Interview with the founder of YourSphere.com
In our recent issue of Pure Minds Online, I had the opportunity to publish some of my interview with recognized Internet safety expert Mary Kay Hoal. She spoke with us about the common problem of children lying about their age to have an account on Facebook. (Read the complete article: “Underage Linking.”)
Ms. Hoal also spoke at length with me about the social network she founded nearly three years ago as a safe network specifically for minors: YourSphere.com.
1. What is YourSphere like? What are some of the fun things kids can do there?
Everything inside YourSphere is driven by, selected by, and for the most part, created by kids. As a result, our youth advisory team has expanded over the last three years because we’ve seen great success with this unique approach. The core of our community is still our spheres where kids connect, create and share with other kids based on their areas of interest. Here, kids can connect with each other about academics, sports, their faith, their pets, the type of music they like and more.
We’ve implemented a private virtual world where kids can create their own avatar, design their own condo and play hundreds of games. This has been a huge hit with our members, and we’ve incorporated virtual world prizes into our weekly contests.
That all being said, the inside of the site really changes on a weekly basis. There’s always new content being added—whether it’s a new contest, a new movie review from one of our Young Writers, or an interview with our monthly Featured Member. We’ve also directed a lot of our efforts and attention to creating content that teaches YourSphere members about best practices for online safety. This is facilitated through safety messages throughout the site, and one-on-one engagement with Yoursphere Ambassadors—a group of kids in the site that work to moderate content and make new members feel welcome.
2. In September, YourSphere will be 3 years old. What are some of the major changes you’ve made to the site since it launched?
We’re smarter today then we were three years ago, that’s for sure! As someone recently told me, “Mary Kay, remember when you’re blazing a trail there’s no one in front of you!” And that’s what we’ve been doing and we’re very proud of our success.
At Yoursphere Media Inc., we’ve really evolved to focus on our core competency which is focusing on the family by promoting our kids’ only social network, YourSphere.com, and the Internet and safety resource site YourSphereForParents.com, which is now read in 96 different countries.
In addition, we’ve partnered up with some amazing celebrities that really support what we’re doing to make the Internet a more positive place for kids and to provide value to families. So far, we’ve had two Animal Planet stars hop on board: Victoria Stilwell from It’s Me Or the Dog and Donald Schultz from Wild Recon. Seventeen-year-old country music star, Jordyn Shellhart, has joined the group and the kids love her music. Jeff Sutphen from ABC’s 101 Ways To Leave a Game Show and Nickelodeon’s BrainSurge just partnered with us. We’ll be sharing more celebrity news in the weeks to come.
We’ve also implemented what we call our “Member Badge Recognition Program.” In this program, YourSphere members can earn badges for accomplishing certain tasks, reaching certain goals or being a leader in the YourSphere community.
Our Young Writers program has been a huge hit with kids. Once per quarter we have a writing contest. The material is judged on unique content, spelling, grammar, and is reviewed by our editorial team. We select up to five writers to join our team as paid contributing writers to write unique stories for one of our spheres such as Animals, Music, or Fashion, for example.
3. YourSphere advertises itself as a safe network for kids. I’m assuming this means your team monitors how kids are using the site, right?
Yes. Unlike most social networks that choose to deal with the 12 and under crowd by ignoring their privacy and online safety needs and “existence,” Yoursphere has pioneered and continues to remain at the forefront of safer social media for children. It is a media our children should benefit from, just in an age-appropriate, caring manner.
4. One reason a child or teen may not want to use YourSphere is because their friends do not use it. How have you seen this barrier overcome in certain circles?
At YourSphere, we’ve been focusing on providing our members with unique, fun, positive, creative, and engaging content that we know they’ll love. Our youth advisory team provides important input and direction for the site. That strategy has worked well for us. Over the last eight months we’ve seen our membership initiation grow to 87% of memberships being started by kids and teens, and 13% by parents, and our membership numbers rise by over 900%. Kids are telling other kids about YourSphere and they’re joining!
As a parent myself, I absolutely understand that as soon as a parent “suggests” something to their tween or teen it could, by default, immediately make the suggestion a non-option for their child. I’ve had parents tell me, “I’d really like my son/daughter to be a YourSphere member,” and so I tell them to take the Yoursphere challenge. I’ve encouraged parents to ask their kids to give them feedback about a new social network they’ve heard about. It’s a non threatening approach. Typically there isn’t a child/teen that will turn away from the opportunity to tell their parent their idea stinks. So when a parent says: let me know about the gift gallery they have. Or they ask: what do you think about the virtual world or the spheres that you can make and join? It often leads to an engaged new member who then invites their friends from school.
I encourage Covenant Eyes parents to try this tactic with their children.
5. Once a child turns 18, what is the policy about his or her YourSphere profile? Can they keep it? Is it still active?
Once a member turns 18, their profile is permanently deactivated. We hope by then we’ve educated our members enough so they know the importance of protecting their online privacy, thinking before they post, being kind online to others, and what constitutes risky online behavior. We believe they’ll then be empowered to participate in the adult intended social networks, fully prepared and educated.
6. Some have expressed a concern that teens are simply not ready for online social networking because they are too self-centered in their personal development to understand the social impact of what they are doing. Even in a safe place like YourSphere, have you made this same observation? Do children and teens seem to share too much sensitive information?
It’s definitely true that tweens and teens can be very self-centered and lack the understanding of the consequences that can follow their online actions. Not only is that a result of the state of their cognitive development, but it’s also a result of how very quickly social media was immersed in our lives and the lack of education families have had about it. That said, I’m optimistic that given the opportunity and tools, kids and teens will learn.
It’s important to understand the landscape of children and technology. Kids younger and younger are adopting the digital communications tools available. According to Forrester Research, a group of Millennials (those children between the ages of two and nineteen) represent the largest percentage of users currently participating in social media. The fastest growing sub-segment of online users is children between the ages of 2 – 11 years of age according to a report published by CNET.
Social media provides all of us, particularly tweens and teens what I call the “me media” (MEdia): Look at me. See me. Acknowledge me. Respond to me. Unlike other media before—newspaper, radio, TV—where we were simply the consumers of the media, now we are the media. We are the content producers. When “me” becomes the focus, there is the subsequent natural focus on oneself and not others. The traditional understanding of “friendship” and what it means changes in the social MEdia world. Friendships aren’t typically authentic and are often the superficial veneer of a person. Social Media can further encourage the natural focus of an often self-centered teen. But there’s a solution to that!
As with the advent of cable TV, the children’s version of social networks are really only in their infancy. At YourSphere.com, we provide the social media sought after by children and teens, but we place the focus not on the “me” but on the kindness, creativity, fun, and talent that exists in children by leveraging the natural gifts the Internet provides.
We also need to understand that social media isn’t going away. If you’re a parent that says: “Not in my house,” recognize then that your children will encounter it in someone else’s house, so why not guide your child in a direction that you know has a greater chance of helping them vs. hurting them?