Club Penguin, Webkinz, Starfall, and Facebook. They may sound like childish names, but these are some of the companies that proved in 2007 that kid's play online is serious business.
Millions of kids cut their teeth on the Web this year. Little ones learned their ABCs on Starfall; tweens paid dues to play virtual house on Club Penguin and Webkinz; and high schoolers and older teens "Facebooked" each other as the hippest way to keep in touch.
For that reason, kid-friendly sites enjoyed a boom, growing their audiences (and revenues) almost exponentially in 2007. For example, Webkinz, maker of plush retail toys linked to characters in a virtual world, grew its audience to more than 6 million kids this year, up more than 300 percent year over year, according to research firm ComScore.
Marketers and major brands were paying attention too. Disney, for example, bought subscription kids site Club Penguin for $350 million over the summer. Brands like those of Toyota Motor, Kellogg's, PepsiCo, and Warner Bros. increased advertising in kid-targeted virtual worlds, a trend that's raising questions about marketing to young children in immersing online environments.
Still, parents and children can expect a raft of new 3D environments for play and socializing in the coming year, thanks to projects from established players like Disney and Neopets, as well as upstarts aiming to unseat them.
And it's not just at home. Schools across the country installed new laptops, and some experimented with devices that let teachers quickly assess how children absorb their lessons. Select kindergartens even started using kid-friendly software to teach 5-year-olds the basics of instruments, music theory, and composition.
As kids get an education in technology at younger ages, they're also turning into entrepreneurs. Several enterprising teens, such as MyYearbook's 18-year-old founder, Catherine Cook, delivered a message for parents and the media: the Net can be more of a success story than a MySpace.com horror story.
Research on the wired child continued too. National studies showed this year that, thanks to the Internet, some kids are losing familiarity with household mainstays like landlines, printed dictionaries, and maps (and losing the ability to find places like Iraq on the map).
Cursive writing and handwritten letters also could be going the way of the dinosaur. Instead, what some kids are gaining is an ability to multitask, find any information on the Internet within seconds, and take a global outlook of issues and the world around them at a younger age.
Still, some parents are worried about how fast their kids are changing because of technology. For example, a third of parents believe that the Internet sucks up too much of their child's time, according to at least two studies this year.
In 2008, more parents will likely turn to security tools to manage their kids' time online, thanks to new technology. Early this year, Microsoft unveiled its most advanced parental-control tools in the Vista operating system, followed by its Xbox game system and Windows Live. Apple threw its hat in the ring late in 2007, with its most sophisticated parental controls in Leopard.
And with technology like wired vending machines, more parents can even regulate what children eat at school. So, it seems, kids are flexing all the muscles in the technology world.
Media watchdogs and educators worry about the nascent industry having relatively no standards for advertising.
Eager upstarts are looking to mix it up with Disney and Neopets and cash in on children's love of digital playgrounds.
About a third of parents believe the Internet sucks up too much of their child's time--so what do you do about it?
MIT media scholar Henry Jenkins shares expertise on technology's effect on kids, how games are replacing TV and YouTube-style politics.
MyYearbook.com, co-founded by 17-year-old Catherine Cook, is making millions in annual revenue after just two years.
The future of e-mail might be found on the pages of MySpace and Facebook, if teen habits are any indicator.
Teaching toddlers online is getting easier, thanks to Starfall and other learning Web sites that are growing fast.
American high schools are installing souped-up vending machines that are part nutritionist and part ATM.
As online parenting journals gain in popularity, some wonder where to draw the "too much information" line.
As digital tech becomes a household fixture, it's time for parents and kids to bid some old-school skills adieu.
In tech-savvy homes, researchers say, kids are gaining a much more global outlook at a younger age.
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