Kids Design “Spheres,” Publish Content, and Receive Scholarships on Yoursphere

This blog post continues the conversation with Mary Kay Hoal, founder of Yoursphere, which we began this week in part 1 of this series. In this post, we ask Mary Kay to share more about how kids are using Yoursphere to lead the way online.

OSS: It’s very clear from our conversation so far, that kids are the focus for you and Yoursphere. What you have done to help get the kids involved in the site?

Mary Kay: You know, we as parents are so privileged – because studies show that we’re raising the smartest generation of kids yet. Their brains work differently, because they are exposed to the Internet and a variety of media so early – they multi-task better, for example.

So, my vision for Yoursphere was to get the kids involved in leading us. The best ideas come from the kids. Yoursphere is all about empowering the kids through social media – letting them design their best online environment. So, it’s really by kids, for kids, as led by kids.

OSS: That’s an amazing vision, to empower kids to lead on the Internet. Can you give us some examples of what you mean? How do kids lead on Yoursphere?

Mary Kay: Kids actually help to design and create the content. We want kids to be themselves, and drive the content. We also enable kids to self-police and moderate the site, by educating them on good social media behavior. Some of the comments that we’ve received from kids, say it best:

“Yoursphere makes it cool to be a good kid!”

“It’s awesome! I can’t believe there is such a site that let’s you design stuff.”

We’ve also had great examples of how kids have picked up on the education. For example, one parent told me that her fourth-grader found out that a younger kid – a first-grader – had opened a Facebook account. That fourth-grader went to the younger kid, and told him that “it’s stupid” and “not cool” for young kids to have a Facebook profile because “Facebook is for adults.” That kind of story just makes me so proud!

OSS: I’m really intrigued by this concept of letting kids design their own Internet. Can you give some additional examples of exactly what you mean by this? What, exactly, does Yoursphere enable kids to design?

Mary Kay: Kids get to design their own sites within the Yoursphere environment, “spheres” in our terminology. They publish their own content. We had one child, for example, who loves owls and published a whole site on owls. Other kids visiting the site learned all about owls, their habitat, their eating habits – it was educational.

We enable kids to create interest groups. We have a young writer’s program, and an art program – whatever the kids decide that they want. We also offer paid editing positions for kids on certain subjects. For example, we have a 13yo fashion editor – a paid position – who writes on topics like “shopping your closet.”

Yoursphere also awards scholarships to kids. 3% of our revenue is allocated to scholarships. Kids can apply for these, and we award them for support of positive real-world experiences. We’ve awarded two so far, one for gym camp and another for an art camp. To apply, kids need to provide us with an essay describing their goals, along with references.

OSS: What are the demographics on your site? I would expect perhaps that younger kids would be more active, since older kids would more likely use Facebook and other adult sites after the age of 13. But, with the content and programs you’ve described, maybe your getting an older crowd as well?

Mary Kay: 70% of our kids are under the age of 13. 30% are 13yo and older, with 20% of those also having a Facebook profile. We have active use –  every kid spends an average of 36 minutes per visit, goes 76 pages deep and publishes 25 pieces of content – so far!

OSS: I know that you’ve been recognized in the child safety industry. What awards have you won?

Mary Kay: I’ve been recognized by the “Institute for Responsible Online and Cell Phone Communication,” receiving their 2010 National Award for Excellence. received the prestigious Gartner 2010 Cool Vendor Global Award.

Also, because of my work at Yoursphere and YoursphereForParents, I was asked to participate in a documentary film about cyberbullying that will be out this spring called “Submit” and ABC has asked me to be part of a show airing in the late spring.

OSS: What’s next for Yoursphere?

Mary Kay: We’re excited by our success to date! We’re really inspired by our members – our kids are role models and educators. We intend to continue this mission and continue empowering kids. Also, we have some great new things happening in March – so stay tuned!


Rules of the Road for the Internet

The Man in the Mirror

Image by Ŕooners via Flickr

Mark Zuckerberg has famously said, that anyone who needs more than one identity lacks integrity.

Zuckerberg’s statement responds to concerns about how Facebook and social media change social dynamics by eliminating boundaries that exist in the real world. Our behaviors change – appropriately – according to where in the real-world we are located, and who we are with. How we speak and act around parents, for example, is usually very different than how we speak and act around peers.

In fact, studies show that we as individuals are more likely to reveal private information if we think that we are among peers. Private information which, in some real-life settings, could become damaging if known.

The online cross-pollination of all of our different selves is known among social scientists as “context collapse.” Scientists, like Alice Marwick of Microsoft Research New England in Cambridge, are worried that we are losing the ability to present these separate selves online.

Rules of Using the Internet

Policies and laws governing how private information can be used online, are in flux. Laws already on the books – like those governing child pornography or protecting the identity of news sources – are in the process of being interpreted by the courts as they apply to new social media scenarios. In many cases, new laws and policies are in the process of being debated and written.

Until policies and laws catch up, here are some ‘rules of the road for the Internet’ that might help the savvy online user to stay out of most trouble – now and into the future:

  • Nothing is private
  • Nothing is anonymous
  • Everything is permanent
  • If you want to improve your online image, it’s best to spend MORE time online rather than less
  • Never post anything that you wouldn’t want your mother – or your grandmother - to read
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In The News: Nation’s CyberTipline Reports Nearly Double in 2010 Over 2009

CyberTipline is operated by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children in partnership with the FBI and several other US government agencies. The CyberTipline was launched in March 1998, as directed by Congress, and is staffed 24×7 to receive calls and online reports of cyber incidents which exploit children sexually.

Yesterday, USA Today reported that CyberTipline “received 223,374 reports in 2010, nearly double the 2009 number.”

Experts quoted in the story blame the increase on climbing social media usage, mobile smartphones, and new types of social media services – like location-pegging from Foursquare and Gowalla.

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