Virtual worlds have become a growing power in kids' online activities. In 2008, an estimated eight million US children and teens visited virtual worlds on a regular basis. It is estimated that by 2013 this number will be doubled. These online worlds are a relatively new phenomenon, so there isn't much research on their impact on kids. As parents, we ask: Is it safe? Is it educational? Do our children benefit from this activity? In lack of long-term research the best answer seems to be that like every other activity we choose to do, when it is measured and in balance with other activities, it can be enjoyable, harmless and sometimes even educational. It is our responsibility as parents to direct our children to safe constructive activities that will help them to grow as people and become contributing citizens.
The same thing is true for choosing online activities for them and specifically for virtual worlds. As parents we have to make sure that our children visit virtual worlds that are suited for their age and are safe for them. We also want to direct our children to virtual worlds that offer quality content and educational value. What is a virtual world? Virtual worlds are services which offer Internet users a computer simulated environment imitating the real world. In the virtual world the user interacts by using an avatar (a two-dimensional or a three-dimensional computer graphic identity, which represent a user's alter ego or the user's real persona) in online chats. There are two main types: Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOGs) - These virtual worlds use point systems and competition in the simulation. They have winners and losers.
Commercial MMOGs include Everquest and World of Warcraft. Non-game worlds - These virtual worlds are less game-like, or not games at all. They are more like social networking services like MySpace and Facebook, but with 3D simulation features. For example, Second Life, ActiveWorlds and The Sims Online. What are the risks for kids in virtual worlds? Children and teenagers can easily get absorbed in a virtual world. It is an enjoyable pastime allowing them to try different points of view and avatars. The danger is when a child is invested more in the virtual life than in real life. This may result in withdrawal from real life activities, poor social skills, loss of ability to distinguish between the real and the imaginary, etc. It is important to limit the time a child or teenager spends surfing virtual worlds in order to keep the child's base in the real world.
Private information may be exposed in virtual worlds when a child is persuaded to give up his/her real identity to strangers. It is important to emphasize to the child not to give away private information under any circumstances. Sometimes virtual worlds especially ones that are intended for teens can become violent environments. Many virtual worlds have guardians - adults that have avatars in the game and are there to keep the peace. These guardians can not always stop violent behavior. It is important for parents of teens to be involved in their children's online activities and to instruct them how to behave in problematic situations. Online predators sometimes use social network services and virtual worlds to target potential victims. They pose as children and gradually seduce them into an online relationship.
This relationship might end in sexual abuse. The chance of your child being targeted by online predator is low, but since such an encounter has severe consequences, parents should be aware and make sure that their kids don't get involved in online relationships with strangers. All of these risks are worrying, but it seems that the greatest risk in virtual worlds for kids is the inherently commercial nature of many of them. Kids are encouraged to buy clothes, toys, food, books and more for their avatars using the virtual world currency. In some worlds they have to play games in order to earn "money", in some they buy the virtual world currency with real money. You can see in many virtual worlds, avatars that are dressed in high fashion clothing and have expensive cars and homes. Many virtual worlds have a strong correlation between consumption and citizenship.
Kids are learning that in order to be a good citizen they have to buy the right stuff. Many virtual worlds also have a lot of advertisement. In order to avoid this commercial nature, parents should direct their children to non-commercial virtual worlds that usually have more educational value. What are the Benefits of Virtual Worlds for Children? In virtual worlds kids are involved in informal learning. By trying different avatars, points of view and jobs they play out scenarios over and over from different angles. They can see what approach is best for them. They learn how to socialize, how to be Internet savvy, how to buy and sell online and how to be members of a society. They learn skills that they'll need in the future workforce. Matching the Virtual World to the Child's Age When choosing a virtual world for your kids or checking the ones your kids use, it is important to keep the age factor in mind.
Today children surf in online worlds from the age of three (usually with adult help) to 18. It is important to see that the virtual world they enter is safe for their age and offers appropriate content. There are three major age groups: Young children - age 3-10. Kids in this age group are just starting to discover the cyber world. They often need help from an adult in order to surf. It is not recommended to let children at this age surf without adult supervision. It is important to make sure that the virtual worlds the child surfs are safe, enclosed environments. There should be no advertisement (or very little). Online chats and forums, if such exist, should be limited and monitored. Tweens or juniors - age 10-14. Tweens are kids who are stuck in this phase between being young kids and being teens.
Children at this age range usually have good technological and language abilities that allow them to surf freely. On the other hand, they lack the maturity and experience to help them understand the content that they encounter when surfing-they need adult guidance. They are a vulnerable population. Their high technological abilities and desire to socialize exposes them to risks, as well as their PC and private family information. Tweens will usually look for more complex online worlds that will allow them to chat with their friends freely. It is important for parents of tweens to be involved as much as they can in their kids' online activities. Parents should direct their tweens to virtual worlds they find suited for them. Guidelines for Internet use should be defined. These guidelines should emphasize Web ethics and privacy protection. Include the child when defining the guidelines in order to make the child more committed to them. An Internet-use policy may help in making those guidelines clear.
Parents should talk to their kids about Internet threats, such as: malware attacks, online predators, harassments, and give them examples of immediate solutions, for example: turning off the PC and notifying a parent. Most important is to give your children confidence about approaching the adults in the family in case they encounter suspicious behavior when surfing. Teenagers - age 14-18. Teens have fully developed technological and language skills. They are confident surfing the Internet (sometimes more than their parents). The Internet becomes a strong social and educational tool in their life. Teens are usually more aware of the risks that exist on the web. On the other hand, in this age group there is a tendency for risk taking. In addition, teens usually use a PC in the privacy of their own room, or they go to places that allow them to surf without supervision. So it is nearly impossible to monitor the teenager's Internet activities. Teens will usually be attracted to adult virtual worlds. Adult virtual worlds are not always suited for teenagers. In some you can encounter cybersex activity and violence. It is important for parents of teens to keep being involved in their kids' online activities. Offering teens appropriate websites that may interest them could be a great solution. There are virtual worlds for teens that offer great content and are non-commercial. Parents should also emphasize Web ethics to their teenagers and warn them about Internet threats.