Club Penguin, Webkinz, Neopets, and other online playgrounds are targeted to kids ages 6-8. They’re called virtual worlds, because they create entirely new and different environments for your children.
Typically, your children will create an avatar (a cartoon character of themselves), which they can dress up and play with in the game. Then they create their own “room,” which they can decorate and where they store all of the items they win or buy with virtual money.
Most online worlds have mini-games and “hangouts” where kids can use their imaginations, test their skills, and interact with others. They chat with other players using pre-scripted phrases, and can compete against other players’ game scores. Most online worlds have rules regulating behavior on the site, including the ability to flag players who misbehave. Many also have guidelines for parents and may even send you an update on your child’s online activities.
To keep these worlds safe from predators and free from advertisers, many virtual worlds charge a subscription fee for access to all of their premium features. Some require you to buy a toy that has a code that unlocks the site for your child.
Online worlds are great places for kids’ imaginations to run free. They can create different characters and try on different personalities. The challenge for parents is letting their children enjoy these other worlds without getting carried away. Some of the gaming worlds are really addictive and draw kids in for long periods. And even though virtual worlds have rules about behavior, some kids can find ways around these rules.
Also, most of these sites revolve around racking up virtual money. You win cash at games, then earn it by completing activities or even by spending a certain amount of time on the site. Some of these virtual worlds even have in-game purchases, which will entice kids to buy -- with actual money -- things to use on the site. In this regard, virtual worlds teach kids that they get rewarded for spending lots of time (and sometimes lots of money) online. The “free” virtual worlds rely mostly on advertising, so your child will be exposed to many commercial messages designed to build brand loyalty. In these games, kids usually aren’t able to tell what’s an ad and what’s not.