A Teen's Take On Tween Online Communities
- June 8th, 2010
- 6 Comments
Today we finish off our Ypulse Youth Advisory Board series on “Digital Identities” with YAB member Julia Tanenbaum who relates her own wired childhood to the growing number of virtual worlds and social networks hoping to hook kids and tweens pre-Facebook.
As always you can communicate directly with any member of the Ypulse Youth Advisory Board by emailing them at youthadvisoryboard at ypulse.com…or just leave a comment below.
Growing Up And Out Of Tween Social Networks
Beginning from a young age, I’ve spent a lot of my free time online. While now that time is mostly spent on Facebook, back then I used different social games and another social network. Here’s how I got from there to here..
As many of you might know from popular sites like Club Penguin, and Webkinz, a lot of virtual world communities aimed at kids operate in the same way: A player gets an avatar and a house, and then plays games to earn currency to purchase more outfits, and furniture. While this might sound boring to adults, it can be appealing for a child who doesn’t have real world purchasing power, especially when combined with addicting casual games. According to Nielsen/NetRatings, kids spend 45 minutes a month on Club Penguin.
Another key to many of these worlds is the toys. In games like Webkinz, the more real toys a child buys, the more virtual currency they get. Personally, I tried many of these types of sites as a kid, and grew bored of them pretty quickly. Unfortunately for the parents who end up footing the bill, there are a lot of different types of sites (some with real world components, some without), and there will probably be one to cater to most kid’s interests. For, tweens who like celebrities and fashion there’s Stardoll, for little girls who like fairies, Disney has created a social network revolving around their Tinkerbell franchise. Nick also created their own virtual world, as did Cartoon Network though Cartoon Network’s is more like an online RPG [role-playing game].
Personally I only went on one social network regularly when I was younger: Virtual Magic Kingdom (now closed). This was a temporary network created for Disney’s anniversary. It took a similar approach to games like Webkinz, except it was integrated into the theme parks. You could win prizes for your avatar by visiting the park and taking on quests. I actually learned about the game from a visit to Disneyland. We had annual passes at the time, so I visited pretty frequently and when I was at home I would go on the network a few times daily. Although I can’t remember exactly, I would estimate I used it from about ages eight to eleven. The site was aimed at kids around that age, but adults and teenagers populated the world too.
Most were there just to play games and hang out, but there was also some pushing of boundaries. The truth is despite moderators, chat filters, and only being able to use certain words, there was occasionally underground activity. Players could visit each others’ rooms, and some of the things that went on were not appropriate. Even when Disney limited it to certain words, it was easy to get around filters. For instance, if you wanted to tell someone your age, you added “on” and “to” until you got to the correct number. It wasn’t all that difficult to create a code. Some sites now have started to limit phrases, and only let kids use a set of pre-made sentences, but I personally would leave the game if this was done. It makes it difficult to say anything at all. For example, if I was a tween girl, I couldn’t ask another player if she watched ICarly, even though that’s a harmless question, because that would not be included in the set phrases. Who really wants to have a conversation using sentences like “What is your favorite color?” and that’s it? I can’t imagine this is too fun for kids. Super filtering chat just takes out the fun and most kids aren’t looking for trouble (they have enough street smarts not to give out their address or last name).
Another challenge for these communities comes as kids grow older. For me it was around age 11-12, when I made the transition from using sites like I previously mentioned, to sites like Facebook. Even back in 2008 Chief Marketer data surveying 10-14 year olds shows 72% have a profile on at least one social networking site, 64% visit social networking sites at least once per day, and 34% spend four or more hours per week on social networking sites. 54% have a MySpace profile, and 35% have a Facebook profile This matches my personal experience. I had a friend who played Webkinz in middle school, but she was too ashamed to admit it to anyone but me. Tweens are so eager to become teenagers they tend to start using sites like Facebook early on.
My opinion that it doesn’t matter how safe developers try to make these games, kids will still experiment with what they can say and do… and eventually grow up and leave them for free-range networks like Facebook. Each generation has matured earlier on, and Gen Y is no exception. On the whole, I’m guessing what’s important to kids today is what was important to me— playing fun games and exploring a fantasy world.
Julia is a freshman in high school in Claremont California. A self proclaimed Otaku (anime obsessive person) she strives to complete her immersion into the world of Japanese pop culture. In between school and homework she watches the latest Japanese anime on the internet, reads manga, plays video games, and practices Japanese. Though she is not a fabulous writer by nature, Julia does enjoy writing fan fiction related to said interests and occasionally immersing herself in online role-play sessions. In addition, she loves mashing up anime and game clips into anime music videos which she posts on YouTube, participating in her school’s debate team in novice LD, and of course reading. Julia is incredibly excited to be on the Youth Advisory Board, and able to express her opinions, which she has plenty of.