The web has infiltrated every area of our lives, from banking to dating, communication to commerce, politics to parenting. It is ubiquitous and, increasingly, essential - it's hard to recall how we ever managed without the all-powerful internet. So it's no surprise that children and teenagers, immensely more tech-savvy than their elders, feel perfectly at home online. For a generation raised on iPods, mobile phones and powerful, multifaceted games consoles, logging on to their favourite website is as natural as picking up a Dandy or Beano was for their parents.
And there is no shortage of places for them to visit. The web is now bristling with child-friendly websites, from culture-rich portals such as National Geographic Kids to boredom-busting, game-packed sites like Funology. Many of the more po-faced websites like those of PBS, the BBC and even the United Nations have their own kids' sections, too. But these are all dwarfed by the new generation of massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs) such as Club Penguin, Moshi Monsters, Habbo and Stardoll, in which children create "avatars" (digitised representations of themselves) and then explore virtual worlds in which they can chat to, interact with and play games against the avatars of other kids across the globe.
Martina Lemond Dixon, an American mother now living in Abu Dhabi, has four children aged between four and 12 who all adore Club Penguin, partly because it keeps them in touch with their friends back home. "Club Penguin has been a great way for my kids to hang out with their friends in the States," she says. "Most of their American friends are into it, so they get to interact with them all the time."
Despite a strict no-TV regimen on school nights, Lemond Dixon lets the kids go online for an hour a day because they seem to learn while playing. "The kids do see it as a fun activity, but I think the skills are definitely transferable in terms of using a computer keyboard, mouse and software. Also, since they have to work or play games to earn the coins that buy things, it gives them 'real-life' experience of how the world really works."
Lemond Dixon's oldest daughter, 12-year-old Cassidy, gives a child's-eye view: "I like the way it lets you control your penguin's life and it's also fun being able to work at different places in the Club Penguin community. You can also get a puffle [fuzzy pet] of any colour, but you have to take care of it or it will run away," she explains. What does her younger brother Alec, nine, think? "You play games, you buy a lot of stuff, and you meet your friends," he says. "All my friends are on Club Penguin too."
And what about six-year-old Sydney? "I just like playing it!" she says, which is surely the most salient point. Kids love these online worlds for a whole host of reasons, but first and foremost because they're fun. As any seasoned parent knows, whether it's schoolwork, sports or hobbies, finding a way to make activities fun is the best way to encourage kids to do them (chocolate-rationing aside, of course).
As of this May, there were 158 games and virtual worlds either online or in development designed specifically for children. And the numbers of children involved are staggering - the most popular virtual world, teen-orientated Habbo, has 90 million accounts. The next biggest, NeoPets, boasts 45m accounts, IMVU has 20m, Club Penguin 15m, Star Doll 15m, Gaia 12m and Barbie Girls 12m. That's over 200m unique accounts for those sites alone.
Why so popular? "I think kids like that it's an environment which has clearly been created for them and that is highly responsive to them," says Karen Mason, corporate communications manager at Club Penguin. "Our staff respond personally to thousands of e-mails from players every day and kids count on the fact that we listen to and act on their comments, suggestions and ideas. They feel a real sense of ownership and stewardship of this online playground."
This is key: kids love virtual worlds because, within carefully regulated parameters, they are free to explore and express themselves as they see fit. In Club Penguin, that means waddling around an icy world, chucking virtual snowballs at other virtual children/penguins, living out an online existence independent from parents, teachers and the many other grown-ups who control the rest of their lives.
"Virtual worlds are extremely compelling because they offer kids a way to get out of the house after their curfew hours," says Joey Seiler, editor of Virtual Worlds News. "Also, they don't have that many options in real life to decide what their house looks like, what type of clothes to wear or where they go, so virtual worlds are like a whole new land of opportunity," he adds. Refreshingly for hard-pressed parents, most of these virtual worlds are free, at least for initial access. Most then charge for enhanced subscriptions or added features, usually in some form of "virtual currency" - bought, unsurprisingly, with all-too-real currency back in the real world. But if you can resist your children's clamour for more, there are hundreds of child-friendly websites out there that can be accessed for free. And as Martina Lemond Dixon asserted, many of them offer transferable skills far more useful than virtual snowball-throwing.
This was confirmed last year by research that claimed virtual worlds allowed children to rehearse what they would do in real life. The research, conducted by a team from the University of Westminster on children using the BBC's Adventure Rock virtual world, found that these cyber-spaces were far superior to more passive pursuits such as watching TV. The research found that children assume one of eight roles when exploring a virtual world. At times kids were "explorers", at others they became "social climbers", keen to connect with other players, while some were "power users", looking for more information about how the virtual space worked. Crucially, players could rehearse all sorts of behaviour without any of the potentially messy real-world consequences.
This view is echoed by Ed Relf, chief marketing officer of Mind Candy, developer of the fast-growing virtual world Moshi Monsters (5m accounts thus far, with 1m more per month). The "Monsters" are online pets, like those found in the rival site NeoPets, and Relf says that feeding, grooming and accessorising these pets teaches kids valuable real-world skills - without all the mess and short lifespan-related trauma associated with actual pets. "In Moshi Monsters kids do a series of puzzles which are designed to test various skills including basic maths, spatial awareness, logic and vocabulary," he says. "And they are rewarded for playing the games with virtual currency called Rox, which can be spent on customising their virtual pet, designing their monster's home, feeding them, and so on."
All without goldfish water or hamster litter to change So far, so compelling, but it is worth sounding a cautionary note. Parents are often concerned about their children's online behaviour - and rightly so. Chatrooms and social networking sites such as MySpace frequently make headlines for all the wrong reasons, whether it be cyber-bullying, grooming by unsavoury characters or exposure to inappropriate material. Tamara Littleton is the CEO of eModeration, a British company tasked with moderating chatrooms, forums and games. She advises parents to keep a close eye on their children's computer use. "If you went to a swimming pool, you'd make sure there was a lifeguard on duty but still keep a close watch on your children. So you shouldn't just dump your kids in front of a virtual world and leave them to it," she says.
Before you let children loose on a website, Littleton recommends doing some research on parents' forums to see whether the buzz is positive. Also think about the company behind the site (for example, Club Penguin is owned by Disney). The bigger the company, the more money they are likely to spend on specialist filter software which screens for profanity and suspicious-sounding conversations. They will also employ moderators such as Littletons, who inhabit the game to keep players safe.
"Take bullying," she says. "In a virtual world you can bully other players by ignoring them, following them around or repeatedly bumping into them. That's where the moderators come in - like teachers in a playground, they keep an eye on things, sending messages to stop bad behaviour and, in a worst-case scenario, banning users from the virtual world." It's reassuring to know that some of those avatars are in fact eagle-eyed adults, keeping the virtual world trouble-free. And, overall, the experience of children who love playing and learning online, and of their parents, is overwhelmingly positive. As Lemond Dixon says: "As long as you do some research and choose your site carefully, game-playing online is really safe and the kids just love it. I would recommend it to anyone."