Kids who are active members of virtual worlds are learning how to socialize, how to be technologically savvy, and how to be good little consumers.
That's according to a group of academics and researchers who met Wednesday evening at the University of Southern California to discuss the effects of virtual worlds on children today. Of course, virtual worlds are still so new that researchers haven't had much time to study their impact on kids. But the MacArthur Foundation, a sponsor of the panel discussion, has invested millions in research over the next several years to ask such questions.
Doug Thomas, associate professor at USC's Annenberg School of Communication, said during the panel that much of what's happening in virtual environments is informal learning. In many cases, kids are getting an early education with technology, learning how to be members of a citizenship, and picking up skills that they'll need in the future workforce, Thomas said.
The downside, he said, is the inherently commercial nature of virtual worlds like Club Penguin and Webkinz, which encourage kids to play games, dress up online characters, and buy virtual goods to decorate their in-world homes or avatars.
"If you're a parent, I would be much less concerned about things like online predators or violence, then I would be about the conflation between consumption and consumerism and citizenship (in virtual worlds). Because our kids are being taught that to be a good citizen of this world you got to buy the right stuff," Thomas said during the panel, which was being simulcast via video over the Internet.
The panel came together to talk about the promise and pitfalls of virtual worlds from an educational and commercial viewpoint. Virtual games like Club Penguin and Webkinz have become much more popular with 6- to 14-year-olds in the last two years, attracting tens of millions of members. Researchers estimate that more than 50 percent of kids on the Internet will belong to such an environment by 2012, double that of the current population of virtual world members.
Meanwhile, many educators herald virtual environments for their educational potential because they manage to get kids extremely engaged. Thomas, for example, works with kids in an educational virtual world called Modern Prometheus. He said the environment is useful for teaching children about subjects that can be difficult to teach in the classroom, such as ethics. The game allows the kids to play out scenarios involving ethical decisions over and over from different angles, letting them see the various effects, he said.
Most people in America still haven't even heard of virtual worlds, but that's changing, said Julia Stasch, vice president for domestic grant-making at MacArthur. This generation is the first to grow up digital and everyone needs to be paying attention to what kids themselves have to say, Stasch said.
"Only rigorous research is really going to tell us if a profound change is occurring and what form it's taking. If it's true, there are significant implications for schools, libraries?families?the economy and even our democracy," she said.
Yasmin Kafai, associate professor of the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, has been conducting research on tweens in Whyville.net, a virtual world with a more educational bent. She said kids are drawn to virtual worlds because adults aren't supervising and they can bring far-flung friends in vast areas like Los Angeles to a common place.
"Particularly for teens with a drive for independence," Kafai said. "In (these worlds), there's a lot of flirting and socializing, a (play) ground for what comes later."
Thomas said he was astonished to hear that a majority of kids didn't know how to find Iraq on a map. But they would know how to find any kind of map of Iraq on the Internet, he said.
"Knowledge is changing. It (used to be that it) was a set of facts, now it's not so much a 'what' but a 'where,' in which kids learn how to find information," Thomas said. "That's going to be the single most important skill--the ability to adapt to change."
He added: "I wouldn't be worried if they're engaged and playing these games, I'd be more worried if they're not."
Still, an audience member from PBS Kids.com asked the panelists about concerns of cyberbullying in virtual worlds, which is fairly common in these environments. The panelists responded that it's the dark side of virtual environments but it's not much different than what happens in the real world.
"Bullying, racism, homophobia, every cultural ill is replicated in virtual worlds," Thomas said. "If you went to any sixth grade class and studied it for a year, all the good, bad, and ugly shows up in a virtual world just like every class, and we should all be mindful of that."
The panelists advised parents to take an active approach with their kids in virtual worlds. Thomas, for example, said that he would want to teach his children media literacy skills so that they could discern the difference between being a good member of society and buying stuff.
Jim Steyer, moderator of the panel and CEO of panel co-host Common Sense Media, suggested that parents set time limits and put the computer in a common room.
Kafai suggested that parents become a member in the virtual world that their kids belong to and play with them. "Go into the world with them," she said.
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Stefanie Olsen covers science and technology for CNET News.com. In this series, she examines the young generation's unique immersion in the Web, cell phones, IM and online communities.
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