If you’ve come to rely on your tween to help you navigate all the social media apps on your phone, just remember: Legally, they’re not supposed to use these platforms at all.
Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and many other social media sites are technically only open to people 13 and above, the result of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, a set of federal regulations that were set up to ensure that sites don’t collect, use, or disclose personal information from children.
But that’s left a lot of kids enviously looking over their parents’ shoulders as they scroll through their newsfeeds. Or perhaps more often, it’s meant parents are turning a blind eye as many tweens lie about their age to get onto the sites.
It’s an issue that’s perplexed Jenny Mirken, a West Roxbury resident who started her career as the 24th hire at Monster.com and has spent the bulk of it in digital marketing.
“Kids seem to get left out each time there’s a major new trend in technology,” she said. “It’s a generation of mobile natives with really an appalling lack of mobile products and services designed for them.”
Mirken is now the founder and chief executive of Jet.me, a new chat and photosharing app that’s targeting children under 13. The app, which launched Wednesday, was designed to conform to the standards set by the federal government. Children can only search and find their friends if they know their real names, and the app has its own tandem app, Jet Parent, which allows parents to manage and regulate their child’s social media interactions. Soon, kids using the app will get to share photos and messages with their friends, and will be able to follow their favorite “brands, causes, and celebrities,” Mirken said.
“Parents are worried about their kids’ safety, and they are interested in having more control over what their kids are using,” she continued. With that in mind, she designed the site so parents can approve all ingoing and outgoing friend requests and monitor the things posted in kids’ social media feeds. If parents feel a online friendship is going sour, they can end the relationship with just a click.
Jet.me isn’t the first app to target tweens. A decade after the launch of its online gaming site Club Penguin, Disney unveiled its own chat-based app, Disney Mix, designed “specifically for kids, tweens, and their families,” in August. The app, which also meets federal standards, allows kids to message their friends and make memes with Disney characters and celebs.
There may soon be more apps that follow.
Janell Burley Hoffman, the Sandwich-based author of the book “iRules: What Every Tech-Healthy Family Needs to Know About Selfies, Sexting, Gaming and Growing Up,” says she’s fielded calls from a number of startups looking for advice on how to navigate the tween tech market.
Hoffman said she hopes these apps will provide an onramp of sorts, allowing the parents of tweens to have conversations about appropriate online behavior.
“I think it can be used as a really nice way to be an introduction to social technology,” she said. “The digital parent needs to have a sense of agency and come from a place of empowerment when it comes to tech, and not a place of fear.”
Mirken has raised $1 million in angel funding for Jet.me and has an adviser in Paula Kaplan, a former Nickelodeon executive who is now at AwesomenessTV, which features YouTube stars and is owned by DreamWorks.
“Gen Z YouTube stars don’t have a place to connect to their fans,” Mirken said, as interactions are largely restricted to the site’s comment section. “And book publishers are very desperate to finds ways to promote YA titles, as there really is no good way to do that right now.”
She said she’s been working to launch verified accounts with partners, ensuring that all content meets the Entertainment Software Rating Board standards.
But the launch of chat-based apps for kids has raised concerns from child advocates.
“There is no need for younger children to be on a social network,” said Josh Golin, the executive director of the Boston-based Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. Golin said that these apps are “fundamentally unfair” to kids, who don’t understand the persuasive messages in marketing campaigns.
“What this app is purporting to do is to help kids connect to each other, and in fact it’s really about connecting brands to kids,” he said.
Mirken, however, thinks that parents must find ways to adapt to an increasingly digital age.
“I think that the genie is out of the bottle in terms of kids gravitating toward technology,” she said. “They don’t think of it as technology, they think about it as life. I think it’s natural for them. Our aim with Jet is to meet them where they want to be.”