MELBOURNE BEACH, Florida -- Darren Marks is a father of six and knows how tough it is to keep his kids safe, especially online -- a lesson learned when he gave 12-year-old Zach permission to get a Facebook page.
Darren says, "He convinced me it was safe. I didn't know any better."
"I had it for 2 and a 1/2 weeks and friended 682 people between adults and kids," says Zach.
"90 percent of them he never met before," says Darren.
Zach adds, "I've seen images I probably shouldn't have seen. One of my dad's good friends caught me on there. He told my dad."
"I deleted the account," Darren says.
But within days Zach, made a new Facebook page and got caught.
Darren says, "We had a big argument. I told him, 'You're done. This is not safe. I don't know who's talking to you or a way for me to monitor this.'"
"I told [my dad] there's no safe social network site for kids out there that's fun, safe, and educational," Zach says.
So Zach decided to create his own. He says, "So my brothers and sisters sat down at the dinner table started drawing the website layout, started drawing the characters."
Zach borrowed $2,500 from his older brother for a web designer, and four months later he presented the plan to his dad at a Starbucks.
Darren says, "I was blown away."
"He was blown away, super impressed," recalls Zach. The homeschooler says during those four months his father had no idea about the social networking site for kids. "I brought it to my mom. She said, 'Good idea. Go for it.'"
And what is known today as Grom Social went online.
"This is the Grom Pound." That is how Zach describes the screened patio at the Marks' home on Melbourne Beach. In the corner is Zach's desk. He says, "Over here is where I work. This is where the chatting, monitoring, uploading new stuff, messaging kids."
What is Grom Social about? "Grom Social is a safe social network for kids that is fun, safe, and educational, made by kids for kids," explains Zach.
And what exactly is a Grom? "A 'Grom' is a young upcoming athlete, gamer, surfer. If you want to Google it it's a young promising individual that is quick to learn," says Zach.
Cast members include avatar characters of Zach. He says, "Everyone wants to know if I'm real or not. I tell them, 'I'm real. I'm 12 years old.'"
There are also avatars of his brothers and sister, Caroline. She uses the name "Ashley."
Zach says, "Ashley, who is my sister, posts cool entertainment stuff."
Older brother Luke is a competitive surfer. "Every time I go on a surf trip, I post photos," says the 14-year-old.
Younger brother Jack is the gamer. Baby brother Dawson, 4, is Daredevil Dawson. "I do crazy things," he says. The 4-year-old isn't old enough for school yet, but can skateboard and ride his dirt bike.
Dawson says, "15 year olds, they're scared to do it. I'm 4 and I do it."
Zach's mom has an avatar, too. "Here is my mom. She is Sarah the Trainer. She posts about triathlon tips."
How is this different from Facebook, or is it like Facebook for kids? Zach says, "It's different because when you sign up you put your parents' email in, so the parents get a copy of everything you do. They get a copy of your chatting history, every two weeks they get a Grom Report Card."
According to Grom Social rules, only kids are allowed to chat with kids. "They can't un-friend the characters, so we see everything they are doing," says Zach.
Adults like Zach's mom monitor the site 24 /7 by having staff in different time zones. Sarah Marks says, "We get to see it first. We have the power to delete, to ban, to scramble and put any account on hold we want to."
The Brevard County sheriff has recognized Zach for creating a safe place for kids online. Zach's father says the sheriff's office work with Grom Social to monitor safety filters and check for weaknesses in security.
Grom Social educates on topics like anti-bullying, anti-drugs, and anti-smoking. The messages are given by kids, not adults.
"They speak to a kid in their own language, in their own way," says Darren.
Zach is building a following totaling 20,000 members and growing. Darren says, "We have 132 countries where we have memberships, and we've reached 178 countries on a good day. We can see 30,000 visits a day."
Groms even have their own language. Zach says, "They speak Gromish. That's what they came up with. 'Grom-night, Grom-tastic, Grom-morning.'"
Zach set out to create a safe place for kids to go online, interact, and learn. Zach says, "I feel really good about it. That's one of the things I wanted to accomplish. It's cool that we are doing it."
What's next for the Marks family and Grom Social? Darren says they are working on a reality show.
Grom Social has signed a 3-year contract with Florida Virtual School to provide education material to kids. It is also working on a 3-D education video game using Grom Social's avatar characters.
Darren says they have a large following in the Ukraine and are working on translating the website to other languages. The first will be Russian.