Monday, December 31, 2007

Virtual Worlds for Kids -- versus Real Ones

I have succumbed to Webkinz to the tune of two dolls. One is a very ugly pig. The other is a cute dalmation, about to be a birthday present.

What I haven't succumbed to is the amount of time other parents let their children spend on these Virtual Worlds -- Webkinz, Club Penguin, Gaia, etc. The NYT article yesterday -- "Web Playgrounds of the Very Young" -- gives some of the staggering audience figures, including 6MM uniques in November for Webkinz (including my daughter and most of her friends).

What are they learning? Is there any real studies in this regard?

Figuring out how our children think from the outside

More of my personal focus has been how to help kids use digital tools in their tween years (hence, How2Kids.com's efforts with kids and technology), but I'm fascinated with two items I was reading yesterday:

1) Into the Minds of Babes -- VERY interesting book. Barney and the Wiggles have never been my cup of tea, but I've never known what is "best" for kids with television interaction. There has been lots of traumatic press over the past few years about TV for kids. Mom and reporter Lisa Guernsey (www.lisaguernsey.com and her Media Minds blog at http://blog.lisaguernsey.com/) has taken the thoughtful effort of finding a wide variety of true experts in the space. Her well-written book highlights that much of very early childhood media is untested as to basic premises of helping kids grow.

My own favorite takeaways so far (I'm only half-way done):
  • 39% of families in the US with kids 4 & under have the TV on nearly all the time.
  • Background TV is pretty negative for kids' learning (vs. foreground TV). TV DOES take away from parent interaction time (avg. reduction 22% from one study) and creative play. Hence, adult TV time is much more damaging, not the spectre of kids' TV.
  • TV does not really seem to enhance ADHD or other learning issues, though that is disputed.
  • Certain TV shows (noted Thomas the Tank Engine in the book) can provide value for autism learning enhancements and long-term studies have shown the benefit of viewing certain well-crafted learning shows for pre-K children in terms of language and learning skills. However, many shows are not crafted with that level of skill or design...and few have the level of educational follow up as the study cited for Sesame Street.
  • Most kids' videos for below 3 years don't really add that much value. To do so, they need to be watched many more times than if the teaching was live to have the same value -- the "video deficit." Foreign language skills can be learned at those ages, but not by video for various reasons.
  • Very young children's video styles, to be effective for teaching, need to be very different -- no quick edits, repetition, longer story arcs. Perhaps that's why my own viewing and those shows has never meshed...
I'm not finished, but I'm fascinated.

2) LA Times Article, Dec. 30, 2007 -- The X/Y Factor -- Jane Buckingham and her Intelligence Group are cited as charging $2500/head for 50 executives every 6 weeks for executives to hear about what is happening with Gen X (30's) and Gen Y (14-28) at their Trend School. They also sell ongoing reports (Cassandra, Tween, etc.) for $25,000/hit. One of the highlights of the Trend School is...actually talking to teenagers and college students. My, oh, my. I've now seen this teen panel concept at several different media conferences and it mostly makes me shake my head at the gap between media decision-makers and their audiences.

We're all trying to figure out how kids think -- I'm perhaps more interested in how parents think and how to influence and encourage their behavior. How do we turn Babysitting Media into Sharing and Together Media in a world of 2-3 TV's per average household and DVDs in the backseat of the car? How do we move from Spoon-fed Media into more active parenting?