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    Virtual Worlds Are Scary for Parents, Liberating for Kids

    by Audrey Watters
    June 30, 2011
    Flickr photo by "Juliana Coutinho":http://www.flickr.com/photos/ngmmemuda/4769872226/

    There are more than 1 billion users of virtual worlds, online communities where people have avatars and participate in various simulated environments. Even more impressive than that number: Roughly half of those virtual world users are under age 15.

    With a number of news stories lately about kids under 13 on Facebook (violating the social network’s Terms of Service), you’d think there weren’t any other social networking sites that were geared for kids or where kids wanted to be. But clearly that’s hardly the case, and many social networks, gaming sites and virtual worlds are aimed at the under-13 set: Club Penguin, Whyville and Webkinz, to name just a few. (Here’s a list of eight social media sites just for kids.)

    Virtual worlds...may sound scary to parents, but for kids, it can be very liberating."

    Security and Safety

    Allowing children under age 13 to participate in online communities often raises questions about security and safety, and many parents fear predators and cyberbullies. Kid-oriented websites have a number of measures to prevent these dangers for their members, including logging chats and flagging questionable content and suspicious accounts.

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    But there may be other problems with these sites too, including the intense commercialization of many of them. Often virtual worlds (for children as for adults) encourage not just game-play but consumption, and kids need to buy virtual goods (sometimes with real money) in order to dress their avatars and decorate their virtual homes. Purchasing in-game items often gives users more status, and that’s a lesson in itself that parents may or may not wish to have imparted to their kids.

    Learning Opportunities

    Virtual worlds are often dismissed as merely games, and most do not claim to be educational websites. But there are plenty of informal learning opportunities for kids in these environments, particularly as these are often their first experiences with online communities. Participating in a virtual world can help kids learn how to communicate and behave online.

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    They can also be utilized to help bridge online and offline ethics. One virtual world, MiniMonos, for example, has an environmental theme and tries to make sustainability lessons clear to its users. If you don’t keep up with the recycling around your avatar’s treehouse, there are in-world consequences. The virtual world also ties this to the real world, rewarding users for various environmental actions they take in their own communities.

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    Here’s a list of five virtual world sites that can unlock all kinds of adventures, curated by a teacher who’s tested many of these sites in his classes.

    Liberating for Kids

    It’s this connection to community — again, on- and offline — that may be one of the greatest benefits of virtual worlds. Despite fears about predators, virtual worlds do offer kids a place to experiment and expand socially. Virtual worlds give children an opportunity to participate in a large social environment, with people from all over the world, often unsupervised by their parents. That may sound scary to parents, but for kids, it can be very liberating.

    As always, parents should make sure they know where and what their kids are doing online. The best virtual worlds offer reporting features for parents and keep in contact with them should any problems arise. They also allow parents to enter alongside their children.

    Although virtual worlds may be a relatively new phenomenon, the fact that kids under 13 are embracing them suggests that we’re only beginning to see the potential of these online communities.

    Audrey Watters is an education technology writer, rabble-rouser, and folklorist. She writes for MindShift, O’Reilly Radar, Hack Education, and ReadWriteWeb.

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    This post originally appeared on KQED’s MindShift, which explores the future of learning, covering cultural and tech trends and innovations in education. Follow MindShift on Twitter @mindshiftKQED and on Facebook.

    Tagged: club penguin kids learning minimonos security virtual worlds whyville
    • scn71402

      The fear of online predators is very common amongst parents of little kids in modern times. I know there are safety rules and aids on many of them, but often overuse of safety features can lead to lack of children’s self expression freedom – such as usage of non-standard emoticons like , words such as fashion trend/musical band/subculture/software/game names, science terms, words from other languages (like nihao, gracias or au revoir), mathematical solutions (as a former Kidzworld user I remember it was blocking numbers and math solutions as well) etc. The only way of avoiding an online predator is not to be one yourself. I am usually trying to be as nice as possible and as sincere as possible, and try not to deceive others. Online predators usually appear like an average person – but they try hard to deceive people online.
      As about media studies – usually, mass media try hard to provoke fears and make huge packs of money on these fears. The most profittable article is the one that uses primitive logical synchronisation – usually modus ponens to an idea that can provoke a fear. These articles can breed “likes” and “thumbs up”‘s, are stated as a “fact” – but usually have nothing senseful or real to consider. An example of such article is: “Santa is NOT real. Only little kids can and should believe in him. Adults should NOT believe in him because he is NOT real. Adults should NOT tell the truth to kids because this ruins their childhood. When a child turns 10, he SHOULD COMPREHEND that Santa is NOT real”. This is no more than just a rant. Actual fact is that no characters (be it Santa Claus, King Kong, Slenderman or Harry Potter) is even supposed to be real person. However, the fact that the characters can have real backstories, also should be considered. In same situation with Santa, the fact is that Santa Claus was inspired by St Nicholas (who was a real person) and Aryan deity Odin at same time, and is a part of European Christmas attire and spirit, as well as newborn Jesus Christ. Also, not everyone under 10 believes in Santa, and not everyone over 10 loathes Santa. In this rant, every statement is using a modus ponens to a statement that Santa is not real. Same applies to other media studies and articles in mass media related to Internet. Maybe, they use such articles in order to appeal more audience who is usually using Internet as a digital alternative to newspapers, and make more money. These articles are, in fact, very predatory. I know that you, my little cutie neko-chan, after reading this article, may be disappointed about Santa Claus – but this wasn’t to ruin your childhood, but to state as an example of similar predatory articles online and offline *cuddles, strokes and kisses*. Hope you stay innocent all the time!!! =^.^=
      Also, even parents and relatives can also be trolls and online predators too.

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