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Straight Up Conversation: Grom Social Founder Zach Marks

Zach Marks is the founder of Grom Social, an anti-bullying social media platform for kids that has 13 million users across 200 countries. Zach founded Grom back in 2013, when he was 12 years old. Now a 17-year-old high school student, Zach attends the online Lighthouse Christian Academy as a full-time student. I recently had a chance to chat with Zach about Grom Social, the idea behind it, and the importance of online responsibility.

Rick Hess: So what exactly is Grom Social—what do users do on the site?

Zach Marks: Grom Social is a safe social networking site for kids ages five to 16. Grom is similar to other popular social media sites like Facebook or Instagram, but is designed specifically for children with a focus on safe content. Users can make friends, post photos, play games, and stream the original, kid-friendly content we produce. We also spend a lot of time creating new videos to keep our audience engaged.

RH: How many users do you have and who are they?

ZM: Right now, we have about 13 million users across 200 countries, which breaks down to 6.9 million children plus 6.6 million parents and guardians. The majority of Grom's users are between the ages of 9 and 11. However, over 200,000 are 7 years old, and over 400,000 are 8 years old. The site and both apps on Android and iPhone are completely free.

RH: Considering this is all free, how do you sustain the venture?

ZM: Grom is a publicly traded company, so technically we are owned by the very people we wish to serve—our users. We do have a number of partnerships with various companies and organizations, and are also present in over 3,000 schools across the country.

RH: What led you to create Grom Social?

ZM: By the time I was 10, I already had an interest in coding and computers, as well as a general interest in social media. It was around that time when I convinced my parents to let me have a Facebook page. Almost immediately I accumulated a lot of "friends," most of whom were adults I didn't know. I also began to see things on Facebook that were inappropriate for someone my age. My parents made me delete my account, but I secretly made another one using a false name. Soon enough, my parents found out through my dad's friend that I was back on Facebook, and I was forced to delete my account again. This led to me wanting to build a social network that was just for kids. In retrospect, I don't think there is much that could have stopped me from getting online—it's just too easy despite how hard parents may try to censor. I think that's why it's important to provide kids a safe environment to learn and practice good social media skills early on.

RH: Why do you think censoring kids or keeping them off social media doesn't work?

ZM: Kids are exposed to social media at a younger and younger age, as technology like cell phones and iPads become more easily accessible. According to a 2015 study by the Centre for International Governance Innovation, 1 in 3 internet users are children. With this increased access comes increased curiosity about social media, especially as peers begin to use it to chat and engage with friends. Also, most children are using the internet as a tool to complete school projects and learn new things outside of the classroom, so it's challenging for parents and educators to have it both ways. Instead of focusing on censoring or avoidance, it's important to focus on all of the positive ways social media can be utilized by teaching good digital citizenship.

RH: You were only 12 when you created Grom. How did you manage to get this all started? What were a couple of the biggest practical challenges?

ZM: I was lucky to have the support of my parents and their network. While they helped with the business perspective, the idea for Grom and its overall design—including special characters that focus on issues like bullying—was formed by myself and my siblings. One of the main challenges when we started was hosting the site on a server that could handle the amount of traffic we were receiving. The very first version of the site took about three months to build and was hosted on a GoDaddy server for $9.99 per month. Within the first week the server couldn't handle the traffic. We decided to shut down this version and build a better one with more original content and additional safety measures. Eleven months later we launched the new version of Grom Social, and the response we received was overwhelming. Today, Grom Enterprises employees over 600 people.

RH: There are tons of different social media platforms out there these days. What sites would you say are your biggest competitors? What makes Grom different?

ZM: For our older demographic, the biggest competition are popular sites like Instagram, Facebook, and Snapchat. For our younger users, Facebook's Messenger Kids comes to mind because it is geared towards children ages six to 12. What makes Grom Social stand out is that we give users the tools they need to become good digital citizens. Apps like Messenger Kids allow for parental monitoring—which is, of course, important and something we focus on with Grom as well—but do not serve as a guide or educational tool. Grom helps children build self-confidence and improve decision-making skills through positive social-media interaction. For example, on Grom, every user interacts with other "GromAtars," which are controlled by our highly skilled team. If a child tries to post something inappropriate, a GromAtar will stop them and explain why the behavior won't be allowed and why it's important to stay positive. This experiential learning from "peers" instead of parents resonates with young users.

