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    Virtual Worlds for Kids Entwined with Real World

    by Mark Glaser
    June 11, 2007

    i-6cb1f1ccc34e095c9ca6e1c17274c7bf-Club Penguin.jpg
    While the media has been abuzz about Second Life and adult virtual worlds, a bevy of virtual worlds for kids have been even more popular than their adult counterparts. Tween world Club Penguin has more than 4 million visitors per month, according to a New York Times article on the virtual world craze for kids. But I wondered when kids should start playing in these online worlds — at what age and what maturity level?

    While no one stepped up to give an exact age, many parents defended these virtual worlds as being extensions of their kids’ real world relationships. Rather than meet new, possibly scary, strangers online, the kids were generally using the virtual worlds as a way to communicate with their friends from school.

    Online marketer Todd Copilevitz says his seven-year-old daughter has been hooked on Club Penguin and Webkinz:

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    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…

    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.

    Jim Bower, the CEO of virtual world Whyville (which has been around since 1999), pointed out the difference between adult virtual worlds and those for kids:

    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…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)….

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    The adult concern that kids are using social networking sites to do the weird/separate 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.

    Other parents seconded what Bower said. Writer Lisa Romeo said her 9-year-old son had more fun in virtual worlds when he knew other people there from his everyday life. “Then they talk about it later (or concurrently) on the phone, or at school the next day,” she said.

    Dealing with Rejection

    One of the better sources for unbiased information on media for kids is Common Sense Media, which reviews many of these virtual worlds. In its review of Club Penguin, the reviewers say there is a problem when young kids try to be friends with other penguins who reject them.

    “For example, instead of using words to negotiate friendships, it’s very easy in this virtual world to get a mean face icon in response to ‘Wanna be friends?’” the review says. “Then the mean penguin is gone and the hurt, friendless penguin is left alone wondering what he did wrong. You can also throw snowballs at random penguins for no apparent reason.”

    While many of the kid and parent reviews of Club Penguin on Common Sense Media are positive, there was one parent who noted the complications inherent in virtual worlds for kids:

    My daughter was almost in tears when trying to make a friend who would reject her or suddenly disapear. Another negative point is the fact that the site endorses materialism, rewarding game playing with money to buy ‘stuff’ for your penguin. And you can get better ‘stuff’ if you pay for a membership. In my opinion this type of site in all its innocence is just a precursor for MySpace. For now, my daughter can find other things to do, outside preferably, and enjoy her childhood. Why rush things? Club Penguin, you’re cute and seemingly well intentioned but no thanks!

    Another adult reviewer cautioned that the gameplay in Club Penguin could be very addictive. Kathryn Casebeer, who helps convert websites into 3D virtual worlds, noted that kids need time limits to make sure they don’t get addicted. “I think it’s a matter of setting limits on time spent in a virtual world — by hour, daily, weekly, and monthly,” she said. “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.”

    So perhaps the winning combination for kids in virtual worlds is for parents to moderate their usage, make sure they have real-world friends in the worlds, and play along and monitor what they’re doing. Educating parents and kids about virtual worlds will go a long way to mitigating problems.

    What do you think? Do your kids play in virtual worlds, and what lessons can you share from their experiences? What dangers do you see in these worlds, and what values can kids learn there? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

    UPDATE: Finally, we hear a counter-view on virtual worlds for kids. Adam Engst, who publishes the TidBits newsletter about Macintosh computers (obviously not a Luddite), thinks kids need more time learning in the real world before jumping into virtual worlds. Here’s what he says in the comments:

    No, my 8-year-old doesn’t play in a virtual electronic world. He plays in a real world, populated with grass and trees and sticks and stones and ponds — all the raw materials for a child to create his own imaginary worlds that intersect neatly with the real world of physical objects, living creatures, and other people. Frankly, I think it’s rather distressing that parents would be encouraging children to avoid the real world well before they understand how to navigate it — you can’t possibly understand a simulacrum before you understand reality. And more to the point, how can we expect children ever to understand and appreciate reality properly when they’ve been trained from a young age that fantastical virtual worlds with entirely artificial rules are an acceptable substitute?

    I’m not sure that parents are actually “encouraging children to avoid the real world” and hopefully they are trying to moderate and mix usage of virtual and real world play activities. The key is balance, and parents need to get kids (and themselves) out of the house when they can.

    Tagged: second life teens virtual worlds
    • No, my 8-year-old doesn’t play in a virtual electronic world. He plays in a real world, populated with grass and trees and sticks and stones and ponds – all the raw materials for a child to create his own imaginary worlds that intersect neatly with the real world of physical objects, living creatures, and other people. Frankly, I think it’s rather distressing that parents would be encouraging children to avoid the real world well before they understand how to navigate it – you can’t possibly understand a simulacrum before you understand reality. And more to the point, how can we expect children ever to understand and appreciate reality properly when they’ve been trained from a young age that fantastical virtual worlds with entirely artificial rules are an acceptable substitute.

