Boom or Bubble? The Rise of Social Networking Websites for Kids

As I was preparing my presentation for the Dust or Magic conference mentioned in my previous post, I couldn’t help but notice how much new activity there is in the kids’ social networking world. As the researcher Peter Grunwald shared with me last month, social networking as a concept has always been available on the Internet. Even so, it seems to have some newer meaning in the context of an activity kids express interest in. Last year at this time, I was only familiar with maybe four sites for kids. Fast forward a year, and I am amazed at how many more companies are playing in this space, some of which have been around for years but are only now gaining visibility. Not all of these sites are of equal quality and, right or wrong in their approach, each has a different set of assumptions about how to engage children. Below is a list of the social networking websites I am aware of today. It is not a complete list. My definition of social networking sites is a little broad, but there’s no denying the growth in this space.


Site Launch Site Launch Site Launch
BarbieGirls Apr 2007 Mokitown Jul 2001 SuperClubsPlus Apr 2006
Be-Bratz Aug 2007 MyNoggin Oct 2007 ToonTown Jun 2003
CityPixel Sep 2006 Neopets Nov 1999 Webkinz Apr 2005
Club Penguin Oct 2005 Nicktropolis Jan 2007 Whyville Mar 1999
Club Tuki Jul 2007 Panwapa Oct 2007 YoKidsYo Dec 2006
Gaia Online Feb 2003 Postopia Apr 2001 Yomod May 2007
Habbo Hotel Aug 2000 PuzzlePirates May 2002 Zwinktopia May 2007
imbee Jun 2006 Runescape Jan 2001
Millsberry Aug 2004 StarDoll May 2004


By graphing these sites by the year in which they launched, one begins to see the growth trend of social networking websites for kids.

Growth with social networking sites for kids over time

Since March of this year, my company, 360KID, has received a number of requests to build new social networking websites. More calls started coming in after the Club Penguin acquisition by Disney. Some people who call are driven by one thing- to create a Club Penguin-like website that’s better than Club Penguin. While Club Penguin has many great things going on within its service, there are certainly other avenues within the social networking world to explore. After comparing different sites currently available for kids, I see many unique opportunities to take advantage of, especially ones that touch on different areas of learning. Below is a matrix showing different content segments and age groups that are covered (or not) within the social networking world.

Opportunities within the children's world of social networking

The blue shading indicates age groups that are less motivated by social features but are interested in community-based activities. Companies listed in italics offer activities that are much more community than socially driven.

While reviewing all of these sites and speaking with many different people interested in building social networking sites for kids, I have put together a short list of do’s and don’ts that put the interests of the child first and will ultimately create more successes with your intended audience:

  • Don’t design by committee – Keep the integrity and the strength of your design strong by defining with small teams. Have anywhere from one to three strong visionaries of equal voice define the broad strokes of your product.
  • Be open ended in your design – If you can avoid it, don’t force children to play in a specific way. Think how you can allow for multiple ways for children to interact and play within your environment.
  • Think emotional connection – Offer activities or avatar characteristics that will create a sense of empathy with your user.
  • Design for a very specific audience – Pick a specific age range, like 3 to 5 or 7 to 9. Then learn as much as you can about that audience, like its developmental strengths, play patterns, interests. Don’t design a product with the intent of appealing to a large age range, like 3 to 300. Designing for a broad audience tends to have the outcome of appealing to no single group.
  • Competing against a community vs. competing against yourself – I’m asked a lot about my thoughts related to leader boards, which are areas of gaming sites in which the top score places high on a list of other members of a community. While I understand the motivation of leader boards for certain audience segments as a motivator, a game mechanic like a leader board, can also turn away other audience types. There are some instances where leader boards can be used effectively, like in classroom vs. classroom competitions, but generally, I am opposed to using such features, especially when a desired outcome is informal learning.
  • Text – I am continually surprised as to how often a web product designed for very young children doesn’t take into consideration that their audience may consist of prereaders or emerging readers. Be thoughtful with your use of text and instructions. Consider visual, iconic, or audio instructions as opposed to text with younger audience members.

Is this race to develop social networking sites for kids a boom or a bubble? If you asked me a couple of months ago, I would have said a bust is on the horizon in this space. But the more I think about it, the more I’m seeing a new play pattern emerging which kids will really enjoy when developed correctly. That doesn’t mean that everyone will succeed. There will be many failures and few successes, but I believe the future successes will keep this sector of interactive products for children growing strong for many years to come.

These are a few thoughts I shared in my recent presentation at the Dust or Magic conference. To see the full presentation I delivered, you can view a video of my presentation below.

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6 Responses to “Boom or Bubble? The Rise of Social Networking Websites for Kids”

  1. Christy Matte Says:

    I am looking forward to seeing more of the kids’ social networking sites going beyond the “Dress up your avatar” and “decorate your room” paradigm to focusing more on learning and social issues. Great post!

  2. Brian Says:

    Thanks very much for mentioning Yomod.com!

    Yomod.com is all about youth-generated media (photo galleries, videos and more to come soon!) so it fits into the “media literacy” row in all ages in your content segment/age matrix.

    Also interesting, compare how each of these social networks for kids handles safety, personal data collection, and parental consent issues. These issues are critical to any online service operating in this space. Yomod.com obtains parental consent at registration, moderates all content and reviews comments to make certain they are age-appropriate and its network is closed.

    Great post!

    Cheers!
    Brian
    President, Yomod.com

  3. Lisa Neal Says:

    Thank you for this analysis. I had heard of some of these sites but didn’t realize there were so many. Are social networking communities such as Facebook being used by children as well?

  4. Scott Says:

    Hi Lisa,

    There is definitely an explosion of activity going on in the social networking / virtual worlds area for kids 12 and under. The list I posted in November, 2007 included 25 SN sites (with varying degrees of social connectivity) developed specifically for kids. Since then I have become aware of another 16 or so sites I have yet to include in that list.

    As for children using Facebook, the Facebook website clearly states that its site is not meant for children under 13 and has an information page stating so. However, if you were to do a search for “the class of 2014”, looking for members of a high school graduating class of 2014, those kids would be in sixth grade today and mostly made up of 12 year olds. Doing such a search (and removing the university graduation classes) provides a few hits, but still, it’s a little hard to tell how old these member profiles really are.

    MySpace has a similar warning that a user has to be at least 14 years of age to create a public profile. If you’re honest about your age when signing up, the system will not allow someone under 14 to complete the registration process. If a determined underage kid is dishonest about their age, a public profile is only moments away.

    It’s difficult to tell with any certainty how many kids ages 13 and younger are actually participating on these sites, but an informal observation tells me that younger kids, though maybe not many, are indeed using these sites.

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