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February 16, 2010

What do your kids really do on virtual worlds?



Kid on computer
Photo by GK Weir on Flickr

This month we've been astonished at the growth of the virtual world we're developing. Suddenly parents and kids have heard about MiniMonos and they're visiting in droves. We've been blown away by what these children are really like and what they do when they engage online.

Predictably, the first wave of kids coming to MiniMonos have been early adopters and are highly tech-savvy multi-taskers, mostly aged between 9 and 13.  Many of them are seasoned gamers, often on a number of mature virtual worlds. What surprised us, however, was just how heart-warmingly supportive and helpful they are to each other and to us.  Just last month, around 25 MiniMonos fan help-websites sprung up, created by kids, every one of them offering positive support to new players who are discovering MiniMonos for the first time. On MiniMonos Island, if any player asks a question, it is instantly answered by someone more experienced.  We have been inundated by players requesting to be virtual tour guides, ensuring that new players are welcomed while playing and chatting together.

There is plenty of parental worry about kids on computers being in danger of social isolation. Many articles advise parents to get their kids off keyboards so they can get 'real friends'.  As mother to an 8-year old, I've been very aware of this theory.  At MiniMonos we advocate a balanced lifestyle for kids -- we openly communicate our love for the environment and encourage the kids to interact with and look after the planet they live on.  But even the highly experienced gamer kids with multiple virtual world accounts have amazed us with their level of social competence.  They are articulate and outspoken. They are so polite it makes my mother-heart glow. They follow an ethical set of social rules. They want to know who we are and what we stand for   -- then they decide if we're good people and if they want to stick around.

These kids laugh a lot and love to have fun.  I spend much of my day writing Lol! and :-) to them with a big, silly grin on my face. I'm often giggling at my desk. Then suddenly they will say something beautiful or give one of the MiniMonos staff members an unexpected, stunning gift of art and we'll be so moved, we have tears in our eyes.

Yesterday, a group of children, as their monkey avatars, were chatting on the beach at MiniMonos when a new kid -- a nay-sayer -- turned up.  The new kid was walking around the beach saying: "This is boring." "I'm leaving." "This game is lame." "I'm leaving now". "I'm going."  He must have said it 20 times.  I was interested to see how the kids reacted.  A couple of them asked him why.  Others offered to help.  When he didn't explain but just kept repeating the same sentences, it was like an unspoken social rule was activated.  I observed, fascinated, as the kids just withdrew their attention from him and continued chatting and talking to each other.  They didn't move away from him.  They didn't say anything like: "Well why don't you just go then!"  They weren't negative towards him.  They just got busy chatting about other things and eventually the nay-sayer quietly went away.  Nobody commented when he left.

Researcher Mizuko Ito led a large study about young people's use of digital media, with 28 researchers and collaborators at the University of Southern California and the University of California, Berkeley. He says: "There are myths about kids spending time online -- that it is dangerous or making them lazy. But we found that spending time online is essential for young people to pick up the social and technical skills they need to be competent citizens in the digital age." Ito's findings showed that “most parents knew very little about what their kids did online, and struggled to give real guidance and help." 

We recommend that if your child spends time on virtual worlds, you check it out first, making sure that it encourages good values and is safe and appropriate for their age group. Check that it has 24-hour moderation, or a safe-chat filter.  Ask your child about the friends they chat to. Make sure they know how to communicate instantly to virtual world staff if there is a problem.  Allow them to show you how amazing they are online.  Prepare to be overwhelmed.

We expected that the process of building MiniMonos would be fun, exciting and challenging. We didn't expect our hearts to be constantly bursting.  We didn't expect the children to be so clever and creative. The MiniMonos team fire emails to each other several times a day with examples of cute, funny, amazing things these kids do and say.  We're always saying "Wow!  Aren't these guys INCREDIBLE!"

These kids I've described are the vast majority of the MiniMonos community so far, not the exception.  We're not so naive to think we won't have behavoural issues to deal with in the future; however, good safety standards and the ethical culture the pioneer kids continue to encourage mean that any problems are able to be dealt with quickly and effectively.

Parents -- thank you for allowing us meet your glorious children. Long may these amazing digital natives continue to teach, delight and inspire us all.

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I must say I do worry about the safety of my kids when they surf on the internet sometimes. I regularly check out the best websites for my kids online by using www.DozenKids.com. Also, check out this interesting blog post I found last night, it has lots of advice for parents including info on kids websites, roads safety, schools, health and lots more.

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