Catholic Mom Takes on Social Networking
Creates Kid-Friendly Yoursphere.com
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By Karna Swanson
Hoal, former vice president of technology publisher CMP Media, and mom to five kids between 4 and 18, is the founder of Yoursphere.com, an online social networking site that prides itself as being a safe haven for kids and teens 18 and under.
Launched in September after 22 months of research and development, the site not only requires the consent of a parent or guardian to join, but also verifies that the parent or guardian is not a sex offender. All this is done to keep out "creepers," the term Hoal uses for older adults who use networking sites to develop inappropriate relationships with children and teens.
Not exactly a lifelong fan of the popular social networking sites, the media professional readily admits she didn't get what all the fuss was about. It was only three years ago when her then 12-year-old daughter, Madison, began to ask for a MySpace profile that she began to immerse herself into the online world.
Hoal said she knew sites such as MySpace weren't safe for kids. An October 2006 article by Kevin Poulsen in Wired magazine reported some 744 registered sex offenders had profiles on the site.
In May 2007, MySpace reported that it deleted some 7,000 identified sex offenders, and a mere two months later revealed that the number of registered sex offenders with profiles on the site was closer to 29,000.
After hearing that report, Hoal told her daughter Madison, "If we wouldn't open up the door of our home to 29,000 registered sex offenders, then we can't do it online. I wouldn't let any of those people get to know you. It is against the law for registered sex offenders offline to interact with children, to work with children, to be near children. But online there is no barrier."
But Madison wasn't convinced. "It became a futile game of playing whack-o-mole with my daughter," said Hoal. "She found every conceivable way to set up a MySpace account."
"I was overwhelmed with the back and forth," she conceded. "It's hard being a parent. It's hard keeping up with technology. It seems like when you walk out the door everyday when you are trying to raise good children that everything is stacked against you. It feels that way in the middle of so many negative influences."
The media savvy mom said that in a "moment of inspiration" she realized she needed to take social networking seriously, figure out how it works, what the draw was, and how to solve this conflict with her daughter that was causing a lot of "family drama."
Hoal created profiles for herself as a "teenager" on the most popular sites, including MySpace, Facebook, MyYearbook, hi5 and TeenSpot. What she found was more than the presence of 29,000 sex offenders; she found a hyper-sexualized culture that didn't reflect the reality of her children, or any of the young people she knew.
"I was shocked," she admitted. "I found such a coarse culture that really focused on the hyper-sexualization of kids. [...] They were in a community that was a cultural wasteland. There were kids who were sexually solicited by adults. I saw some of the cruelest online behavior. And even with a profile set to private, I was two clicks away from pornography."
Hoal recalled that on one private profile she got a friend request from "Samantha." She clicked on it and then after one more click she was looking at porn.
She added that her daughters were asked on a high school site to take a picture of their best body part so they could be "hi-fived."
On another site for teens, Hoal found that users are not categorized by gender, age or location, but by whether or not they are bisexual, straight or gay.
"I stopped dead in my tracks when I had the full realization of what my kids were being exposed to," she said. "I thought I had to fix this problem because I found nothing that was reflective of my daughter and my other four children, and the children in their youth group, and the kids in their school. Of course sexuality is a part of every human being, but so is their spirituality, their interest in their school, so is their interest in sports, or going to college, or poetry or theater.
"Kids have so many wonderful and great positive dimensions to themselves, and I only saw one culture that focuses on their sexual dimensions and I found it disturbing, and very sad. And no one was doing anything about it in a tangible, meaningful way."
"When I thought of how I was going to solve this problem, I literally thought of my children and their friends and the children that I know, and I literally visualized them and I drew a circle around them," said Hoal.
That's when the idea of Yoursphere was born. Hoal wanted to create a positive space online where children can share their many interests, such as sports, academics, gaming, fashion and music, all the while interacting with friends who really are their peers.
The tagline for the site is "Create your future," emphasizing the positive aspect of kids and teens sharing what they are interested in.
Members can join existing interest-based groups called spheres, or create their own. While the site is not faith-based, Hoal said there is already a Love Jesus sphere created by one of the users. She says this type of initiative from a member is part of the site's mission.
Another aspect of the mission of Yoursphere is to support positive online ethical citizenship. Kids are rewarded for being good online citizens, and the site is constantly monitored for cyber bullying.
The Yoursphere Create Your Future scholarship program, funded by a portion of membership fees and partner revenue, provides various academic and non-academic scholarships in order to help members further their own goals and aspirations.
As for what remains outside of Yoursphere, Hoal explained the rationale for everything the site does is based on common sense, and the basic principle that what is not OK in real life, is also not OK online.
The Yoursphere founder said there "would be no -- as we call them -- 'creepers,' there would be no predators, there would be no sex offenders, and there would be no pornographers targeting youth. And there would be nobody in Yoursphere that would set up a fake profile with the intention to hurt or solicit another person."
Hoal said the site does this by eliminating anonymity. To join the site each user must enter parental information, and the parents or guardians are contacted for their consent to join the site. "Just like parents provide consent to engage in activities offline," she said.
Yoursphere verifies the identity of the parent or guardian providing consent, and also confirms the adult is not a registered sex offender.
The site exceeds the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, and it is the sole youth-only social networking site backed by the Federal Trade Commission's Safe Harbor Program through its certification by Privacy Vaults Online.
The site also counts on a task force that has law enforcement professionals and experts who work to protect the positive environment.
Hoal explained that another goal of the site is to educate parents and children about online safety. Yoursphere invites parents to join a parallel community where they can discuss online safety, and the site sends out a monthly newsletter with tips to keep children safe online.
"Everyday has its challenges in being a parent," said Hoal, "but keeping up with the pace of technology is absolutely overwhelming."
Hoal said that while membership is currently growing at about 20% a week, the total number of users is still in the low thousands.
Yoursphere will be going international later this month with the launch of a Yoursphere community in the United Kingdom and Ireland. Future plans include communities in Australia, New Zealand and Canada.
Due to laws protecting the identities of sex offenders in the United Kingdom and Ireland, those communities will be separate from those in the United States. "I owe it to every parent to tell them that each member of Yoursphere has been verified in the same manner," explained Hoal. "So that's why we are doing separate communities."
Although the sites for the United Kingdom and Ireland can't check to verify if a parent or guardian is a sex offender, those sites will be run with all the other security measures in place.
Hoal said that in the United Kingdom, for example, the site is Byron compliant and has exceeded government standards for protecting children online. The site works with the UK-based Child Exploitation and Online Protection Center.
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On the Net:
Mary Kay Hoal's blog: http://internet-safety.yoursphere.com/