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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:

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)….

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.