For the last ten years young people have nominated their favorite websites for the WiredKids Best of the Web Award. And for ten years moms have reviewed them for their approval. The list shortens with each step, but few pass the final scrutiny of Internet lawyer, Parry Aftab, to determine which sites understand safety and responsibility when young people are involved.
This year, more than 50,000 students were polled. They nominated thousands of sites, but only 143 were nominated by enough students to qualify. Our team of moms then reviewed the 143 sites and cut them back to 62 sites. Only a handful in each age category passed Parry’s scrutiny. Those will be announced on February 25th in Washington, DC.
Each year, since the WiredKids Best of the Web Awards were launched, the process has forecasted trends in use of the Internet by kids, tweens and teens. Ten years ago, the final nomination list was hundreds of websites long. The same one made the grade. The websites controlled youth traffic or their hearts, other than those that controlled their traffic and hearts offline (Disney, Nickelodeon and Sesame Street).
Then, as AIM grew in popularity and the Internet crash and COPPA (the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act) took its toll and children’s sites dropped like flies, fewer sites held their interest. They nominated the same 50 sites and had no major loyalty to any one of them, other than Yahoo, AOL and AIM and the same offline cast of characters. Some students told us that they didn’t have a favorite site. Those were lean years in the industry, but forecasted the growth of communication tools and networks driving youth Internet use.
In late 2004 and 2005 as social networking grew in popularity, MySpace, Xanga and LiveJournal jumped to the top of the nomination pack, but never got past moms or Parry. Virtual worlds like Neopets, Webkinz and Club Penguin gained in popularity, but didn’t have their counterparts with older preteens and teens. Only Google was on all age-groups’ favorite lists.
At the same time, the kids Internet industry figured out new business models that had failed in years past. Club Penguin succeeded when others failed in the subscription model. Webkinz used offline sales of plush animals to fuel their online community for kids and preteens. KidZui got the formula right when it built an “Internet for kids” that allowed fun and age-appropriate Youtube videos and avatar social networking tools where kids can share their favorite websites, without sharing their personal information. Old ideas, spun with gold this time around. Parents are finally ready to pay for content and communities if they feel their children enjoy them and are safe.
But this year shows changes once again. More sites have gained the youth loyalty in the earlier years than ever before. Why? The overwhelming popularity of Webkinz and Club Penguin has spurred the development of more virtual worlds. And Facebook has become the single most popular website among teens. Until the recent economic downturn, the VCs and investors have responded to the success of Club Penguin (acquired by Disney for about 700 million plus earnouts) and the retail plush sales of Webkinz and the huge returns in networks like Bebo (acquired by Time Warner for 800 million dollars last year). The richness of choice is better than it has been in years. Hopefully, given the small pricetag to parents for what their kids want in a virtual world or what parents want in safe communities, this growth and the investment in our kids online will survive the general economic climate.
Most sites are biting the COPPA bullet and going through the steps needed to allow preteens to build communities. Many are learning innovative ways of giving them community without sharing personal information with others. Safety has caught on. Sadly, Parry has been knocking more off the list than usual. While the sites want to do the right thing, they are often adopting “do it yourself” methods that violate the law or put kids at risk unintentionally. Best practice standards for the kids Internet industry are new and require professional guidance.
But the ones that do it right for the kids, their parents and Parry are winners and will continue to lead the pack. In the 8 years since COPPA became effective there is one thing for certain – The Kids Internet Industry is Back!