Playground Networking, Now Online
Social Sites Aim at Users Too Young for MySpace
By Sam Diaz and Xiyun Yang
August 3, 2007;
These days, it's little brother who's watching.
Younger and younger children want their share of
the social networking craze, but popular Web
sites such as MySpace and Facebook are reserved
for older crowds. So sites are now aiming at
children 14 and under, with online worlds where
their animated personas can play games, chat
with others their age and even engage in
adultlike activities such as e-commerce.
This week, Disney announced the acquisition of
Club Penguin, a virtual world for children
that's been around less than two years but has
grown to 12 million registered users, largely
without marketing. Disney executives said the
deal, valued at as much as $700 million
depending on the company's performance, won't
result in changes to the Club Penguin site,
which requires parental permission for
membership and doesn't have advertising.
But the deal has prompted child advocates to ask
whether kids are helped or harmed by exposure to
"The perception in most of our minds is that
Disney is wholesome and surely would not do
anything to harm children," said Peggy S.
Meszaros, director of the Center for Information
Technology Impacts on Children, Youth and
Families at Virginia Tech. "But it's dangerous
to believe that any company in business to make
money has the consumer interest at heart,
whether it's a young child or adult."
There are a growing number of sites that claim
to offer entertainment and education for
Disney said it wants to invest in sites where
parents can be assured of their children's
safety against adult content and contact from
strangers, said Steve Wadsworth, president of
Walt Disney Internet Group.
"It's a critical priority," he said. "This is
one of the many types of entertainment that kids
can and should be exposed to." Wadsworth said
Disney does not plan to advertise on Club
Penguin; the site sells premium memberships at
$5.95 a month or $57.95 for a year.
Other sites targeted at kids, such as Whyville,
make money primarily off corporate sponsorships
for virtual product placement.
Whyville said its sponsored programs help kids
learn about the real world, such as one funded
by Toyota. There, children can buy virtual cars,
make virtual monthly payments and review their
virtual credit scores. If they fall behind on
their payments, the car is virtually
"Marketing done right involves real benefits to
the kids," who learn about how the real world
works, said James Bower, founder and chief
executive of Whyville's parent company, Numedeon.
"It's not parasitic, sugar-coated cereal
advertising on television."
Some advocacy groups worry that Internet
marketing could have a similar effect as
television ads, which they say contribute to
childhood-development problems, including
obesity, youth violence, erosion of creativity
and promotion of materialistic values.
"It teaches them impulsive buying and unthinking
brand loyalty," said Susan Linn, a psychologist
and co-founder of Campaign for a Commercial-Free
Childhood. It is also more difficult for parents
to monitor what their children do on the
Internet than what they watch on TV, she said,
and children engage with the products longer
through the Internet than they would watching a
Virginia Tech's Meszaros acknowledged that
exposure to computer technology and the Internet
can be important for a child's development, but
so can other activities, such as reading,
outdoor exercise and social interaction, she
"You don't want too much of any of those, but if
parents aren't careful, kids will choose the
things they love best," she said. "That may not
always be what's best for them."
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