Before the Internet and social media, kids were bullied at the bus stop, at recess, or in the lunch line. But, once they got home, the bullying stopped. With the emergence and rapid advancement of technology, bullying has evolved into cyberspace–extending it from the classroom to anywhere, at any time.
Social media is here to stay, and it’s growing exponentially. Parents may not be aware of the apps their children are using regularly, or the websites they are spending their time on. But what’s most troubling, is that the existing online world that we experience everyday, just isn’t safe for kids. While applications like Kik Messenger, WeChat, Sarahah, and ChatRoulette, started out with good intentions, it’s turned into a danger zone for young children, making them prey to individuals who exploit children for their naivety and immaturity.
Where One World Closes, Another One Opens
It’s no secret that platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter are no place for kids. Hell, Mark Zuckerberg himself, doesn’t even allow his kids on it, because he understands the world the platform plays hosts to–those who engage in digital abuse and reflect poor digital citizenship.
But, what if there was a world open to kids, and only kids? We’ve heard of social networks made strictly for kids, like ClubPenguin, Togetherville, Everloop, and Scuttlepad; but for some reason, these platforms haven’t resonated with kids. The question is why?
“Almost all the social networking sites designed for kids, has been created by a mother or father that think they understand what kids like,” said Zach Marks, the founder of GromSocial, a social network created for kids, by kids. Marks, having been banned from Facebook by his parents when he was eleven years old, couldn’t find a platform to turn to that he was able to “connect” with, and feel at “home.”
Six years later, Marks’ vision, with the help of his family and five brothers and sisters, brought to light GromSocial, a multi-leveled social network for kids that is able to connect with each child, as if they have a new best friend. The Australian name “grom,” refers to “young surfers.”
A Network ‘Created For Kids, By Kids’
Today, technology is here to stay. Despite all these other alternatives out there, nothing has really changed when it comes to one place or measure that truly minimizes the risk of children being bullied online or subject to predators.
“I wanted to change that. At eleven years old, all I knew was that I wanted to create a cool, fun site for kids, by kids; one in which I could be part of,” said Marks. That’s been our motto since day one, it’s all about creating a safe environment for kids that they could enjoy.
Training Wheels For Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram
Think about it, these young children are hopping on social media platforms which people of all ages, backgrounds, and beliefs. They aren’t prepared for the realities of this world, and in no way could be expected to. In lieu of that, having a network that is designed to guide these children on a pathway towards good digital citizenship, seems to be the only plausible solution in preventing future instances of bullying and ensuring these kids are protected. “Think of it as training wheels for platforms like Facebook,” explained Marks.
But the wheels only guide the rider, you have to make sure the structure it holds up is just as strong. Kids like to play online and go into a world where they can be anyone and do anything. What they fail to realize is all this is just as possible, out in the physical world.
“We try to teach these kids balance; we don’t want them to be on GromSocial 24/7–we want them to come online, have fun, talk to their friends, watch cool videos and play games; but we also want them to go outside and live a healthy, active lifestyle.
–Zach Marks, Founder of GromSocial
We’ve seen cases like David Molak, Grace McComas, and Conrad Roy III, fall victim to cyberbullying, which inevitably led to them taking their own life. It’s easy to break a person’s spirit these days, ironically, in an online world, where the person can be on the other side of the world. Marks’ platform, unlike many others, teaches these kids to build up confidence and not to take mean comments to heart.
By the time these kids are 16 or 17, they may be ready for a Facebook-like platform, having already experienced certain aspects of social networking that they may not have been exposed to by simply being part of the Facebook or Instagram community.
Registration and Verification Procedures
For most websites and platforms, it takes up to 30 seconds–sign up with an email address and you’re good to go. That’s part of the problem is that the accessibility is wide open. Marks’ vision put into action, requires every child to sign-up with a parent, making it a more extensive process. This allows for GromSocial to conduct background checks, which in turn, minimizes the presence of those individuals who attempt to abuse the Internet.
Appealing To Kids Tastes
Andrew Rossow: So, my child is signed up, now what?
Zach Marks: Once the account is active, it is automatically given seventeen characters as “friends.” like a Mickey-Mouse like style. Here’s our twist—behind those characters are staff members, trained to talk to these kids 24/7, and handle any situation that may come up, whether it’s bullying or encouragement to get involved with smoking or drug use.
Rossow: Why is this significant in comparison to other social networks already out there?
Marks: Our staff members talk to them as if they are the kids best friends; each character has their own back story—favorite color, favorite food, favorite place to go, etc. It’s very detailed how these characters are created. So, then the kids come online and talk with a character, our staff members are able to teach them on the spot, real-life lessons. They are able to connect with these kids on a level that many parents and other business owners behind these sites have been unable to do.
