Children have always built their own fantasy worlds. These days, the Internet is making it easier—perhaps too easy, some say.
Spurred by the popularity of social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook, a host of companies are developing social sites for children, with names such as Club Penguin, Be-Bratz, Habbo Hotel and Whyville.
Some are relatively basic membership-only websites, where children can exchange messages and share photos and audio files. Others are “virtual worlds”, similar to popular adult online hangouts such as Second Life. Young visitors to these online worlds can build themselves digital bodies, move into digital rooms and hang out with friends in three-dimensional play spaces.
It’s difficult to say whether so much online fantasy is beneficial or harmful to children, said David Bickham, research scientist at the Center on Media and Child Health at Children’s Hospital Boston. But “there’s a lot of potential in both directions”, he said.
Bickham suggests that many children can benefit from the chance to reach out to their peers. “If you have lonely kids or kids who can’t get out of the house very often,” he said, “this can provide a really positive place for kids to have the opportunity to socialize.”
The threat of online sexual predators and cyberbullies on children’s sites is greatly exaggerated, Bickham said. “Most of the sites that I’ve looked at have done a pretty good job of providing a pretty safe space.”
Their chat rooms, generally, use filtering software to block obscenities, sex talk, or information that could undermine someone’s privacy. For instance, filters prevent children from sharing phone numbers, street addresses, or email addresses. In addition, many sites have adult chaperones to monitor chats. Some don’t even let users type their own messages. Instead, they communicate by sending pre-approved phrases such as “I love your outfit”, or “I feel bored”.
More worrisome is the content being offered by the sites, and the amount of time children are spending online. While the sites can provide valuable educational tools and ways for children to socialize, “those kids might be missing out on the positives that real-world social friendships have”, Bickham said.
Also, specialists worry that some social sites, run by major toy companies, could overexpose children to commercial messages.
Social sites for children have been around for years, but garnered little notice until a host of recent high-profile deals. This month, Walt Disney Co. paid $350 million to acquire Club Penguin, a children’s virtual world that boasts 700,000 paying subscribers.
For a brainy online experience, many children go to Whyville, a virtual world founded in 1999 with an explicitly educational mission. Site members chat and play games, but they also tackle challenging projects, such as running a business or designing a car.
Jim Bower, founder of Whyville, said, “Our objective from the beginning was to build a virtual world that would promote learning.” Whyville has 2.6 million registered users, and about 300,000 unique visitors every month; 85% are between eight and 14 years of age, and two-thirds are female.
Still, Peggy Meszaros, director of the Center for Information Technology Impacts on Children, Youth, and Families at Virginia Tech University, urges parents to limit their children’s computer time and to get to know their online friends. “Don’t let it be an isolated activity where you’re putting the child in the bedroom with a computer and shutting the door,” she said.