Social Nerworking: In response to Facebook and co, Togetherville for kids

THE PUNCH Newspaper- Juliet Bumah

A housewife, Mrs. Ruth Agboola, has never been too interested in the computer and all it offers. With five children all under age nine, she has a handful, she will always tell friends.

According to her, she wakes up at 5am each morning to prepare breakfast for the whole family and lunch that her children will take to school. Her banker husband who religiously leaves home at 5.45am sometimes grabs breakfast before dashing out in the mornings. Then she wakes the children, brushes, bathes and feeds them before driving them to two different schools and also does the afternoon school runs.

So really, there was no time for the computer, or so she thought until her senses were overwhelmed with talks about Facebook, Jhoos, Twitters, Badoo and other social networking sites in her children schools.

While waiting for the kids to come out of their classes, the mothers usually find something to talk about and suddenly the discussion now centers on Internet-based social networking sites. “Ah, I saw a secondary school mate I hadn‘t seen in 17 years on Facebook. She‘s changed a lot and…she‘s married of course,” someone would say and someone else would go on about how useful the Internet had become in recent time. Agboola decided she would visit the sites. If not for anything, at least, she would appear Internet savvy when co-mothers talked about it in her children‘s schools.

She got an Internet modern for the old laptop at home and opened an account on Facebook. A taste, they say, and she is hooked! Out of no time, she has carved out enough time to connect and chat with friends she has acquired and like many other adults, the Internet seems to be competing with oxygen in her live.

For adults, being connected on online social networking media is in vogue. Apart from aiding to keep abreast of happenings from all parts of the world and sharing pictures and thoughts with social families acquired over a period on the Internet, it has proved a veritable source of reconnecting which long lost friends. It has also helped in developing skills as it has made many who, hitherto, will not be bothered, to develop interest in the computer.

While adults catch their fun on the Internet, there has always been the worry that unguided children may stumble on online sites that may be detrimental to their psyche. What with the fact that children are being tutored in the use of the computer from an early age, there is no limit to what these kids can do and sites they can log on to while surfing the Internet. This thought got a parent sufficiently worried to look for ways to make the kids catch their fun on the web, but with parental guidance.

According to Yahoo News, Mr. Mandeep Singh Dhillon‘s son, Zoraver, learnt how to take pictures of himself with his father‘s computer when he was four years old. The young boy also want to share his pictures with relatives online immediately. Dhillon liked the idea of his son developing skills he would use for a lifetime at an early age, but was hesitant to let his young son loose on the open Internet. He began working on an alternative.

The result is Togetherville, a social networking site which he created three years later for children between the ages of six and 10 and their parents. For Dhillon, the site will “keep children safe from cyberbullying and other online dangers and allow them to become comfortable with online interaction. The site, which has been in private beta for several months, was opened to the public recently.”

According to the Readwriteweb, Togetherville allows parents to build a social circle for their children based on their own collection of Facebook friends. The children can then interact with the children of their parents‘ friends, and specific adults that their parents have chosen, in a semi-private environment. The content on the site is curated, so children can play games, make art projects and watch or share videos, but everything they have access to has been vetted in advance. Children can comment on their friends‘ posts directly through drop-down menus of pre-selected phrases. If a user wants to say something that is not on the list, he can submit a request that it be added.

Dhillon said this type of interaction helps children develop social skills that they can‘t get from virtual worlds like “Club Penguin, which protect children by having them act only through anonymous avatars.”

“We teach kids from a very early age, never let your identity be online, never let anyone know who you are, but we‘re teaching some bad things,” he said. ”Kids don‘t learn how to be accountable.”

Dhillon said the site, which has about 10 employees, would not charge a subscription or carry advertising, and that it would rely at least in part on parents giving their children allowances to buy virtual merchandise. The business model is not entirely clear, said Ann Miura-Ko, a partner at Floodgate, the site‘s main investor. The site‘s market is a potentially lucrative one, though.

“Once you have parents and their children operating on the same system, there are a lot of opportunities,” Ms. Miura-Ko said. Floodgate was also an early investor in Twitter and Digg.

Dhillon is pushing Togetherville not just as a business, but also as a social tool. He has enlisted the help of various people who work on online safety issues. Chief executive of the Family Online Safety Institute, Stephen Balkam, said that he thought the site could keep younger children off Facebook, where they are more likely to find inappropriate content and are less protected from potentially harmful interactions with strangers or bullies.

However, Agboola feels that allowing her kids to get hooked on to the Internet at their age will have adverse effect on them. ”I think this social networking stuff is addictive. Kids should not be encouraged to start networking too early in life. It will affect their studies. We have enough problem getting them off the television,” she said.

An accountant, Mr. Babatunde Sanni, ‘feels that kids between six and 10 years are too young to be encouraged to dabble into the world of online social networking. “I will not allow my children to be on a social networking site at that age,” he said.

Mrs. Oge Okoye-Ekwem is not aware that there is an online social networking site for kids. She is a member of the Facebook family and currently has her son‘s image as her profile picture. ”An online social networking site for young ones may not be a bad idea in an electronic age. Whatever parents can do to equip their children with necessary skills they will need later in life will be welcomed. However, I feel a six year old should be encouraged to develop interest in school books. I haven‘t heard or come across this site, Togetherville, you are talking about, but I‘ll look it up,” she says.

At a business luncheon organised by the Island Club in Lagos recently, the governor of Edo State, Mr. Adams Oshiomhole, had expressed the fear over what he referred to as e-children. The governor had said that very soon, parents who send their children abroad for studies would start having electronic children.

According to him, “If something is not done to address our educational system in this country, very soon, those of us who have the privilege of sending our children to schools abroad will be producing e-children- that is electronic children. This is because we can only communicate with them through emails, Facebook. We cannot hug them, we cannot monitor their movements. Something must have to be done.”

With the fears raised by Nigerian parents, it is obvious that the Togetherville may take some time before it becomes a rave here.


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