Zach Marks designs kid-friendly rival to Facebook

8:58 AM, Dec 28, 2012   |    comments
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Zachary Marks, 12, of Melbourne Beach, Fla. got into trouble - twice - with his parents for having a Facebook page. He complained to his father that there was no cool safe site for kids. He told his dad he was going to start a safe site for kids and he did - Grom social. Gromsocial.com is a safe secure social website for kids that has parental safeguards. (Gannett, Malcolm Denemark/Florida Today)

Wayne T. Price, FLORIDA TODAY

MELBOURNE BEACH, Fla. - Last year, 11-year-old Zach Marks of Melbourne Beach earned the ire of his parents for going behind their backs and playing on Facebook.

When they discovered Zach's actions and his exposure to some of the more unseemly elements of the popular social network, he was banned from Facebook.

So like any intelligent youth up-to-date on technology and in touch with his peers' interests, Zach, now 12, enlisted the aid of his siblings and created his own kid-friendly - and safe - version of Facebook called www.GromSocial.com. Grom, by the way, is a young surfer, which pretty much describes Zach and his five brothers and sisters. They created all the characters on the site and direct most of the content.

Zach's father, Darren Marks, founder of an energy drink and food company based in South Florida, immediately saw the potential for GromSocial in the multibillion-dollar social media market and officially registered it as a company in March.

After officially launching nearly three months ago, GromSocial has 6,800 members around the world. The site gets about 2,000 unique visitors a day and 6,000 or so page views. In the vast online world, that's a modest amount perhaps. So far, it's built on modest marketing, mostly word of mouth. "It has just started to catch on," Darren Marks said. "It's amazing how this is all happening and taking off."

He and wife, Sarah, let the kids be in charge of the creative side while they, as watchful parents, work to ensure that it meets all the standards for safety. The latter includes complying with, and mostly exceeding, safety requirements established by the Federal Trade Commission's Children Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA.) GromSocial also received an "A" rating by the Electronic Trust Foundation, an international organization that promotes privacy and security in the online community.

Facebook has restricted users younger than 13, though it's considering lowering that to attract more users now that it's a publicly-traded company. However, underage users can easily work around that policy and many parents even assist their children in creating Facebook accounts.

Parents have to OK their children signing up for GromSocial. And they receive emails of all their children's postings and correspondence on the site. GromSocial focuses a lot on current issues facing youth, such as anti-bullying, anti-drugs and anti-smoking. The network posts a lot of surf and sports photos and promotes role models like Tim Tebow. A filter nixes inappropriate language.

Darin and Sheri Houston of Summerfield. recently allowed their 9-year-old son to sign up on GromSocial after being referred by an acquaintance. The Houston family became instant fans. "They're pushing a clean, wholesome social networking site," Sheri Houston said, "so basically our kids don't grow up so fast."

Parental involvement, even with safeguards put in place for GromSocial, is key, said Caroline Knorr, parenting editor at Common Sense Media, a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization that advocates on child and family issues, and studies the effects that media and technology have on young users.

GromSocial, Knorr said, seems to be on the right track with its goals. "Social networking is a fun way for kids to interact with friends, and a great way to express creativity, learn new things, and safely experiment with identity," Knorr said. "Some parents may want to let their kids start connecting with friends in this way but have legitimate concerns about privacy and age-inappropriate content on mainstream sites like Facebook and Twitter. That's the space that these kid-friendly sites with strong privacy and safety features can fill."

So is GromSocial the latest Facebook in the making? Darren Marks, as president of GromSocial, isn't talking finances yet. He and others have invested tens of thousands of dollars in the social site's development during the past year, but they're doing so as a labor of love.

Partnerships with kid-friendly companies such as Disney and Nickelodeon is one possibility. There also could be advertisements on the site in the future, he said. But making money isn't the goal at this point, Darren Marks said.

"Yeah, we've put a lot money into this," Darren Marks said. "Not to sound corny, this is a passion for our family. We really feel like we could make a difference in children's lives."

FLORIDA TODAY

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