This site has been known as Dad in the Middle for quite some time now. It is a name which causes some confusion, but it is based on my position as a father, and a more specifically a Christian father, who is stuck in the middle of what I used to be before Christ and what God is turning me into. As the father of four in a technological age, one of my constant struggles is to keep track of what my kids are doing online. As a Christian Dad in particular, I face the added struggle of explaining to my kids why they are not allowed to do “what everyone else is doing.” As a Dad in the Middle of it all, I appreciate resources that help me in that endeavor, and today I am going to review one such resource. Togetherville.com provides kids under the age of 13 a fun and engaging alternative to Facebook.
The Problem / The Need
Every good product serves a need or solves a problem. Here is the problem we are going to talk about today – Facebook has become a bit of an institution in our society. More and more people join every day, and that means more and more kids are exposed to Facebook every day. And let’s face it, Facebook is fun! It’s fun to connect with people, there are plenty of cool games to play, and keeping up on trendy things is just generally fun. That means kids will also want to be involved, and the problem for them is that Facebook does not allow pre-teens to be members. In reality, I do not actually view the fact that pre-teens are not allowed on Facebook as a “problem” because I don’t think most kids under 13 should be on Facebook to begin with, but it does present a problem from the kids’ standpoint as they increasingly desire to enjoy the same internet driven social networking that their parents and friends are using. For parents who have signed their kids up for Facebook when they are not yet 13, there was an interesting discussion on CMConnect.org about the implications of allowing kids to lie about their age in order to obtain access to the site. That alone should give us pause for concern as Christian parents.
Fortunately, there is a great new Facebook alternative called Togetherville.com which was designed specifically for kids. It allows kids to experience all the benefits of Facebook (games, videos, social networking) in a safe environment which is totally controlled by their parents. I’ve signed my kids up, and they love it. Togetherville is a social networking site designed specifically for kids. Here is what Togetherville has to say about it’s product:
In Togetherville, children learn much more than computer skills. They learn how to use technology to connect with the important people in their lives – safely. And those important people show them how to act responsibly online. Whether a parent, aunt, grandparent or family friend, take this role seriously and participate in the online neighborhoods of kids in your life.
How Does it Work? How Do I Get Started?
Parents sign in to Togetherville using their Facebook account. Once signed in, a parent can create an account for each of their children. While parents use their Facebook username and password to sign in, children never actually interact with Facebook when using Togetherville. Each child is given a unique username and a password that allows them to sign in to Togetherville. Both the username and password are determined by the parent. Parents set up and maintain total control of their kids’ online profiles and friends.
An Explanation of Togetherville Friends
The idea of friends in Togetherville works very similarly to Facebook. Kids can see what their friends are doing, what they’ve posted and interact with them online. There are two dsitinct differences from Facebook though. First, friends are limited to those people specifically approved by parents. As far as I can tell, the only people your kids can choose to have as friends are your friends from Facebook, and their kids to the extent that they have registered them for Togetherville. In other words, if someone is your friend on Facebook (and has joined Togetherville), you can add that person as your child’s friend. If those Facebook friends of yours have added their own children to Togetherville, you can also add those kids as your children’s friends (and your own friends as well). So, my children and I are all friends with a number of my nieces and nephews because I am friends with their parents. If I haven’t muddled that explanation too much, the other major difference between friends in Togetherville and on Facebook is that your interactions (comments, statuses, gifts, etc.) are limited to a set of messages pre-approved by Togetherville. Unlike Facebook, you do not have unlimited options when it comes to setting your status or leaving comments. That way, you don’t have to worry about your child reading anything inappropriate on Togetherville.
What can you do on Togetherville?
In addition to just having friends, there are a number of additional things you can do on Togetherville. Rather than re-create the wheel, here is what the Togetherville site has to say about its other activities (I borrowed their graphics as well – I assume they won’t mind).
Play Games – Super fun or super educational, Togetherville games are kid-size and ad free. Kids can save their favorites, earn points by playing, and see how they rank against their friends!
Watch Videos – Kids have fun (and maybe even learn a thing or two!) checking out videos from The Electric Company to stop-motion animation! All video content is pre-screened to be safe and age-appropriate!
Say “Hi!” – Drop-down text messages, called “quips”, express thoughts and feelings and allow kids to safely comment on each others’ game scores and creative work and send messages to grownups. Kids can even suggest their own for future use.
Here is what I can tell you about each of these activities based upon my own experience and that of my kids. The games are a hit – plain and simple! My kids were mostly interested in Facebook in the first place for the games, and they have found Togetherville to be suitable replacement. I haven’t had a chance to play any of them myself, but they look fun from peering over my kids’ shoulders. My daughter loves crafts. She always has, and she loves the artwork feature of Togetherville. Kids get to create their own masterpieces and send them to their friends. I can always tell when my daughter has been on Togetherville because I get a copy of her latest artwork. As a parent, I have the option of showing off those works of art on my own Facebook wall. The videos on Togetherville are a nice alternative to sites like YouTube because they have been filtered, and you can rest assured that they are age appropriate.
How much does Togetherville cost?
Oh, that’s the great part. It’s free! I did notice that there is now an allowance feature where you can buy “T-Bills” to give to your kids as an allowance. Although I’ve not had an opportunity to explore these new “T-Bills” (the feature wasn’t active when I did my research for this review), it appears that these T-Bills may unlock additional features for the site. While I wish the entire site were free, I understand the need to make some money off of this endeavor, and I actually appreciate that they went this route rather than include a bunch of advertising on the site geared towards kids.
Would I Recommend It?
I would, and have, recommend it to parents and pre-teen kids. Thus far, a number of my nieces and nephews have joined the site which only adds to the fun for my kids. Rather than viewing social networking as evil, I think we, as parents, must embrace it as part of our kids’ future. Togetherville is a fun, and safe, way of allowing our kids to explore that world while still under our protection. And, it seems to me, that is exactly what our job as parents is. As a parents, I also appreciate that the people at Togetherville have not created a site intended solely for kids to retreat from their family life. Instead, Togetherville encourages parents and kids to interact in a way which does not replace traditional interaction but supplements it. Togetherville is still a relatively new entity, and I do not know what the future holds, I hope that it takes off like Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites. For now though, I wholeheartedly and unashamedly recommend it.