Rossow: Can you provide an example of an interaction that would typically arise?
Marks: Sure. If a kid posts a message online, or is engaging in some type of conduct that may be controversial, our staff pulls that post downs, and through a particular character, starts up a chat conversation with that child, bringing them into a private chat window, and talking to them as if they are best friends. This is all based off the pre-existing relationship the child has struck with this character. What’s important to remember is that our staff is talking to them as “their best friends,” not as a parent or teacher, or in a lecturing manner.
Setting An Example For The Industry
Providing children with a place where they can go online and experience social media, could be many users’ first experience going into this online world. “We love Facebook, and we look to them for alot of things, but I think we can all agree that it’s just not for kids,” said Marks. The young entrepreneur told Forbes that their company teaches kids to use social media properly through instructional videos, specifically designed for them. “It’s a training wheel for Facebook, prepping them for the next platforms when they turn thirteen or fourteen, and begin looking to more advanced platforms like Snapchat, Instagram, and Twitter.
Parental Guidance Suggested
The other component to having a successful social media network for kids, is ensuring that parents are on board, otherwise the entire business model fails. Forbes was able to sit down and speak with GromSocial CEO and Chairman, Darren Marks, Zach’s father.
Rossow: Why do you think this social media network is vital in the digital market?
Darren Marks: Our job is to build confidence in a child and inspire these kids to make good life decisions. To be good digital citizens and to balance their life. We keep everything incredibly G-rated, safe, and inspiring. In my opinion, if other social media platforms aren’t going to change now, based off what happens in the media today, I don’t know if they will change at all. It’s not fair to the kids, because they are coming online at younger and younger ages. At the end of the day, many parents are busy and even separated and/or divorced—its hard. They don’t have time to monitor everything. We do.
Rossow: How does GromSocial benefit both the parents and children in this scenario?
Darren: With parents, there’s a different experience. When kids go online, characters greet them and help them out, answering questions. Parents on the other hand, get more of the functionality aspect of the site, controlling how in depth they want the network going with their child. For example. Do they want to be notified about everything their child does, or do they want to adjust settings? They have the ability to create and adjust boundary levels for the accessibility.
You have to remember, those characters that talk with these kids, they are us—we monitor every conversation on the website. So, if some unknown individual, in the unlikely event, bypassed our initial verification process, attempted to friend request a real user (child), that child’s parents will see the friend request from that individual, and they ultimately have control of whether they are approved or denied.
A Business Model That Drives Away Threats
Most individuals who prey on kids, resort to platforms with large masses–like Kik, ChatRoulette, and other larger spaces. With an isolated network that focuses solely on keeping it G-rated and “kid-only,” it drives these individuals, unfortunately, to other places to conduct their digital abuse.
“Let’s say this individual gets through our verification process, which is proprietary and very difficult, they still have to get through our “keyword-sensitive” characters, e.g. curseword filters,” explained Darren. It’s very difficult to get through these layers of protection. But, you have to remember, these individuals aren’t going to come to GromSocial. Unfortunately, they will venture to other places to prey where they can communicate with the masses, which is inevitably what happens.
The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (“COPPA”), is a law which governs the privacy policies of Internet-connected entities, when it comes to the data of children under the age of 13 who use their services. COPPA’s requirements are specifically laid out:
Like any other website designed for children, GromSocial also adheres to FTC guidelines and COPPA. The ultimate objective is to ensure children’s personal information isn’t collected or used without parents giving their informed consent.
Rossow: Do you feel that COPPA is effective in today’s digital age?
Darren: No, it’s not as enforced as it needs to be. That’s why these companies get way with what they get away with. We don’t want to take on Facebook. They have helped us understand connectivity. As Mark Zuckerberg has said, it’s not designed for kids. Yet, after all the negativity received, it just doesn’t seem to get enough momentum to change—to add another layer of security or monitoring. When Zach was eight years old, he had over 700+ “friends” on his page, whom he didn’t know. From a parent’s perspective, it’s scary. From a CEO’s point of view, this is at the very heart of why we aim to change the industry.
Taking The Industry By Filters
Having a market capitalization of over about $82 million, Grom Enterprises, the parent company to GromSocial and a few other divisions, continues to find new ways in which to exploit the industry in a positive way, with the 24/7 task of protecting kids online, in and out of the classroom.
If an eleven year-old can dream up a vision, which has now launched into a successful reality, it should incentivize other businesses and markets to want to protect our kids online.