Before trying MySpace, youngsters can learn Web savvy with Imbee

W hen Jeanette Symon’s 6-year-old daughter asked for her own MySpace page her reaction was exactly what you’d expect. She panicked.

Then she did something most parents wouldn’t do. She set up her own social network in a closet at her home.

“I did the only thing any nerd parent would do,” she said.

Symon, a Silicon Valley veteran of the dot-com boom with experience in helping create pieces of the backbone of the Internet, created Imbee (www.imbee.com). She calls it “social networking on training wheels,” and it’s designed for kids in fourth to seventh grades.

“They want to share with their friends, schoolmates and kids in the clubs they belong to,” Symon said. “They have the protection they need to keep them from getting in trouble and get to explore and learn.”

Imbee is a free membership site that serves as a portal for the types of activities kids enjoy online. They can blog, share photos, create trading cards and create and join groups. There is an area for teachers, giving them lesson plans, parental permission slips and tools for classrooms to join the network.

The name means “absolutely nothing,” she said.

“We wanted something clean, with no preconceived notions,” she said.

Kids use the Internet so differently than we (adults) do,” Symon said. “They search differently. They find things differently.

“One thing I run into a lot — and one of the things I find the funniest — Is that kids want to go out and create their own pages and content. Parents say, ‘Why should my kid create content on the Internet? There is already so much out there. Why should there be more?'”

Symon said kids think adults are archaic because “we send e-mails.” The mode the younger set prefers to use is instant messaging or blogs, she said.

“They don’t want to be intruded on by having to go read e-mail, ” she said.

Imbee launched with a network of neighborhood friends and ran from a server in Symon’s home for the first six months. Her daughter, now 8, and 10-year-old son were the first members. Today there are more than 50,000 members and 4,000-plus groups. The site is being served from an Internet hosting facility with sponsors like the Public Broadcasting Service helping to pay the bills.

Members’ safety is foremost in Symon’s mission.

“We don’t let any kid blog, period, if they don’t have a parent authorizing them,” Symon said. “Even the most passive parents are sent reports. We let them know who their kids are talking to and what they are sending and receiving. Parents can see what’s going on and the kids don’t feel like they are being spied on.

“We’re really educating kids on what to say and who to say it to,” she added. “No matter how good a job a network does, we really don’t believe it’s a substitute for a parent or adult in charge.”

Share your Internet story with me at agibes@reviewjournal.com.

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