Three years ago, Itay Eshet’s 10-year-old daughter asked him if she could open a Facebook account, as some of her friends had done.
He didn't think it was appropriate for kids her age to be "wandering around social networks like Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp,” because it exposes them to age-inappropriate content and advertising, as well as the dangers of cyber-bullying and communicating with strangers. But he supported her desire to connect with her peers.
When he was unable to find a suitable alternative, the Israeli hi-tech entrepreneur forged ahead with his own version, Nipagesh – "Let's meet up" in Hebrew.
“Children getting connected to other kids – it’s something they say they need, so I wanted to give them an appropriate, safe and regulated network,” says Mr. Eshet, whose network is exclusive to elementary-school students. It allows computer-savvy youngsters to do everything that’s available on Facebook: post statuses, “like” photos, play games, and chat with new friends – all under the supervision of adults and the Israeli Ministry of Education.
The kid-friendly social network is already being used by 150 Israeli schools for free, and Eshet is launching a Kickstarter campaign on May 20 to crowd-source funds from the community in order to sustain operations in Israel. He also plans to expand overseas when the new school year starts in September with a subscription-based business model.
While there are a number of other Facebook alternatives available for kids, Eshet says Nipagesh has distinct advantages, including teacher and parent engagement that builds a vibrant community and expands educational opportunities.
A protection against cyber-bullying
Facebook has a legal age limit of 13, but an estimated 3.6 million underage kids are using it, according to ComScore. Facebook itself has admitted to kicking 20,000 underage users off its network every day.
In contrast to Facebook's somewhat unenforceable age restriction, Nipagesh enables schools, not children, to create accounts, after which each student is automatically signed up. That way, every member in the closed network is guaranteed to be a kid.
Unlike their older siblings, most of the site’s users are comforted by the presence of adults, says Eshet.
Parents are alerted when their kids post comments and photos and are made aware of their activity and chatting buddies, though not of the content of private messages. They can also notify administrators at signs of bullying or swearing.
The site also teaches responsibility on social networks. Kids are instructed to respect each other and have an option of clicking the “I’m bothered” button if a post seems to break the rules.
A useful tool for teachers, too
It also provides a forum for teachers to extend the lessons of the classroom into the cyber realm.
Nitza Gerber, a fifth-grade teacher at Reut Elementary in Ein Shemer, a kibbutz in central Israel, uses the site to send her students class material and announcements, start online group discussions, and collaborate with other schools across the country.
“As a teacher, it’s opened many doors and allows me to break the boundaries of the classroom and guide them when they’re also outside of the classroom,” she says. When some of her students recently got in an online fight, she brought up the issue in class and resolved it together with the kids.
For the kids, though, it works mainly because it’s fun, and – according to many posts on the site’s comments page – even better than Facebook.
"Since I'm not allowed to have a Facebook or WhatsApp, this is a way for me to connect with my friends and to meet other people!!!" wrote Keren, a fifth grader. "Nipagesh is the best site in the world!!!"