Techno Family

These ‘Social Websites’ Cater to Little Kids

by Carolyn Jabs

Many teens these days are preoccupied with social websites such as MySpace and Facebook, but now children as young as five have social networking sites just for them.

At Club Penguin, recently purchased by Disney, children posing as adorable penguins race sleds and visit each other’s igloos. At Webkinz and Neopets, kids play with other kids as well as virtual stuffed animals.

Nicktropolis, Barbiegirls and Kraze let kids spend more time with characters and toys they already know from offline venues. Whyville, Imbee and Kidscom claim young visitors to their sites will be surreptitiously educated while they play and socialize.

These sites and dozens of others combine interactivity with the animated games traditional on children’s websites. Kids are encouraged to design personal spaces that “express their creativity” and to engage with online “friends” sometimes as themselves and sometimes as personalized characters called avatars.

Questions and Answers
Social sites for kids are exploding in popularity. One study by eMarketer found one quarter of all kids are involved in such sites now and predicted that the number will double in the next four years.

For parents of young children, networking sites raise obvious questions.

Are they safe? The answer is a qualified “yes.” The limits designed into most networking sites for young children make it less likely they will be hassled by bullies or predators (but not advertisers).

Are they worth the time of children who might otherwise be playing with offline friends? This answer is less certain. For teens and adults, social networking sites can be valuable tools for meeting like-minded people and strengthening bonds between friends. For young children, the benefits aren’t nearly as obvious. Here are a few questions parents should consider before giving their blessing to a child’s membership in a social network.

Who created the site and why? To find out, visit the corporate part of the website, which is usually found in its “About Us” section. What is the company’s mission statement? Some websites such as the National Geographic group on Imbee are trying to educate kids; others such as Barbiegirls hope to intensify a child’s connection to a brand. Still others, like Whyville, are surprisingly candid about delivering young eyeballs to advertisers. If you can’t find a mission statement, assume the worst.

What’s the revenue model? Although they’re free, sites supported by advertising are dubious models for children too young to recognize commercial messages when they see them. Paying a monthly membership subscription like the one at Club Penguin protects kids from intrusive advertising. Other sites offer some content for free and charge for “premium” features. Before signing up with a credit card, be sure you and your child understand which features incur extra charges.

Do your child’s friends use the site? The social benefits of online networking are magnified if kids use these websites with classmates and other people they know. Then, what children do together online reinforces offline friendship and helps kids understand the distinction between people they know in real life and those they know only from online interactions.

What can kids do on the site? Nearly all social websites allow kids to invite “friends” to play games and participate in other activities. Be sure these activities reflect your values. At Club Penguin, for example, girl penguins are pink and boys are blue, leading to lots of virtual pairing. Also, most sites allow members to design personal spaces, and some encourage uploading of original photos or artwork. Tell children under 13 they need case-by-case permission before uploading or downloading anything.

What do kids collect? Nearly every virtual world includes some kind of pretend currency that can be used to buy clothes for avatars or furnishings for a personal space. Some ob-servers worry these activities introduce children to the excesses of superficial consumer culture. Others argue that virtual econ-omies can teach kids to work and save to achieve goals. Look for sites on which kids earn credits for cooperation and creativity as well as competition.

How do site members communicate? So-called “safe chat” sites limit kids to pre-approved phrases, making it less likely they will be contacted by predators. On some sites, kids can step up to filtered chat, which lets them type what they want but edits out personal information (including all numbers). Don’t promote your child to this level until he understands online stranger danger.

What are the sign-up procedures? All social networking sites designed for little kids go through the motions of getting parental permission — usually by e-mail. A few try to be more rigorous., for example, asks for a credit card number even though the site is free on the theory that most ten-year-olds can’t provide that information on their own.

Is there any monitoring? Some sites actually have adult monitors who keep an eye on what happens. They can’t spot every problem, but like the lunch ladies at school, their presence may discourage young children from misbehaving. Many sites encourage children themselves to report infractions of the rules, a big brother feature that makes some adults uneasy. For example, on Club Penguin kids who have been “loyal” members of the site for 30 days can become “secret agents.” Some kids have abused the privilege, filing false reports on kids they don’t like.

Are there parental controls? Check for options that allow you (not your child) to change the level at which she plays. Find out if you can get e-mail reports about your child’s activities. Look for a timer that ends the game after a certain amount of time. Be sure you can delete any content your child posts.

Stay Involved
Social networking sites evolve — fast. In the end, the only way to know whether a particular site is a good hangout for your child is to sit down together and have him show you around.
Do this at least once a week with pre-teens and younger children. At this age, children can’t go to a friend’s house unless you know the family, so don’t let them use a social network without comparable supervision. Ask who’s behind the friends and avatars your child encounters. Find out what activities he enjoys and why.

Finally, remember that social websites are designed to be addictive. Because there is always someone new to meet and something new to do, parents must enforce time limits.
No matter how much hype you hear about how social networking sites prepare little children for an online future, don’t be fooled. For young children, the network that truly matters is the one that gathers around the dinner table at the end of the day.

Carolyn Jabs is a freelance writer specializing in family technology issues.

A Kids’ Social Site Sample

Barbiegirls. Kids can join this free paean to the popular fashion doll only with parental permission. Once in, they create an online character, design their own room, shop with pretend B Bucks, play games, watch videos featuring Barbie movies and products, and chat with other girls in a controlled environment.

Club Penguin. Disney’s “safe virtual world for kids to play, interact with friends and have fun letting their imaginations soar.” Children’s penguins accumulate belongings and pretend coins. Subscription, $5.95 per month, $57.95 per year. Kraze. Kids can hang out with friends, play games, create personal rooms, compile and spend virtual coins, talk to each other with microphones and webcams, and share pictures and videos in a free, moderated environment. The Kraze features two gender-specific worlds: Onimech for boys which features battling Wowbotz, and Zynia a world filled with Mystikat Kutties meant to capture the hearts of little girls. Created by toymaker PlayHut, the site is free of direct advertising.

Imbee. A free site for kids ages 8 to 14 and their parents featuring blogs, pictures, messages, imbee points, audio and video, and a media library, trading card maker, and widget library. For Earth-loving youngsters, the site includes the National Geographic Kids Group. Imbee allows age-appropriate advertising.

Neopets. Children create virtual online pets at this free website. Kids accumulate “neopoints,” which can be used to obtain food or toys for their Neopets, magical potions, collectable cards and even virtual clothes. Features include a bulletin board, games and competitions in skills such as art, writing and HTML creation. The site includes advertising, most of it incongruous, with recent ads for Chrysler, a stock service and an online jazz music store.

Nicktropolis. In this virtual world, kids play online games and connect on message boards anonymously via nicknames. It is a segment of Nick-elodeon’s The site includes banner ads for commercial products such as Wii games. A few ads at the bottom of the pages link to other Nickelodeon segments, and warn if they lead to content that might be for grownups.

Webkinz. Entry is free for one year with a unique Secret Code that accompanies purchase of a Webkinz plush animal. On the website, kids care for their virtual pets, answer trivia, earn pretend KinzCash, and play games. A “store” shows where to purchase Webkinz pets and accessories.

Whyville. This free, educational virtual world for tweens and teens features a wide set of educational games based on a pretend currency, “clams.” Participants receive a salary based on their educational activities and can buy face parts, projectiles, furniture, bricks, and other virtual goods. The site’s sponsors include government agencies and foundations, but also Disney, EMI, Scholastic Publishing and Toyota, leading to product tie-ins. For example, Whyville offers pretend use of customizable Scion cars.