- 8 Feb 08, 10:34 AM
So is the BBC really launching a "Facebook for under 12s" as was claimed by some of the papers last week?
Well, the short answer is, no. MyCBBC is not a social networking site.
However, what we are planning to launch is a service which will enable children to create a personalised space on the CBBC site. The idea behind the site is two-fold: to enable children to customise and collate the content that the BBC and others offer them, and then to use this content to allow children to express themselves and interact with others in an entirely safe way.
These pages will take the form of a child's den in which they can aggregate their favourite content from BBC sites and from approved external websites. They can choose posters, furniture and gadgets to personalise their den. Each gadget will provide a useful function: the PC stores their favourite website links; the plasma screen plays video clips; the calendar gives the dates and times of favourite shows and their own personal dates such as family and friends' birthdays.
There is also a "treasure chest" in which they can store any content they have created on the CBBC site - for example, a link to their Roar park or latest message board conversations. And Newsround feeds, based on topics such as sport or current affairs, are given an engaging wrapper using the metaphor of virtual magazines.
Children can further personalise their dens by displaying their interests and hobbies by selecting the relevant "stickers" from a pre-determined list of symbols. They can design virtual versions of themselves - avatars - with different looks and clothes. They can also choose from a range of moods each day, represented by a weather system around the avatar's head.
My CBBC is designed from the ground up with online safety as the highest priority. Interaction with other users is entirely confined to pre-defined messaging and the exchange of virtual assets such as links to safe sites. There are no opportunities for a malevolent person to make direct contact with children. Nevertheless, because we have designed the site to introduce some of the basic concepts commonly associated with web 2.0-type interaction, we'll take every opportunity to reinforce the message that whilst exciting, the internet can also be a dangerous place if the Stay Safe rules are ignored. This is one of the many ways in which the site will help children to build useful media literacy skills.
Children who create a MyCBBC den can add up to 16 friends to the "Friends Book" in their den, providing they know their friends' CBBC member nicknames. Only if two users are in each other's friends book can they visit each other's dens. This ensures that children are in mutual agreement about who they allow to view their space. Friends are allowed to leave a message for the den owner when they visit but only by selecting messages from a pre-approved list – for example "Cool room! Check mine out!" or "Hope you had a good day at school!".
Why are we doing this? The CBBC website is already very popular with about 1m UK children visiting each week. It offersgames, information, spaces where you can create content and pre-moderated message boards where you can exchange ideas and views with other children. Why do we need to do more?
The first answer is that MyCBBC will enable us to get better value out of content we have already created. We value children as individuals not as an amorphous mass, so we want to take every opportunity to allow them to explore content and express themselves by making the CBBC site a customisable experience. In essence, MyCBBC enables children to personalise the CBBC site so that it is more useful and more fun for them.
However, the second reason is, I think, more important. Social networking sites are hugely popular amongst children and teenagers. There is an almost insatiable desire to tell your friends - and the wider world - about yourself and to exchange views on pretty much anything and everything. In the last two years, a rash of networking sites have appeared and many have become extremely successful. However, very few are designed for or appropriate for children under 12 years of age. For example, Bebo has a lower age limit for registration of 12. But the popularity of these sites means that younger users will fib about their age in order to take part. Therefore we wanted to create a space on CBBC that offered children a first taste of the fun and functionality of a personalised space and the ability to exchange information with their peers - but to do so in a wholly safe and age appropriate environment.
With the Internet continuing to expand at an exponential rate, the challenge in working with today’s children is not the availability of information but the tools we develop to enable users to actually find it. MyCBBC will play a small part in helping children to navigate and retain the great content they discover whether this is a site offering help with their homework or guiding their consumption of radio and tv programmes online.
How much does it cost? We estimate the development of the site will be about £250,000. To put that figure in context, it would pay for about two to three hours of mid-range entertainment or factual television programming.
MyCBBC differs from social networking sites in a number of significant ways. Most importantly, it will not be possible to ascertain a child's identify from either their den or nickname. Secondly, messages between friends are limited only to a pre-determined set of comments. Third, only friends you invite in can see your personal space.
Consideration for child safety and protection has been at the forefront of the design of MyCBBC. The site goes beyond recommendations in the Home Office Guidelines to ensure the safety of its users. There is no free-text interaction between users and children cannot be identified. We are therefore confident that it is a wholly safe environment for 9-12 year olds in which they can create a personalised and fun space. In doing so, we hope they will make better use of existing CBBC web content, learn some useful skills and take their first steps into the world of digital interaction.
We’re intending to launch MyCBBC in mid March. I think it is very much part of the BBC's public service remit in a digital world. But I'd welcome your comments on its possibilities and the pitfalls.
Richard Deverell is Controller, BBC Children's.