September 18, 2007

Online Worlds and Screen Time

Social networks have been in the news pretty much constantly of late, and increasingly, the media has focused on social networks aimed a younger teens and tweens, places like Club Penguin, Whyville, Habbo Hotel and others.

While many of these social networks for younger kids avoid some of the safety concerns that plague networks aimed at teens and adults through heavy moderation and attempts at securing parental permission, they aren’t without their hazards.

Certainly, they are fun environments – most allow you to create an avatar (or online embodiment of yourself) to represent yourself as you walk around and engage in the online space – in Club Penguin, you are, naturally, a penguin, and in other networks you can create a cartoonish human or animal figure. Many of the environments have places where you can chat with others (though often in a limited way), places you can go and explore, games to play, things to build and learn. For shy kids, or other young people who have more trouble interacting with peers in the real world, social networking spaces can be a gift, an incredible opportunity to interact, explore and take charge in ways you can’t or won’t offline.

But many of these spaces are also focused on buying or getting things, allowing kids and tweens to dip their toes into world of adult consumption. Most of the spaces have a form of currency, which can be acquired by building things and selling them to others, or more often, are acquired by doing things in the space, playing games or simply spending time there. Spending a lot of time in a game space promotes personal engagement and investment in the online community formed in the social network, but also encourages extended and often sedentary screen time. In an age of increasing obesity, particularly among youth, sedentary activities may not be something we want to encourage.

Indeed, in certain social networks, you can buy a car for your avatar, trick it out with all sorts of extras and drive it around the online world with your friends. But if you go on vacation (or lose your computer privileges), and don’t spend enough time in the social network, playing games and earning currency, your car can have a lien placed on it for non-payment of your “loan” for your virtual car. A great lesson in personal responsibility, but one that is predicated on a not-so-great lesson about constantly spending sedentary screen time so that you can learn how to consume in a digital space.