During National Cyber Safety Awareness Month we need to take the time to find out more where our kids are surfing online as well as what services are available to help parents keep their children safe.
Mary Kay Hoal is the founder of Yoursphere which has been featured on many media outlets including CNN, Fox and Friends, ABC News and more. If you haven’t seen or heard about Yoursphere, I am confident you will soon.
Take a moment to learn more Mary Kay Hoal and what she has created to help keep your kids safe online today. She generously took time to answer questions and offers valuable and informative tips, advice and resources.
Why did you create Yoursphere?
The Internet and social media sites offer many benefits to our children. It’s an essential part of their culture. I created Yoursphere because I found out first hand, after immersing myself in a myriad of social media sites, (Myspace, Facebook, Hi5, Friendster, Sconex, Bebo, My Yearbook, Tagged, Teen Spot, etc.) that none of the social networking sites put the safety and well being of our kids first. That’s because these sites were created by adults, for adults. I found an extremely coarse culture with interaction, that if there wasn’t a computer and keyboard involved, the activity would be illegal, immoral, unethical or unacceptable.
Time to stack the positive benefits of social networking in kids and teens lives against the negatives.
How does Yoursphere work?
We simply apply common sense, and model the Yoursphere community like the real world for kids and teens. That means, unlike any other social networking site:
•We require parental consent
•We verify the identity of the parent providing consent
•We verify the parent providing consent is not a registered sex offender*
•We limit participation to kids and teens through age 18**
•We use technology and human oversight to proactively protect the kids from inappropriate content, or from digitally tattooing themselves***
•We leverage the expertise of our Chief Security Advisor who worked for the Department of Justice tracking online anonymous sexual predators as well our law enforcement team with expertise in internet crime
•Friending is modeled after the real world. Kids under 13 can friend those in the same age range, teens can friend teens. (A 12 year old girl typically would not be having a private conversation with a 17 or 18 year old unless a sibling so we don’t allow online. Siblings of course can be friends.)
•Parents of children 12 and under can access any content their child has posted. Text, video pictures through their “parent dashboard” where they can manage their family account. (i.e. add another child, suspend membership, review content.)
•Like the real world, kids connect based on shared interests: sports, music, fashion, academics, performing arts, travel, animals & pets, art and photography, etc.
•We engage kids and teens in positive and purposeful activities.
Yoursphere was developed with the help of kids and teens across the U.S., so once inside the community, it is centered around their interests.
-We allow kids to create their own “spheres” or web communities based on their unique interests.
-We have member only scholarships to support their aspirations
-We have weekly and monthly contests.
-We have a credit/rewards program, where all members are rewarded for their positive interaction within the community and then they can redeem their credits for real-world rewards (movie tickets, ipod, gift card, music, shopping spree)
-We feature a quarterly “young writers contest” and have a team of kid and teen paid contributing writers.
•We support on the positive in kids through the Yoursphere culture while encouraging good online citizenship
•We educate kids about online safety with daily site internet safety reminders
•We provide parents information about internet safety issues and provide them tools for discussing them with their kids through my blog.
•Parents are kept in the loop about what’s going on in the community through our monthly parent newsletter. Because no child “snuck on” to become a Yoursphere member, I felt it was important that parents had something to talk about the site with their kids helping to make it a shared experience in some ways.
*(There were nearly 100K registered sex offenders on Myspace and reportedly nearly 40K on Facebook. The U.S. is the only country that does not protect the identity of its sex offenders.
The rest of the world does, so the “true number” of registered sex offenders trolling these sites is actually unknown. As a result, Yoursphere.com is exclusively for kids and teens from the United States.
Yoursphere.co.uk is for kids and teens in the UK and Ireland so that we can maintain the highest level of security.)
**(As in the real world, kids typically socially interact/hangout with kids their own age, and not adult strangers. Three of my five children will be 18 their senior year in high school, hence the age. Once on their way to college, we’ve done our best as parents to raise them, instill our values, and have given them adequate time to mature so they are prepared what “what awaits them.”)
