Corp Thoughts on the Future of Tween Social Networking
Until recently, social networking was predominantly teenage and young adult turf, the place to swap music and gossip and flirt and gather. But as the technology becomes easier to use, major media companies such as Disney Corp. and Viacom-owned Nickelodeon are expanding their offerings to appeal to the preteen crowd, hoping to calcify them into lifelong customers for their other properties.
“These tweens have a
crosshairs on their backs,” said Liz Perle, editor-in-chief of Common
Sense Media, a nonpartisan San Francisco organization that evaluates
media. “The corporations know if they can get (young customers) now,
they will establish brand loyalty for life.”
They continue to hit the adults too– thanks beer.tv, Doritos, Coke, etc.
Kids are spending considerable time on these sites — 45 minutes
a month on Club Penguin, according to Nielsen/NetRatings, but that
number may seem conservative to parents who find they must crowbar
their children’s fingers off the keyboard. While 45 minutes is less
than the two hours a month that users linger on MySpace, it’s capturing
media screen time away from television for a formative audience, many
of whom still get tucked in every night by their parents.
Side note– I have a handful of tater tots hanging out in our community all day. ALL DAY. One in particular is eager to talk from noon until 10 pm. She’s an uber-fan, and that’s great… but she displays behaviors that make me worry. She doesn’t know how to relate to other children and she’s dependent on the moderators to placate & entertain her. Not good. And she’s demanding when moderators/screeners ease off (as they should). Over Xmas, I had three bloggers live-blogging their family holiday. Yes. Liveblogging. What on earth?!
Perle believes that 6-year-olds are too young to be social
networking, and about an hour of screen time is enough for an
**”A 6-year-old should be learning how to work out social
situations on the playground, where you can read someone’s facial
expression — not on some two-dimensional Web site where if an (avatar
of a) penguin doesn’t want to talk to you, he turns his back and walks
away,” Perle said.**
No doubt 6 years are too young! The Disney Fairy site is BRILLIANT for 5 & 6 year olds with help from their parents… as a treat. An activity. Liz Perle is incredibly accurant when speaking of playgrounds & play patterns & social learning. The web is playacting– invisible, not real, but with real implications. How can kids truly understand their peers if they’re not physically around them? Even 8 year olds who visit our community have social confusion– situations they should be experiences IRL before having to confront it with the web-mask of vagueness.
Several of the sites use a similar formula: The tweens play
simple games, earn some sort of currency, then spend it on decorations
for their online pad. Or, in the case of www.barbiegirls.com, users can share their new Barbie makeover with their online pals, while Extreme Disney visitors can fashion their own fairies.
Webkinz and Club Penguin are unusual in that they have become
popular through old-school viral marketing: One kid talking to another
on the playground. There are no TV networks or shows or hit movies or
cultural totems like Barbie to lure kids onto the Web sites.
Webkinz, which is also ad-free and Canadian, has drawn
marketing admirers for its real world/virtual world cross-promotion: a
$10 to $12 plush toy that contains the access code to their
identical-looking online animal character. More than 2 million of these
Webkinz pets have found a home in the past two years, and the site
draws 3.5 million visitors a month. Not that the plushies get a whole
lot of love at Laurel’s house.
“I don’t really play with it a lot,” Laurel said of her plush
toy. “But sometimes, when I see it, it reminds me to go play (with the
Wow, seeing your plushie = reminder, what a great insight! I always wondered about those plushies. I had random plushies as a kid/tween/teen, but they all sat together in a pyramid pile. I liked to collect them, but not really play with them. I had guilty issues whenever I tried to “put away” any of my plushies. Now they’re all living together in a lovely laundry bag in my basement. When I think of them huddled together, I worry. Are they plotting my destruction? Are they sad that I’ve hidden them away? What a bad plushie-mom I am.
Which brings me to a second insight– that’s a great guilt-reminder for webkinz. You come home after school, you’re tired, you want go outside or watch tv or have a snack… but you glance at your Polar Bear Webkinz plushie and think “Oh, crap, I’ve got to go online and feed Mr. Bob.” Slick, webkinz, slick…
It was bad enough with me & Neopets. Colin Skye (my neopet) was a HUGE bit o guilt on my concious. I often forgot to sign on and feed him. And when I DID jump into neotopia to play that block destruction (a game of awesome mindlessness), I wouldn’t look at my neopets toolbar. Why? Because my points were there– the points I should use to hunt out some food and feed Colin Skye (may he rest in peace). After a while I would just stick him up in Neopets hotels (only the best of the best for my lil guy) for months on end. MONTHS! And then, finally, I stopped visiting him. I can’t even go into Neopets any longer. Guilt, guilt, guilt. And yes, I am a looney. 😛
When she started networking a few months, Laurel prompted a family discussion about online behavior.
