earn virtual money to clothe and accessorize their penguins and decorate their igloos. They can send other penguins a "buddy invite," visit their igloo, chat using predetermined phrases -- unless they get clearance from parents to chat freely -- and send postcards, among other things. (They can also snub each other!) Designed for kids 6-14, but open to all ages.
ELEMENTARY AND MIDDLE SCHOOL
Whyville.com: Free, designed for kids 8-15. Like Webkinz and ClubPenguin, it involves playing games to earn virtual money (in this case, "clams") for use in building an avatar. Rather than being represented as a cartoon animal, Whyville members create avatars that represent their physical selves. That's one step closer to the vibe of more grown-up sites, but it's still more a virtual world/gaming space than a true social networking site. Chat among new members is restricted to prewritten phrases, but those who pass a "chat license test" (to show they understand online safety) have more freedom to type personal messages to friends. Some words are blacklisted. This site doesn't hawk toys and is more educational than most.
Dgamer.com (Disney XD): Access is free with purchase of certain Disney video games. Kids have avatars, can chat and send virtual gifts, but the priority is gaming via the networking capability of a Nintendo DS. The basic chat function allows only prewritten phrases. Parental approval is required for more advanced chatting ("Open Chat" and "Speed Chat Plus"), which is watched over by human moderators. A warning: Teach kids the difference between Dgamer's "public chat" (where strangers can read and join their conversations) and "private chat" (limited to those you've approved as friends).
YOUNG TEENS AND BEYOND
MySpace and Facebook were once the realm of college students and grown-ups, but high school and even middle school kids have discovered them. Facebook is now open to anyone 13 and older, and the minimum age on MySpace is 14. Sound far away? Your kids may already be seeing their friends' older siblings using these sites, or they may even have fudged their birthdate to register themselves! If you're not already using them, learn about them now.
Both sites offer broad freedom to post words, images, audio files and video. So step one is talking with your kids about the importance of not sharing personal information with strangers, not posting photos that could embarrass themselves or their friends, and steering clear of cyber-bullying. But the risk with these sites is that anyone can post a comment about your child or identify them in the caption of an embarrassing photo -- kids can't control their friends' behavior. Older versions of a web page are stored on servers and can pop up when your child least expects it -- like during the college admissions process.
Your child shouldn't accept "friend requests" from people he or she doesn't know well. Join these sites along with your kids and immediately set up a "friend" connection with them. They may not like it, but then you can see who their friends are and what they're posting.