***(Example: Technology is used to scan photo images. If a “can” for example comes up, that can is flagged. We determine that it’s soda vs. an alcoholic beverage. Or hand signals, we use human oversight to read the signal to determine if appropriate, or not.)
Why do you feel it is important for parents to consider Yoursphere?
Parents want the best for their children. They care about their children’s health, well-being and safety.
Parents are typically involved in every aspect of their children’s lives ranging from: where the family lives, to the school their child attends, the church or youth group they attend; to knowing their child’s friends and even parents; to the after school activities their kids participate in. Parents do their best to make sure all of these aspects of their child’s life are positive, safe, supportive, educational and reflect the values of their family.
Unfortunately, parents haven’t been able to make a positive choice for their kids/with their kids online. They’ve been left with no alternative. Frankly parents today for the most part are like me three years ago.
They just don’t know what’s going on in social media communities. And social media/social networking is really in its infancy. Checking the browser history, knowing your kids passwords, and installing protective software on the computer is all good. It just isn’t enough.
Parents need to protect their children from both from the people that intend their children harm and the culture that awaits them on these social networking communities. All of these sites were created by adults, for adults.
Until Yoursphere.com, there has been no solution. We can parallel what we’ve learned in other industries when it comes to children’s safety and the changes that have been made to correct the problem. Key to solving every problem includes education and an offered solution.
Education+Solution = Resolution to Problem*
-Automobiles: we learned people die in accidents; we educate and require seatbelts to be worn; require children in booster or car seats.
-Household fires: safety education; buy smoke alarms and replace the batteries.
-Bicycles: Educate on dangers, require kids to wear helmets.
-No weapons in schools: Educate re. dangers. Zero tolerance policy, alarm detectors.
-Swimming: teach your kids to swim.
-Teen Drivers: Pay for driver’s education; rules/restrictions have been set up for teens until they have enough experience to drive on their own.
-Movie rating system: Education about content. Requirement for rating . PG, PG 13, R, R17
-Music: Education of content. Parental Advisory
-Video Games: Education of content. Rating System
-TV content. Education about content. Limiting viewership.
*I recognize no solution is every 100% guaranteed. That’s specifically why we refer to Yousphere with the words safety-first. I would be remiss to say “safe”.
What makes Yoursphere unique?
Yoursphere was created on the inside (features, functionality, etc.) with the direct involvement of kids and teens across the U.S. and abroad. (I wanted this site to be one kids loved.) We have a teen advisory board. http://yoursphere.com/what-we-re-about
The site content is created by kids and teens, for kids and teens. (We even have a team of paid contributing young writers. http://yoursphere.com/what-we-re-about ) Membership is limited to kids and teens through age 18.
There is not another site that deploys all the same proactive safeguards that Yoursphere does. Yoursphere has arguably set the industry standards for kids and teens safety online as evidenced by the fact that we’re the sole-youth only site approved by The Privacy Vaults Online Safe Harbor of the Federal Trade Commission.
Are their fees involved?
Every membership to Yoursphere.com is free for the first 30 days. Because Yoursphere.com chose not to monetize itself by attempting to rely on advertising revenue (often age inappropriate), nor by deploying applications that exploit the privacy of minors, yes, we charge a nominal fee of $39.95 per year (.10 per day), or $4.95 a month (cancel at anytime) in order to afford the safeguards we have in place.
In addition, the fee allows us to further extend our support to those that also positively impact the lives of youth through our fundraising program for schools, youth groups and non profits. (We provide 40% or $16 of each membership back to those organizations.)
What motivates you?
•Parents like me. They love their children more than anything in the world; are concerned about the internet, but they haven’t known what to do and feel overwhelmed by technology.
•My faith. I believe in good and bad. Right and wrong. And while I may not have intended to be here, launching a business, educating others about the issues, providing a solution, I am here now. I have the professional background and skill set to do what I’m doing. I found it my obligation to change the status quo. These are our children! There’s nothing more important in the world then each and every one of them.