The first installment of contributor Sharon Duke Estroff’s inside look at kids’ virtual worlds (here’s last week’s intro)….
by Sharon Duke Estroff
The first time my eight-year old asked me how to spell “penguin,” I felt a wave of pride (a spelling bee champion in the making!). The second time I just felt curious (hmm, an Antarctic unit at school?). But the third time – in the midst of a playdate with his best bud, no less – I felt a touch of concern (what are those kids up to?!). “Penguin?” I asked hopefully, “as in Mr. Popper’s Penguins”?
“No,” my son clarified. “As in Club Penguin. Sam wants to show me his igloo and we can’t get to the Web site.” My second grader’s age of digital innocence had come to an end, and we both dove headfirst into junior cyber-social world.
I do mean both of us. Because after my son went to bed that night (giddy with excitement over the creation of his penguin alter ego, or “avatar”), I opened a Club Penguin account of my own, officially kicking off an ultra-eye-opening, slightly chilling undercover mom investigation.
While Club Penguin may be a current “it” site for kids (so much so that Disney bought it in 2007 for $700 million), it’s hardly an only. Rather, it’s part of a rapidly expanding new genre of child-oriented virtual world – part social networking, part online game, part Saturday-morning cartoon – that millennial kids are all over like peanut butter on jelly. There are currently more than 150 of these sites either live or in development. By next year, projects Nic Mitham, CEO of UK-based K Zero, a virtual-worlds consulting firm, 150 million children will be members of said (for more on this, see this).
Perhaps the best way to describe the virtual world experience is, it’s like tumbling down Alice in Wonderland’s rabbit hole. One minute you’re sitting in front of the computer and the next you’re in the middle of a virtual ski village complete with simulated snow tubing, swanky alpine shopping, and a cyber-disco.
Unlike traditional videogames, where even the most screen-addicted kid recognizes a distinct separation between himself and the animated character he’s maneuvering with his joystick, your virtual world avatar is you – your virtual self. My Club Penguin avatar is a hot pink-clad go-getter named ChilyLily437 (not to be confused with ChillyLily1 through ChillyLily436). I have my own digital igloo, wardrobe, and penguin posse; I sunbathe, snowboard, and work odd jobs. I even pick up my daily cup of joe at CP’s version of Starbucks. All in a perpetual state of social overdrive.
I’m not sure what I expected to find during my two weeks of undercover penguinhood; but whatever it was, I didn’t find it. In fact, the brave new world of children’s virtual socialization was – for better and for worse – nothing I expected it to be. In the coming issues of Net Family News, I explain what I mean by that as I document ChillyLily437’s adventures. The observations I make will be subjective, of course, but I’ll do my best to ground my reflections (which I’ll call “Mom Breaks”) in sound research (in the manner Anne Collier). My hope is that this information will help us millennial parents begin to grasp the subtleties and complexities of the digital childhood – along with the impact of social media on our children’s present and future well-being – so that we may begin to find our way along this winding, uncharted parental path.
Next Week: Undercover on Club Penguin Day 1 – Let’s Get this Party Started!