What is Yoursphere.com? A kid-safe alternative to Facebook and Myspace. We all know how dangerous social networking can be for kids. Mary Kay Hoal, founder of Yoursphere, had a great quote that I love: "when our kids wanted to ride a bike, we didn't just get them a bike and drop them off on a freeway and say 'goodbye.' With the Internet we need to apply that same approach." I couldn't agree more. Yoursphere is a social networking environment for kids that provides a safe and creative environment for them to learn the ropes of online social interaction. The "About Us" page from Yoursphere (which, by the way, was very hard to find - come on Yoursphere guys! :-) ) says this: "Yoursphere is about supporting the positive, age-appropriate interests of our children by engaging them in purposeful activities in a social networking community while educating them about good online citizenship and internet safety." In my opinion, this site does just that.
How does it work? Kids can create an account in one of two ways: 1. they can go to www.yoursphere.com and click the "Sign Up" button and fill in some information, including a parent's e-mail address. Yoursphere then contacts the parent, notifying them of the child's request and asking for permission to proceed. 2. Parents can go to www.yoursphere.com and click the "Sign Up" button and create a family account, identifying his/her participating children and giving permission for the accounts. Once the accounts have been created, kids can set up profiles with safe information about themselves (nothing personal like addresses or phone numbers). Once a profile has been created, children are free to explore "spheres" which are topic specific categories that have a variety of activities and content. For example, there is a Photography sphere where kids can post pictures they've taken, read comments about their work, get tips, etc. Kids can also create their own spheres about anything they want. My daughter created a sphere about hiking. Then they can determine whether the sphere is open to everyone or just their friends. Inside of a sphere a kid can blog, post pictures, videos, documents, etc.
What are the positives? I was actually extremely impressed with Yoursphere. There are so many of these "safe online environment for kids" sites floating around and most of them miss the mark. My kids have tried out a few and in their words the majority of them are "lame."
- Yoursphere is safe - No one over 18 can join or even browse the environment. Parents control their kids access and can cancel accounts at any time. For kids under 13, parents have a real-time dashboard view into what they are posting and who they are talking to. Safeguards are in place to block bad language and objectionable content, and the site is monitored constantly to look for potential problems.
- Kids are in control - they choose whether their content is open to just their friends or the whole Yoursphere world.
- Yoursphere has a BUNCH of stuff - this site is great at cultivating creativity in kids. There are so many different avenues for kids to safely express themselves. Kids can blog, they can post pictures, post videos, upload artwork, post poems or stories, and customize the environment to express whatever mood they are in. It also has games and content focused around sports, fashion, TV and movies, travel, performing arts, animals, and causes (e.g. UNICEF, American Cancer Society, etc.).
- Cool look and layout - The site is slick and appealing to kids (unlike Facebook or Myspace), as well as being intuitive and easy to navigate. And so far it is free from ads.
- Yoursphere put together the right team - I was impressed to discover that the creative force behind Yoursphere is not the typical corporate collection. Yoursphere includes a cross section of kids, the same age as those using their site, as part of their advisory and editorial staff. I believe this will help them to stay in touch with kids and remain relevant and credible.
- UPDATE - Yoursphere IS free (thanks for the e-mail Yoursphere).
- What is the cost? The home page of Yoursphere.com has a very noticeable "It's Free" statement in plain view. However, online reviews of Yoursphere by reputable sites (like CNET) say it's free for 30 days and then it's either $4.95 per month or $39.95 per year. Which is it? Security to the extent that Yoursphere offers isn't cheap and I have NO problem paying a nominal fee to aid in that effort. But if there is a cost, there was nothing during the sign up process that indicated it. Yoursphere needs to be very clear about charges from the start and explain any/all things on the site that might require a fee (seems sneaky if you don't). If there is no fee, then make the "It's Free" statement a clickable link and explain that you used to charge a fee but don't anymore or something to discredit the countless reviews that say you do.
UPDATE - Already got an e-mail from Yoursphere on this. They are FREE. They used to charge but found the fee to be a deterrence. In the interest of doing good over making money, they have waived the fee.
- Kids over 13 are out of bounds for parents - The parental monitoring of child activities on Yoursphere is fantastic...as long as your kid is under 13. I've got one under 13 and one over 13. My 12 year old's account has a dashboard where I can see everything he does online. My 13 year old's account does not. All I can do with her account is cancel it. I understand why they do this - they want kids to feel empowered and have a sense of privacy. I get that and kind of agree with it AS LONG AS they are kicking butt at the security stuff behind the scenes. Taking away my ability to monitor my 13 - 18 year old child's activities puts a great deal of trust in the Yoursphere people. Some parents will have a real issue with this. All I can say is the Yoursphere safety people better be doing their jobs.
- Parents can't poke around - With the "no adults" safety feature (other than the parent dashboard), you can't see your child's profile or content they have posted unless they choose to show you. First let me say, parents, you should be setting rules requiring your children to let you into their online lives at any moment upon your request. It is, I believe, your responsibility to enforce this, not Yoursphere's or any other site. Again, I know Yoursphere does this to give kids a sense of privacy and empowerment (which are important) but I think parents will have a problem with this. Again, Yoursphere better work very hard at building trust with limits like this in place.
In the "social networking for kids" space, there are, in my opinion, only two sites that get it right - Yoursphere and Imbee. Imbee was very slick and had some really cool features but they have two big strikes against them: 1. They got in trouble with the FTC for violating the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) by storing children's personal info without parents approval. How can you be a site that advocates child safety and violate COPPA? Someone didn't do their due diligence 2. About a year ago they disappeared off the face of the Earth. I'm not exactly sure why but with no warning to members or prior announcements, they just shut down. Their website now claims a relaunch in "summer 2010" but now that they have frustrated over 50,000 users, it may be difficult to regain trust.
Yoursphere is cool and has a great deal of potential. However, if they are going to keep today's kids interested, I think there are a few things they need (that I'm sure they have thought of and may be planning).
- Music - Yes, they have a "Music" sphere where information about various artists is posted but that's not what I'm referring to. If they could somehow offer streaming or downloadable music it would be huge. I know this gets into some serious licensing issues but word on the cyber-street is that Imbee is planning to do it.
- TV and Movies - again, yes there is a "TV and Movies" sphere where info is posted and kids can comment but streamed movie trailers, selected episodes of popular shows, movie clips, etc would be very cool.
- Games - the games Yoursphere has are good but nothing groundbreaking. The genre of games that both my son and my daughter (and MANY of their friends) are into right now are simulation games like Farmville, Zoo Tycoon, Animal Crossing, Rollercoaster Tycoon, etc. Games where kids create and cultivate something and interact with others while doing it. These games are entertaining and they keep kids coming back.
- Limited Adult Access - Imbee used to have a feature where parents, teachers, camp counselors, youth ministers, etc. could create pages and post content related to a certain activity. This included class information and homework help, upcoming events, useful information, etc. The ability for a "safe" adult to create an educational, cause oriented, or otherwise helpful sphere would be awesome.
UPDATE - Again thanks to an e-mail from Yoursphere, I discovered I was not entirely correct in this bullet item. Yoursphere does allow educators to create class-based spheres and post educational content to them. Teachers can then interact with the class as a whole but not one on one with students (that kind of interaction belongs in the classroom anyway, right?).
Here's the link: http://www.yoursphere.com
Overall, I am extremely impressed with Yoursphere and definitely recommend it. On a scale of 1 to 10, I give it a 9 and with a little work, it could be a solid 10.