    • Thanks for a fascinating topic, Mark. The comment from Adam leads me to think about recent scholarship around the role of the puppetmaster. A kid can do any number of things in an online play space, but they can’t subvert it without mad programming skills. There’s someone behind that game who’s determined how the elements of the game will be used. In the real world, a stick can be a stick, a broom, a wand, a hot poker, any number of things…

    • My wife was saying, based on conversations with parents whose children do participate in these virtual worlds, that in some cases (perhaps with users other than other children your kid actually knows personally), the kids can’t even have real conversations – they have to pick from canned messages. Talk about forcing children into preconceived roles! (And I won’t even get into the highly transactional nature of some of these environments – to anyone but an economist, is the world really nothing more than things you can buy?)

      And to respond to the question of whether parents are “encouraging” children to spend time in these environments, the first question is if you have kids. :) If not, you may not realize that there are times when you just want them to go off and do something on their own and leave you in peace. That’s one big reason parents don’t mind their children watching television, even when they’re young (under 2) that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends against screen time. With kids, in other words, “encouraging” can easily be read as “allowing because it’s convenient, even if you have a sense that it’s a bad idea.” Virtual worlds are for many parents, I’m sure, a seemingly innocuous activity that keeps the kids quiet and engaged while the parents can cook dinner. But that doesn’t mean it’s a good thing, just that it’s a different sort of babysitter than the TV.

      Look, no one really knows what effect all this virtual world stuff will have on kids as they grow up. But I would merely suggest that we have millions of years of evolution behind us, and while we may not be training ourselves to become hunter-gatherers any more, there is absolutely no question that our bodies and brains need the kind of stimuli and exercise that our species evolved with. As adults, we have responsibility for ourselves, and if we participate in the sort of activities that make us overweight and unhealthy, that’s each person’s choice. But those of us who are parents also have the responsibility to guide our children’s choices for activities so they can grow up to be happy, healthy, well-adjusted adults. With new technologies like virtual worlds, we can’t even fall back on our own upbringings for a sense of what’s good and bad, so instead we make the decisions based more on what we feel would be acceptable for us as adults, throttled back to what we think would be acceptable for children.

      No one “needs” to learn technology at an early age – the technology will have gone through several generations by the time any kindergartener reaches adulthood anyway. But you can only be a child once, so why not spend it in the real world? You can pretend to be a child in virtual worlds for the rest of your adult life if you so wish.

    • Adam,
      Yes, I do have a son, who is now 5 years old. I currently limit his computer time to 1 hour per week on one day per week, and that’s usually spent on pbskids.org. Virtual worlds haven’t entered the equation…yet.

      I know what you mean about allowing kids to do things while you need to get other things done. The TV/video often plays the role of babysitter. But you had said that parents are “encouraging kids to avoid the real world.” I think it’s possible for parents to allow kids to have computer or TV time on a limited basis, without necessarily sacrificing time outside in the real world. It’s matter of balance and each parent needs to figure that out for themselves.

      I don’t think kids need to learn technology at an early age. They will naturally pick it up because it is all around them. We as parents can provide guidance or help and need to stay connected or check in from time to time. But I doubt banning technology will work either as they will find it all over.

    • Perhaps more what I mean is “facilitating.” There are certainly children who will figure stuff out on their own, ranging from turning the computer on to browsing the Web. But I’ll bet that most children in early grade school years do not figure this stuff out entirely on their own – they require the parent to facilitate the entire process. Show me a five-year-old who can get online in a virtual world entirely on her own and I’ll be impressed.

      In contrast, children don’t need parental assistance to figure out how to start playing with a stick, or a doll, or little cars – they develop that entirely on their own. And, once they’ve done so, they can do anything they can imagine, whether that’s having the car drive up the wall or pretending the stick is an M-16 (your son will get there in a few years, if he’s not already there :-)).

      In short, play is, or at least can be, entirely child-directed and open-ended, not to mention physically challenging. Virtual worlds require, in most cases, parental facilitation, and by definition restrict the possibilities to those imagined by the programmers. To my mind, the virtual worlds are a pale imitation of the real one.

    • Roslyn Glaser

      I am not real familiar with the computer sites you are discussing. I only know as a grandmother and retired pre-school teacher the social action a child has with other children as well as adults is the best way for the child to grow socially and emotionally. Interaction with a computer at an early age doesn’t seem to accomplish the same thing.

