Online playgrounds, sometimes called virtual worlds, are digital environments where kids can create an avatar, explore three-dimensional scenes, complete fun tasks, and interact with others. In the early-to-mid-2000’s there was an explosion of these internet destinations for kids, with sites like Club Penguin, Neopets, and Webkinz. However, many of these folded, revised their business strategy, or, as in the case of Club Penguin’s Club Penguin Island app, relaunched on mobile. Online playgrounds such as Animal Jam tend to be popular with kids in the 6-9 year old range because they offer built-in safety features including things like age-verification for members, filtered chat, and human monitors that protect kids who aren’t yet ready for multiplayer games and social media.
Whether it’s an app or a website, an online playground can be a good way to allow young kids to explore new environments and learn responsible online behavior. But there are some things to be mindful of, including interaction with other players, costs, screen limits, and social dynamics if your kid joins a world with friends from school. To make sure your kid stays safe and has fun, you should stay involved. Here are some signs to look for to make sure a virtual world is OK for your kid:
- Chat is pre-set or “canned.” Kids select phrases from a list rather than free-typing. Inappropriate words are blocked.
- Limited exposure to advertising. Sites that charge a subscription fee probably won’t run ads — although they will have promotions and campaigns to encourage kids to come back. Some branded sites will have fun activities but also will be promoting their products.
- Human monitors. High-quality sites employ real human monitors who oversee the players.
- Reports. Some sites will send you a report of your child’s activities. If it’s an educational site, the report may include an evaluation of your child’s skills.
- Responsive customer service. You want to get a quick response if anything goes wrong, you need to cancel, or you just want to give the site some feedback. Read online reviews by other parents to learn more about a company’s customer service.
- Age-appropriate learning and social games. Before you register your kid, spend some time interacting on the site yourself or with your kid. Do you like the games? Does your kid like them? Are the activities engaging? Does the website update the games to keep them fresh?
- Cooperative play. Some virtual worlds design games wherein kids have to work together to make progress.
- Neutral avatar designs. Make sure your kid can design characters that are every color of the rainbow and don’t have stereotypical male or female traits. (Pink sneakers are OK, but pink stilettos? Um, no.)
- Manageable costs. Virtual worlds support themselves using various fee models. Some charge a subscription and allow users to earn in-game currency to pay for items, such as (virtual) furnishings for their (virtual) apartments, in the game. Some virtual worlds are free to use but rely on in-app purchases for their revenue. Make sure you know how the virtual operates and discuss how much you’re willing to pay for it.