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Israeli Startup Offers Kids Social Media Training Wheels

Two years ago, Itay Eshet's daughter told him she wanted a Facebook account. She was 10 years old.

Facebook's great, Eshet told her, but it's not for kids. So instead they built a new social network for preteens called Nipagesh, which means "let's meet" in Hebrew.

Facebook and most other social networks require users to be at least 13 years old, but lots of kids want to join sooner. That leaves many parents struggling with how to manage their kids' socializing online, not just because of legal barriers, but also concerns over possible inappropriate interactions with strangers and bullying.

Eshet says his network trains future Facebook users to be smart. "Nipagesh is for young kids in elementary school," he says. "Because we want to build them and to prepare them for using social networks when ... they're old enough to use Facebook, WhatsApp or whatever social network they want to use."

A screen grab of Nipagesh's chat feature. When a school joins the network, its entire student body, along with parents and teachers, are signed up at once. Children can flag posts that make them uncomfortable.
/ Courtesy of Itay Eshet
Courtesy of Itay Eshet
A screen grab of Nipagesh's chat feature. When a school joins the network, its entire student body, along with parents and teachers, are signed up at once. Children can flag posts that make them uncomfortable.

Trying To Build Something Both Safe And Fun

Eshet knew the network had to be safe. His daughter said it had to be fun. What evolved was a network that signs up schools, not individuals. Once a school is on, every student is a member. Eshet says this makes it easy to learn how to socialize online.

"First of all, all the kid's friends are inside [the network], which makes it much more interesting for the kid, and he doesn't have to look for friends outside," Eshet explains. "Second, every member of the network is authenticated."

So far, 100 schools in Israel are participating. Users have to use their real names, and kids can chat with and friend any other kid on the network — even strangers at other schools.

"They are strangers, but we know for sure that they are kids," Eshet says. "And we know what age they are. And we know what are their interests."

Fifth-graders at Reut Regional Elementary School in central Israel like it. One student says she plays lots of games on Nipagesh and makes new friends there, while another says any bullying is quickly stopped.

Teachers and parents are automatically members too, and on every page there is a "report" button for kids to flag posts that make them feel uncomfortable. Algorithms also help detect inappropriate content and alert administrators.

One fifth-grader using Nipagesh says she used the reporting feature to flag a poll a classmate had posted, asking which girl, of several named, was prettiest.

"Kids like to report," says Eshet, adding that sometimes teachers have used such alerts to start classroom discussions. "It's a great way to learn what to report and what not to report. We are here to teach them."

'A Very Protected Network'

"I prefer that she will be in this instead of the Facebook. Because in the Facebook I have no control," says Michal Zaiden, a mother of two. Her 10-year-old is on Nipagesh now, but her 12-year-old lied about her age to open a Facebook account.

"I'm a friend [of hers] on Facebook so I can see what she's putting on [and] what her friends tell her. But it's not the same" as the protections Nipagesh offers, Zaiden says.

For example, Zaiden had no idea her 12-year-old had a big fight with her best friend on Facebook. On Nipagesh, Zaiden can't read her 10-year-old daughter's private chats, but the system does tell her who the fifth-grader is chatting with and what else she does or posts.

Some of that activity is homework. Teacher Nitza Gerber uses the network to start discussions, create assignments and connect with her students outside class.

"There are two parts," Gerber explains. "First, it's a social network — a very protected network. The other thing is the academic possibilities. When there is this combination, I think the sky's the limit."

In this early stage, Nipagesh is free for schools in Israel and their students. The company hopes that eventually schools will pay to subscribe. Zaiden isn't sure she'd personally want to pay for the service, but she adds that if all the other kids are there and are learning something, it might be worth the cost.

Nipagesh's founder is exploring other ways to make money in addition to school subscriptions. He says the company will never advertise to children, but says there may be financial potential in all those adult eyeballs that are also on the network.

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International Correspondent Emily Harris is based in Jerusalem as part of NPR's Mideast team. Her post covers news related to Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip. She began this role in March of 2013.