“A year ago, people were worried about older kids spending time
on MySpace and online predators,” said Ken Cassar, chief analyst at
Nielsen/NetRatings. “Now, you have even younger users social
networking. These kids are spending a lot of time on these sites.”
Setting elementary-school-age kids loose on the Internet is forcing parents to accelerate their media literacy training.
Not only is it requiring them to teach their prepubescent
children about proper online behavior, it is forcing them to figure out
how much screen time is permissible at a much earlier age than their
And parents also are being forced to help their kids
differentiate what is advertising — albeit cleverly disguised, in some
cases — and what parts of their online adventures are made just for
entertainment. Laurel’s mother, Jenny, a school librarian, gave her
daughter some basic rules: Don’t give out your full name, address,
phone number or your parents’ e-mail addresses. Laurel can’t use the
computer until she finishes her homework, but after that she can stay
on until dinner’s ready. She can’t play after dinner — that’s family
or reading time.
I’m contemplating putting together a “Parents Must Know” list. Why? Because I’m not sure they know all the facts of what to watch out for. Stay tuned.
Down the street at the
Morrish home, Maria’s dad Todd adds another rule: “If somebody says
something (online) that sounds odd, come tell us right away.”
Actually, I like his use of “says something that sounds odd.” Vague, yet an early warning detector. Saying “bad” things has crossed the line. But “odd” things can come before the “bad.” Odd… odd is good. It’s the yellow flag before the red.
In what is becoming a common feature on many tween-focused
sites, users can converse online only by exchanging preconstructed
phrases from drop-down chat menus. “What is your favorite color?” is a
typical Club Penguin icebreaker.
On Webkinz and other sites, parents can choose to allow their
children to exchange some free-flowing chat; the site assures parents
that heavy monitoring by its employees will ferret anyone providing
confidential information. Disney doesn’t allow kids to post photos a la
MySpace in the channels they create online. The year-old Imbee, www.imbee.com,
which has its headquarters in Oakland, allows children to communicate
only with folks they know in the real world and enables parents to
observe the online chat.
At Club Penguin, CEO Lane Merrifield estimates that 70 percent
of its 100 employees are dedicated to policing the site for language.
Warren Buckleitner, editor of Children’s Technology Review, said that
while the filters on many social network sites can be hacked, “these
sites have done a really good job of creating a playing space that is
hard to break into.”
I find it funny that everyone speaks only of “language.” As if naughtyness only happens in chat tools. Ha! Habbo has to watch for peeps spelling out their email address with furniture! Naughty, naughty indeed. If there is a line, kids will endevour to cross it. It’s not the fear of the result, but the excitement of the daring deed done
Buckleitner hears other worries from parents. Some fret about
how the sites encourage consumerism, while others worry about all the
advertising from the Web site’s corporate siblings.
But other social networking
sites, particularly the advertising-free Club Penguin, would rather
mine their customers’ parents for $5.95 monthly subscriptions than
gather revenue when children click into another site, which leads,
inevitably, into the online universe.
“Within two or three clicks, a kid could be on a gambling site
or an adult dating site,” said Club Penguin’s Merrifield. “That’s why
there’s no external links on our site.”
Ain’t that the truth!
In the next few weeks, Merrifield said Club Penguin plans
something that’s virtually unheard of in the online world: Encouraging
its customers to leave the site. Club Penguin is planning to introduce
a feature in June that would allow parents to limit the time their kids
spend on the site. Merrifield describes it as an “egg timer.”
“We didn’t want to get into a situation where it was a
competition between the (game) developers and the parents,” Merrifield
said. Right before the timer goes off, Merrifield said, the site will
offer kids a list of activities they can do offline. Stuff that kids
their age used to do, say, nine months ago. Like play outside.
There is a lot more to that article, I basically pulled it apart for the parts that interested me. An eggtime-type product on Club Penguin? Mmm. That will be interesting to watch. I like it.
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