MySpace not their space
February 4, 2008
Last year, Megan found herself in a predicament. Too old to play with dolls, the 12-year-old was also too young, by her mother's standards, to sign up for MySpace or Facebook, online networking sites her older brother had joined.
Then she discovered Stardoll.com, a Web site targeting girls between 9 and 17 that morphs Internet gaming features with a social networking format. Each of the nearly 13 million members gets a "MeDoll" they can dress up, take on shopping trips at a virtual mall and accessorize. With written parental permission, she also started making "friends" online, messaging other members and joining clubs, all features common to MySpace, which discourages those younger than 14 from joining.
The compromise satisfied Megan's mother. Stardoll.com is one of three networking sites she has allowed her daughter to join.
"I am pretty much a Stardoll addict," Megan said from the family's suburban Houston home.
The site is one of a growing number of social networking options that appeal to children as young as 6 on the Web. According to Nielsen Online data, 5.5 percent of social networking users in December were between 2 and 11 years old; 14 percent were between 12 and 17.
"Think of us in terms of MySpace or Facebook with training wheels," said Tim Donovan, one of the founders of Imbee.com, a networking site specifically for 8- to 14-year-olds.
The Web site ties each child's home page to a parent account, and allows parents to get daily updates on their child's online networking and to censor anything they post.
But, as with other such Web ventures, it hasn't been free of criticism. This week the Federal Trade Commission announced a $130,000 settlement against Imbee.com for violating the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, requiring parental consent before collecting information on anyone under 13.
Senior FTC attorney Phyllis Marcus said her agency began noticing more social networking features at kid-oriented sites two years ago. In the case of Imbee.com, she said, site managers let youngsters register too much personal information — full name, date of birth, gender and e-mail address — before getting parental permission.
Donovan said it was a mistake made by a start-up company that has been fixed.
Donovan's site allows the under-13 set to create home pages that include pictures of themselves and online journal posts, although such information is monitored and accessible only to their parents and approved friends.
On other sites, children create avatars to represent themselves. At Stardoll.com, that is a MeDoll. Webkinz.com gives members an animal persona for each stuffed animal they buy at the store. Clubpenguin.com, a Walt Disney site popular among the 6-to-14 age group, provides children with a virtual penguin and corresponding igloo they can decorate. Megan, who also belongs to that site, put her penguin in a "split-level igloo" where it plays games and chats with other penguins, who can request to become her "buddy."
Anne Collier, co-author of MySpace Unraveled: A Parent's Guide to Teen Social Networking, said the progression from online games to social networking is becoming a normal, and not necessarily harmful, reality of childhood and pre-adolescence.
"The online social world is here to stay, and the driving force is young people," she said.
Virtual worlds involving penguins and dolls can be a safe training ground for parents struggling to develop age-appropriate online rules, she said. Nearly all sites require parental involvement and monitor chatter for profanities or cyberbullying.
In fact, the biggest issue with these sites is not safety but their commercial bent. Many advertise toys or games or offer virtual currency, sometimes paid for with parents' real dollars, that youngsters swap for digital gifts for their avatars.
"This is my closet, which is right now kind of empty," Megan said after school last week. The seventh-grader was giving a tour of her "suite," a home page at Stardoll.com. The suite spanned three rooms, each cluttered with purchases including her brunette MeDoll's wardrobe, virtual hamburgers and band posters.
Nearly all of it cost money, or "stardollars," which trade at a rate of about 10 stardollars for one real greenback. Megan tries to budget but on birthdays and holidays always asks for more.
"Every time there is something new, I buy it," she said.
Other parts of the site are shop-free. An animal lover, Megan runs a club with 300 members dedicated to helping them. She adds polls for members, usually posing questions such as "What's your favorite animal?"
Right now, Megan says MySpace still scares her a bit. But even her mother acknowledges the soon-to-be teenager will probably want to join it eventually.
At her middle school, Megan said, all her friends have a page at the site. But many also still keep their Clubpenguin.com account up.
Last week, she got a late-night text message from one of those friends with an important question:
"Do you want to get on Clubpenguin?"