A young boy named Dawson leans back in a white rocking chair on a balcony: “I bought some rocks from Home Depot and we just painted them. Let me show you over here.”
He points to his collection; there’s a blue rock with orange stars and another with a flower. A few seconds later, the video carousel switches to another clip. This time it’s a girl named Avery who pops a few quarters into her gumball machine and tells her 97 subscribers, “It’s blue! I guessed right.”
If not for the tiny voices and faces, you might think you’ve fallen down a TikTok rabbit hole. But this is the world of Zigazoo, a social media app for kids ages three to 12.
The short-form video platform launched last summer with a mission to develop healthy social media and streaming habits at an early age. It lets kids browse or participate in 30-second video challenges or activities created by zoos, museums, teachers, musicians and TV studios, encouraging them to answer questions such as “What’s on your mind?” or “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Kids can then share recorded responses with their Zigazoo friends or its network of 120,000 subscribers. There’s singing, dancing and pet show-and-tells.
At a time when Facebook (FB) faces backlash for reportedly working on a kids version of Instagram, with advocacy groups citing excessive time on devices and social media as a main concern, Zigazoo is attracting positive attention. The company said the platform has grown by about 100% since the beginning of 2021 and has had 20 million video views to date — two-thirds of that occurring in 2021.
On Thursday, the company announced a $4 million round of funding led by MaC Venture Capital, and a handful of celebrity investors, including Jimmy Kimmel, Serena Williams through her venture capital firm Serena Ventures, and Matthew Rutler, investor and head of talent at MasterClass.
Williams, a serial tech investor and mother to three-year-old Olympia, said she was drawn to Zigazoo because it was designed specifically for kids, rather than retrofitting a product made for adults.
“Existing social media sites were not necessarily designed with young children in mind and require parental supervision to make sure kids only consume content intended for their age group,” Williams told CNN Business in an email. “Kids-first platforms like Zigazoo are important because safety is in their DNA and content is specifically developed to meet children’s social and emotional needs.”
Zigazoo co-founders Zak and Leah Ringelstein, former elementary school teachers, created the app in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic after struggling to find interactive, engaging content for their three young children.
“We know the highest level of thinking happens at creation, and we were watching our own kids zone out and binge on YouTube,” Zak Ringelstein said. “We recognized that not only was there a lot of content that we would never select for our child to watch but that kids can and want to do more. They want to be with friends. They want to create, build, and interact.”
Leah Ringelstein said they started orchestrated challenges around the house for their kids, such as “Does it sink or float?” or hunting for items that start with each letter of the alphabet. With a background as tech entrepreneurs — the Ringelsteins launched and sold Dropbox-for-education platform UClass to Renaissance Learning, a Google Capital Company, for an undisclosed sum in 2015 — they folded these exercises into an app and made the traditionally passive experience of viewing videos into something creative and social.
The app’s challeges fall into various categories — art, math, health and fitness, and more — and come from its content partners. For example, a Netflix challenge features character Chico Bon Bon: Monkey With a Tool Belt demonstrating downhill acceleration with toy cars, while a Peanuts challenge highlights how Zigazoo users can help protect the planet for Earth Day.
The app requires an adult over the age of 18 to sign up via a Facebook, Google (GOOG) or Apple (AAPL) account. Parents can then decide if they want their child’s videos to be seen on the Zigazoo feed or set to private.
Each video is run through a third-party professional moderation service; the company has posted 125,000 so far in 2021. Its moderators work during a 19 hour window 7 days a week to ensure videos stay on topic for each challenge, do not include personal information — no last names or addresses — language is clean and content is free of “shoving, throwing, anger, yelling, bullying, sarcasm, or sulking,” according to its policy page. Videos that check these boxes appear on the app’s made feed; those that do not are made private.
Zigazoo is also part of the kidSAFE Seal Program, an independent safety certification service designed for children-friendly technologies.
The app has earned high praise from nonprofit Common Sense Media, which makes tech recommendations for families. “It’s really impossible to stress how favorable and critical this approach is,” said Christine Elgersma, senior editor of social media and learning apps at Common Sense. “If all social media had been designed with the notion that kids might use it, we’d be in a very different place today. Instead, we’re playing catch-up and trying to put bandaids on issues that perhaps could have been avoided if initial design and launch placed kids and teens at the center.”
As Zigazoo grows through word of mouth, it has also fallen into the hands of celebrity parents — including Rutler and his partner, singer Christina Aguilera — whose 6-year-old daughter consumes videos on the app. “There’s nothing else out there like this at all in the kids education space,” said Rutler on why he wanted to invest. “I didn’t really want my daughter to be spending time on some of the [apps] we found early on in the pandemic. I love that there are more exciting options now.”
Elergsma believes existing social media platforms and other apps for kids can look to Zigazoo as an example of how to offer a social yet safe place for children to be online.
“Kids aren’t messaging each other, responding to lots of notifications, trying to get ‘Zigazoo famous,’ shop within the app, meet strangers, or doing any of the other things that make TikTok popular,” Elergsma said. “Because Zigazoo encourages offscreen exploration and learning and then allows kids to show what they discovered, it strikes a great balance. It’s absolutely okay for kids to be on apps like this.”