As concerns mount over the potential security risks posed by social-networking web sites such as MySpace, Friendster, and Facebook, a new generation of “safe” social networking sites is emerging. These new sites aim to capitalize on the enormous popularity of online social networking while at the same time providing a secure, educational platform for such activity.

So-called “safe” social networking sites, such as Whyville.net and Imbee.com, hope to limit the dangers that can accompany sites like MySpace, such as talking to internet predators and revealing too many personal details.

Whyville, which claims some 1.7 million users, is an online virtual world that immerses children in a video game-like experience where they must manage money, make sure they eat properly, and have the ability to communicate with others. More importantly, the site seeks to educate its users about online safety and how to behave in an online community.

Whyville was created by Numedeon, a media company specializing in online virtual worlds. Users create an avatar, or virtual character, and move around in a virtual world. Because characters have real-world abilities and can communicate with others in this virtual setting, the experience is much different from a more “flat” social networking site, said Jay Goss, chief operating officer of Whyville.net.

Goss said Whyville’s approach to safety hinges on the fact that a majority of the audience it serves is made up of children ages 8-15. Children must provide a parent’s eMail address when registering. When they complete their registration, an eMail message is sent to the parent notifying him or her of the new registration.

Proprietary artificial intelligence reportedly prevents members from using foul language and can block those words with a filter.

The site also compiles a database of words that might lead to inappropriate conversations, Goss said, citing the word “pants” as an example.

“Some percentage of the time when kids use that word, it’s going down a path that we don’t want it to go down,” he said of the online conversation. That word would be flagged, and community managers would examine the chat script to determine how the word was being used. If inappropriate, its use could result in characters being banned from talking for several days, and that would be evident on users’ screens by the image of duct tape across the banned characters’ mouths.

Before children can even participate, they must pass a test to get their “chat license.” Hardly anyone passes on the first try, Goss said, and after passing the test, users must spend three days becoming familiar with the web site before they have full access to its chat features.

Members under the age of 13 must undergo even more safety checks and cannot communicate with other users in any capacity until they have a parent sign a permission slip. While the web site is designed for children, “there’s a big difference between being an eight-year-old and being a 15-year-old,” Goss said.

Children must have parents mail or fax the permission slip back to the web site’s managers, Goss said, and any suspicious signatures, such as those that appear to have been forged, result in direct communication with the parent.

Whyville’s security measures reportedly limit predators from entering the site–but “it’s not technically impossible for that creepy, bad adult to do some creepy, bad things,” Goss acknowledged.

Adults may use the site, but Whyville forbids them to pretend to be kids. Goss said most users are children, but adults and children do chat, citing as examples a teacher using Whyville for a class, or a child chatting with a parent stationed overseas.

Goss said the children who use the web site are self-patrolling, and he claims the kids can easily spot an adult, even if he or she is pretending to be another child. Goss said he’s unaware of any instance where an adult has tired to pose as a child on the site.

In addition to site monitors who watch for predatory activity, other children and Whyville citizens can virtually “call 911,” Goss said, if they see something suspicious. Whyville citizens are visible to one another when they are in the same area of the virtual town, such as the beach. Their conversations, like in an internet chat room, are also visible. Users can chat privately through “whispers,” similar to instant messaging.

A “Whyvillian” on a beach might see an inappropriate conversation between two other citizens and can file a 911 report to alert community managers to the conversation, Goss said.

Aside from acting as a virtual social community, Whyville offers educational games and activities as well. The web site’s creators initially tried to address the question of why U.S. students fall behind their counterparts in other countries when it comes to the sciences, Goss said.

Roughly 50 graduate schools of education around the country have introduced Whyville into the curriculum so that incoming teachers know how to use it, he said, adding, “As far as we know, we have thousands of teachers exposing kids to it and softly incorporating Whyville in their lesson plans, especially the sciences.”

Another “safe” social networking site, Imbee.com, which will launch in mid-June, also aims to address some of the risks facing kids today as they begin to explore online social communities. Tim Donovan, vice president of marketing for Industrious Kid, the company that is launching Imbee, said children and teenagers often don’t understand that what they post on the internet remains on the internet. “We want kids to develop [an online] skill set under the guidance of their parents; we want parents to be accountable,” Donovan said, adding that this can help parents become more involved in their children’s online lives. The site could become an educational tool for teachers to use in and outside of the classroom, he said.

Educational technology advocates who spoke with eSchool News said sites such as Whyville and Imbee hold promise as online tools that aim to engage kids in a more secure internet environment.

“It is important to differentiate between bad behavior and dangerous behavior,” said Tom Hoffman, an Ed-Tech Insider (blogger) at eSchool News Online. “My observation is that the list of truly dangerous behaviors that should be forbidden is short. Don’t chat privately with strangers. Never, ever go alone to meet someone you met on the internet.”

Hoffman said that while MySpace was the first step in making contact in many abduction stories in the news recently, “private chatting is always the decisive point.”

“Social networking for kids is here to stay, for better or worse. It isn’t a fad,” he said, adding that what will probably look silly in a few years is the way kids post pictures of illegal or dangerous activities, such as drinking.

“What we’ll see now is various methods of making more private sites, as Facebook is already more private and exclusive than MySpace,” he said.

The National Cyber Security Alliance, a nonprofit organization that aims to increase cyber security and awareness among the public, recently launched a national campaign, “Help Keep Kids Connected and Protected,” to teach children about safely socializing online.

“We think it’s extremely important that we teach children how to stay safe and secure on the internet when they’re young and going through school, so they know how to be proper cyber citizens in the future,” said Ron Teixeira, the group’s executive director.

“We see schools as a great opportunity for [teaching] kids to stay safe online,” he said, adding that schools have been great avenues for past crusades against things such as drugs and alcohol. “It’s about time that we start teaching children these same common-sense procedures in the online world,” he said.

Teixeira added that some schools are teaching these safety skills, and some aren’t, but the nation as a whole lacks a single push to implement the teaching of such safety skills in a classroom setting.

“These social networking web sites are the new hot item on the internet, and they have highlighted the dangers that children face when they go [online],” he said.

Aside from sexual predators, Teixeira said young people now need to be wary of scams and identity theft.

In last year’s identity theft report, the Federal Trade Commission reported that the number of children under the age of 18 who experienced identity theft doubled from 2004 to 2005, he said.

“I think it goes pretty much without saying that just about every social networking site can be used safely or unsafely,” said Steve Burt, another Ed-Tech Insider at eSchool News Online. “Even the most secure, locally-running site hosted solely within a school’s intranet is [generally] still susceptible to either being hacked from the outside or, more to the point, used by students in unsafe ways.”

Burt said the uproar over sites such as MySpace and Facebook has to do with trust and oversight.

“These tools are here to stay,” he said. “So the central and only addressable issue is one of trust. How can we teach and trust our students to use the internet safely and wisely?”

Burt added, “Social networking sites are great tools that open up a window of possibilities, [such as] easy publication, collaboration, and bridging distances. The question is, do we trust what we’ve taught our students enough to let them use them? I hope so. If not, that says much more about us as educators than our students as users.”

Links:

National Cyber Security Alliance
http://staysafeonline.org

Whyville
http://www.whyville.net

Imbee
http://www.imbee.com