RH: The anti-bullying message seems to be a central part of the Grom experience. Why was this important for you to emphasize?

ZM: When I was in the process of launching Grom Social, my sister Caroline was experiencing bullying at school. This impacted our entire family and made me realize how important it was to have a social network that worked to stop any form of cyberbullying or negative behavior. I wanted a way to promote being kind online. Caroline helped me create the anti-bullying characters on Grom that teach children lessons about treating others the way they want to be treated, both online and in person. The Grom character "Ashley" was inspired by her experiences and continues to influence Groms to this day.

RH: To build off that, your website claims that Grom's "devotion to social responsibility, good digital citizenship and positive social interaction is unique to the world of kid's social media." Can you talk a bit about how you ensure that users have this positive experience?

ZM: One of the things that makes Grom stand out is that the site is monitored live 24/7 by trained professionals who can answer any questions users have, as well as take action right away when something is posted that does not fit our community guidelines. This immediate engagement allows us to address critical issues like cyberbullying in real time. For example, we have the ability to reach out to the user who is behaving inappropriately while also interacting with the child experiencing the negative behavior to resolve it through both parties.

RH: What role, if any, do you see parents playing at Grom Social? Is there any way for parents to monitor their kids' activity on your site?

ZM: Parents play an important role in their children's social-media use and are an integral part of the Grom platform. The only way a child can interact directly with other children on Grom is with verifiable parental consent, which can be given by a signature or a phone call. Grom also offers a variety of options when it comes to parental monitoring. The Parent Portal allows parents and guardians the ability to set privacy levels for their child's account, monitor their activity including chats, and manage their friends. While we offer all of these services, the amount a parent wants to monitor is up to them. For example, if they feel reading chats is too invasive, they can choose to only control privacy settings.

RH: Let's say I'm visiting the site for the first time. How do I get started?

ZM: First you need to create an account with a username, password, and parent email. Then you can create your profile and use the site on a limited basis. Once your parent goes through the registration and approval process you will have full access to Gromsocial.com. Users can then chat with our 17 characters, view exclusive content, play games, view photos and videos, and connect with other kids around the world.

RH: Teachers typically try to get students to stay off social media while in class. It sounds like Grom's approach to social media in school is a bit different. Can you speak to that?

ZM: I've always felt that because teachers interact so closely with children on a day-to-day basis, they are uniquely qualified to understand the pros and cons of children using social media. They also understand better than most that you simply can't keep children entirely off-line. By designing something well-received by teachers, we realized that winning over one educator could essentially win over a classroom or even a school. For those who use our digital citizenship license program, they realize that Grom is an asset for their mission to educate children, not a platform or company to be wary of. We aren't encouraging kids to be distracted by their phones in class, but are encouraging proper education so they can safely use social media and the internet once they leave.

RH: Could you talk a bit about this digital citizenship license program? How many schools are currently participating in this?

ZM: Our digital citizenship license program is available to all 3,000-plus schools currently using Netspective web filtering, which is one of our partners. If schools use our NetSpective web filtering service--which blocks or filters children's internet access from harmful content—we provide the digital citizenship license program for free. In addition, schools subject to the Children's Internet Protection Act have two additional certification requirements, including educating minors about appropriate online behavior, including interacting with others and cyberbullying awareness and response. We help schools fulfill this requirement with our program, which includes six short videos presented by me. After the students watch each video, they have to successfully answer a series of questions before moving on to their next lesson. Topics we address include defining what good digital citizenship is, how to be a good digital citizen and focus on privacy, and ways to address cyberbullying.

RH: Let's close with this. You're still finishing up high school. So, I have to ask: What's next for you?

ZM: I graduate high school in May. I have been going to college for the past two years so I want to finish up and get my two-year degree. I'm also getting ready to launch a new Grom app. It's a combination of Snapchat and YouTube Kids with all the Grom safety aspects. Because the app has not been officially released or announced yet, we can't share too many additional details. As a brief overview, the app will allow users to upload their own content via mobile and have camera functions similar to Instagram and Snapchat in terms of filtering.

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