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“If you really want to know about business, you should refer to Scott Steinberg.” -Sir Richard Branson, Virgin Group

Social Networks for Kids: An Expert Guide

Being a social media speaker, I often remind folks: Social networks continue to grow by leaps and bounds, allowing fans of all ages to connect with friends, family and peers worldwide and share status updates, photos, videos, comments and more. Credit the meteoric rise of popular social sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn and Pinterest, which continue to captivate billions of users globally, and can be accessed from a growing range of high-tech devices.

What are these forms of communication exactly though? Cheerfully, as this social media speaker can tell you, the answer is simple: Think of them as dedicated online spaces and Internet-based communities where users are encouraged to share personalized content and updates in all forms, including but not limited to multimedia, live video conversations or text messages. These websites and services thrive on interpersonal interaction, and users are encouraged to chat, connect and keep friends updated on the latest news, happenings and events in their life. Several services such as Facebook also provide access to free apps, games and utilities that can be played from within your Web browser.

At the core of any social network are its users: Millions of everyday individuals who connect to form a community dedicated to sharing personal or professional information in the form of text, multimedia or online links. Whether you’ve actively chosen to connect with these folks, or they have the option to publicly follow your notifications, depends entirely on the specific service and your privacy settings, however. That said, given their booming popularity with adults and kids, whether you feel social sites make us more emotionally isolated or bring us closer together, it bears repeating: One cannot afford to ignore their impact on the modern world, and the lives of those who choose to utilize them.

Note that some social networks require approval from other in order for you to become connected to them. Others let you follow, observe or monitor others’ posts and interactions without consent. All are highly public spaces, and information broadcast on them can travel quickly.

Naturally, it pays to know your social sites. Here’s a quick look at today’s most popular social networks:

Facebook helps people stay connected with friends and family, and with nearly 1 billion users is today’s most well-known social network amongst all age groups. Users must agree to become “friends” in order to view each others’ updates, photos, links and more, which can be accessed from the Web, smartphones, tablets and other devices.

Twitter is a real-time information or “micro-blogging” network in which users exchange short text messages called “Tweets” containing 140 characters or less. Anyone can access these updates through public searches, and users can subscribe to follow others’ public updates.

Google+ connects kids with peers, as does Facebook, but it also provides the option to group contacts by social circles, letting you filter the updates that friends can receive. As an example, using the service, you can share private updates only with family members and more public missives with anyone else.

Pinterest is a visually-rich site that easily lets users share and sort photos and brief captions for others to enjoy. It’s exploding in popularity thanks to its highly graphical nature and user-friendly interface, and as of early 2012, was already the third most-popular social network.

Tumblr is a “short-form” blogging service that allows for quick updates and photo sharing, and allows users to easily follow each other or discover content that may be of interest.

Posterous is a site designed for mobile blogging, making it easy to share content from your mobile device. As of March 2012, the company was acquired by Twitter.

Also worth noting, at least from a teacher’s or parent’s perspective, are a few more lesser-known social networks that are geared towards kids:

Whatswhat.me is a “kids-only” social network designed for kids ages 7 to 13 that uses a webcam to verify children’s identity. It’s fully compliant with COPPA rules about collecting data about minors.

Imbee is another social network designed for younger kids that features a profanity-free music streaming service called Imbee Radio.

YourSphere is designed for kids 18 and under, and subjects its applicants to strict background checks, and features games, activities and a system for earning credits.

Setting aside the relationships constantly being formed and evolved via these services, reasons that teachers and parents need to be concerned about social network usage partly include the volume and nature of information being shared, and partly because this information is forever visible to the world.

Teachers and parents should especially take note, with the vast majority of teens having witnessed acts of meanness or cruelty on social networks. Likewise, over 80% of them admit to posting content to Facebook they’ve hidden from friends and family, according to a recent TRUSTe survey. These statistics indicate potential problem spots for tomorrow’s kids, with both college recruiters and prospective employers increasingly turning to these sites to research prospective candidates. Kids and adults alike should think twice before posting anything, as it may spread like wildfire, and information live on forever via the Internet.

However, it bears remembering, as any social media speaker can tell you – social networks can also be a great way to connect and communicate with individuals from all backgrounds and walks of life, including those we’d never encounter in the real world, and a perfectly positive and healthy part of childhood. What you take away from them depends entirely on what you choose to put in, whom you interact with and how, though. Therefore it’s imperative that kids be educated in safe computing habits, digital citizenship and online privacy before they’re simply shooed off to play on social media platforms, the most public of online spaces.

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