Special Segment: Tween Social Scene

November 8, 2009 (CHICAGO) Eleven-year-old Mary Clare Wall is just starting to get online. While she mostly uses Google or sends her family emails, she says her friends have told her stories about meeting people that they've met online in real life.

"Some told me some weird stories they had like on the internet and some people they ran into at the park," says Mary Clare, continuing, "I started getting freaked out."

For now, Mary Clare doesn't use social networks like Facebook or MySpace but her mom Terese knows those days are just around the corner.

"I think for us it's going to be take it day by day step by step as they start using it more," says Terese Wall.

Even though many sites have age limits, tweens often hide their age to log on. Now, some local entrepreneurs are trying to solve that problem with technology.

"Everything is virtual, everybody is unknown, there really is no way of finding out what your actual age is or if you're really Sara or you're Tom," says Avelo Roy.

Roy and Ed Suda are recent Illinois Institute of Technology grads who are building a social networking site for tween girls called BFF less than three.

"BFF" stands for "Best Friends Forever" and the "less than three" (<3 ), is a heart symbol.

The network uses a necklace to verify identities of users. To become friends online, the tweens have to know each other in real life and sync their necklaces in person. Then, they can send coded messages and communicate online. Parents get a weekly email showing who their daughter is communicating with.

"These girls can't wait any longer for a solution, especially with the momentum that web 2.0 and online social networking is gaining," says Suda. He continues, "They see their older brothers and sisters doing it, they want to do it and we want to make sure that they can do it in a manner that's responsible and fun."

Mary Ellen Young runs a group called Helping Girls Navigate Adolescence that helps parents talk to their daughters about issues they face while growing up. She says open communication is the key to online safety and parents should monitor what personal information their kids post online. She also says that parents need to make sure that their child's online communication is positive and doesn't fuel negative situations like cyberbullying.

"We adults need to recognize that this is their lifeline, this is how kids communicate nowadays," says Young. "We need to teach ourselves about it and teach kids responsible use because they're using it," she continues.

For now, Mary Clare's after school activities keep her busy but her mom knows she'll soon be asking to use the computer for more than just looking up information for school projects.

"Anything can be on there and I'm just afraid they'll pull up something that right away they'll have that image and they can't erase that," says Wall.

The BFF<3 network plans a soft launch early next year.

For more information, log on to:
HGNA: http://www.hgna.org/resources.php
Online resources for parents and teens:
http://www.teenangels.org/ and http://www.wiredsafety.org/
Cyberbullying research center: http://www.cyberbullying.us/

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