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    What’s the right age for kids to start visiting virtual worlds?

    by Mark Glaser
    May 29, 2007

    Forget about Second Life. The big buyout talk in virtual worlds lately has been around sites such as Club Penguin, a squeaky-clean world catering to kids aged 8 to 14, and Webkinz, a kids site with games and virtual pets. A recent BusinessWeek article noted that Big Media companies such as Sony and News Corp. were interested in paying upwards of $400 million for the parent company of Club Penguin, which now has more traffic than Second Life and World of Warcraft combined, according to Hitwise. While these sites are obviously popular, I wondered if kids should be doing more socializing in the real world than in virtual worlds. What do you think is the right age for kids to start joining virtual worlds? Is there a danger in exposing kids to marketing at an early age, or is this acceptable to you as a parent? Share your thoughts on virtual worlds for kids in the comments below, and I’ll run the best ones in the next Your Take Roundup.

    Tagged: children club penguin comments privacy security teens virtual worlds
    • Mark,

      As a marketer, and parent of an active participant in both kids sites mentioned, I can tell you Second Life isn’t even in the same league. Kids on these sites can spend hours exploring, collecting and buying the pieces necessary to build their worlds. There are very real lessons in how they learn the relative costs of creating a “home.” I’m hesitant to suggest Second Life has any redeeming educational value.

      Club Penguin swept like a virus through my seven-year-old’s world late last year. The uber kid safe mechanism made it very easy for me to pony up the monthly fee. But the powers behind Webkinz are re-writing all the rules. The stuffed animals are nice enough for the relatively inexpensive price. But the code that comes with each unlocks an online world that is free and as rich as anything else I’ve seen.

      My daughter is now scheming ways to afford her next Webkinz, #17 if I’m not mistaken. Each has an online counterpart, that has friends, a home, a mortgage and rich world of imagination. Suddenly her world of imagination is being juiced by the online experience. That’s something the PowerRangers never managed to deliver.

      Todd

    • As the founder and CEO of the company that runs Whyville.net, which is still the only virtual world built explicitly to be educational, has 2.3 million registered users, and has been around since 1999, we know something about this. It turns out that there is a significant difference between the way adults use Second Life and other social networking sites, and the way that kids use Whyville — Whyville isn’t their second life, it is their first life. What I mean by that, and revelent to your original comment about being social in the real world, is that while adults generally seek anonymity on the Internet, so they can pretend to be 19 year old females, kids social use of the Internet is deeply connected to their real social worlds. Our data suggests, for example, that better than 60% of the conversations and interactions that Whyvillians have on whyville is with their real world school friends. Another 20 % is with distant relatives (including parents serving in the military, for example). So, kids use Whyville the way “we” used the telephone — except, in Whyville, they combine what we used to do on the phone, with what we used to do with television (including PBS), except, better than that, of course, the educational activities in Whyville are active and interactive AND social at the same time.

      So, bottom line — the adult concern that kids are using social networking sites to do the weird / seperate from the real world things that adults do, is not, in fact, what kids are doing.

      Whyville is their first life. It will be interesting to see, as they grow up, if they start engaging in second life activities — but, they may not.

      Jim Bower
      CEO Numedeon Inc.
      Founders of Whyville

    • I have to echo some of what Jim Bower, above, said. My 9 year old son has more fun in a virtual world when he knows one or more of his real-life school friends are also online and playing in the same area. Then they talk about it later (or concurrently) on the phone, or at school the next day.

    • Kim

      My nine year old loves her “DS”, which allows her to make money, buy houses, and take care of pets. She even takes friends’ DS’s and maintains the money, home purchases, and pets for them!

    • Seems like you are mixing apples and oranges. On the one hand you mention virtual worlds and the very next you mention marketing. I could be very in favor of one but not the other.

      You get great variation in how people interact in virtual worlds. The things that people describe happening in sites targeted at youth absolutely happen in adult sites as well. The generalizations about adults in virtual worlds don’t work any better than the generalizations about children. We’re all individuals.

    • Kevin,
      I’m not trying to compare the experience of adults in virtual worlds to that of kids. I’m wondering what the right age is to expose kids to these worlds — whether there is marketing there or not. Child psychologists say children shouldn’t watch TV until after they are at least 2 years old, not that anyone pays attention to that admonition. I’m wondering if we as a society need to think about when we expose kids to these types of sites, and what the long-term effects might be on their socialization.

    • I agree with your questions/thoughts completely.

      My comments mostly were in regard to your reader’s comments.

    • Hi :-) I think it’s a matter of setting limits on time spent in a virtual world–by hour, daily, weekly,and monthly. My online friend who is 15 is not allowed to go into a virtual world during the week when school is in session. So, common sense and adult supervision solves that ;-)

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