    • Alise Brann

      While I agree with with many of the concerns about children immersing themselves in virtual worlds at the expense of the ‘actual’ world, I do want to point out that there are instances where these worlds can be beneficial. Many virtual activities can help children learn more about how the real world works. I read a study some time ago that showed that students who use a simulation to learn how to navigate in their wheelchair, are more successful once they get into an actual wheelchair. In another great example, there is an island in Second Life (Brigadoon) created for the express use of young adults and adults with autism spectrum disorders. This virtual world gives them a safe space to practice social interactions, rehearse going out with friends, buying dinner, etc.

      Many of these virtual worlds have a significant problems, as mentioned above. Creative exploration and open-ended play are critical parts of child development, and it seems that many of these programs are heavily scripted. And it is certainly a little unsettling to have children playing games focused solely on acquiring material goods. However, there are very real educational and social advantages to these types of activities, so we should avoid discounting them completely.

    • brittney

      i am 13 years old and i play on this website called http://www.barbiegirls.com it is very intertaning and i think girls of all ages should check out this cool website, what you do is you make your own room where other players can come in and chat. they also have places you can go shopping. it is free and fun. you earn money by playing games.It also blocks out any personal infornmation that you try to give out it also blocks out profanity.you can make friends waste time and have fun.
      By:Brittney

    • michelle

      my child is 9 and goes on club penguin everyday she begs me for a membership but i say no becuase thats way too expensive! she feels jeaulos when a boy puts a heart to a girl because she is a member so i dont make her go online on anything unless im watching her until she is 11

    • I would really like to play online on the computer and make my own virtual world!!

    • HollyHunter

      I agree and disagree with many of them comments. As a mom of 3 I want to find a balance of online play which will eventually be required in the real world for them and reality play. I have a 14, 11, and 5 year old.

      My kids do not like ClubPenguin. Maybe it’s because I won’t let them use real money to join. It’s also a bit simplistic.

      My kids do like Webkinz however their site is down a lot, the kids many times have to wait in line to get into the world. Webkinz is nice because they do get a soft stuffed animal out of the deal but the original concept has been ruined by the fact that the accompanying virtual world doesn’t run smoothly.

      Our kids like Xivio.com where they can build apartments, personalize their avatar and create a personal home page called a hompy. They can add pictures, vidoes and music but with a twist. Xivio has parent controls and a rating system so that parents can taylor the site to the individuals child needs. I love that.

      Our kids are have to earn computer time by doing their household chores and doing their homework. Good grades get them extra time. I keep track for each of them in a notebook. Bad behavior and no accomplishing your tasks gets time taken away. Each kid gets an average of 1 to 2 hrs a week of online time. Our oldest a bit more for homework but is not included in her free time.

      As for outside play I agree that is very important. We all play outside as a family we do a lot of baseball, kickball, swimming, rafting etc. We also do a lot of out door work as a family and find it fun and not just a chore. The kids love moving each other around in a wheelbarrow and playing in the leaves in the fall.

      There has to be a balance.

    • Kaylee Claybrook

      Hi. I am 9 years old and I have always been playing and trying to find fun virtual worlds and worlds that you can chat with friends that are my age. I have been on Clb Pengiun but I had forgotten my password and had gtten a new one but when I got it I typed it in and it wouldnt let e get on. I have gotten on so many virtual worlds but I need to find more because I have been on these virtual worlds for a while now so can you help me out?

    • riley pfister

      well a virtual thing for children are fine. well so i say. but it will give you an opotunity to learn how to cook and learn stuff you really should get to know how to do. because some day you will have to face taking care of you and a child. you got to cook. not always go out to eat. our econamy is getting reall tuff you have got to learn these things and virtual things might help.

    • Vyctoria Walker

      scents you said that you said that it was real life you should make it better like put cars that you can buy and drive around in and with roads to and were you can make your own house.

    • Yep, my children complain of the same social issues online as they don off-line; bullying, rejection, etc. The good thing about online worlds is it is easier to monitor these conversations than we can on the playground. http://clubpenguingang.com

    • 12 Yr old Kid

      It is a facsinating topic but you have to rember we are kids no need of a big deal! we go on virtual worlds to explore more have fun and interact with other children around the worl or right next to us! When kids go online they actually get smarter they learn how to create websites http://minimonogang.blogspot.com/ and they put in a huge amount of effort children have no limits their imaginations is Amazing and their power to keep going even when things are tough they will keep going till they accomplish.But you must remember limit the time your kids go online especially if their young i suggest let them discover virtual worlds at the age of 10.Children have an amazing life they must have fun in the real world act like real children and make real friends that they ccan interact with.

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