Remember playing with paper dolls or even just becoming a character in an imaginary world you created with your friends in your room? Now kids and teens can do all of that with virtual representations of themselves called avatars. They can choose their hair color, skin tone, clothing and more. They can be 2D (flat) or 3D. They can also fly and fight and interact with other avatars in virtual worlds. I wrote a column about virtual reality environments for marketers on BusinessWeek.com awhile back that explains why I think teens are drawn to them and gives marketers some guidance on what to do and what not to do in these spaces. I wanted to write something here for parents that demystifies virtual reality environments and hopefully gives you a better understanding of where your teen may be spending lots of time online.
Boys & girls
Everyone I’ve spoken to who works for an avatar site or virtual reality environment has told me the same thing about the differences in how boys and girls use avatars. Girls tend to create avatars that look more like them and spend lots of time picking out clothes, designing their own virtual clothing and even hosting their own virtual fashion shows. Boys, many of whom already spend lots of time playing video games, are more likely to create fantastical characters that have some kind of crazy weapon or special power. These are generalizations, but I think they are fairly accurate. Because of this, there are a lot of virtual fashion sites popping up just for girls like Stardoll and GirlSense whereas other sites like Teen Second Life, which also required more computer scripting knowledge, tend to be more male.
Free to be whoever you want to be
The beauty of avatars or virtual reality is that teens have the freedom to really experiment with identity — to be another gender, race or even species. They can try out different personalities as part of their natural identity building process. The risk of course, is that you may not know who anyone “really” is, and it’s easier to bully or do something inappropriate under the cover of a virtual identity. Most virtual reality sites expressly for teens or tweens are moderated by staff and employ some type of safety measures to keep potential predators away. Adults cannot even enter Teen Second Life without extensive background checks, and even then, must be involved in a sanctioned activity on their own island like Global Kids or Eye4You Alliance Island.
Other sites like MTV’s Virtual Laguna Beach, Meez, There and The Lounge are open to adults. They are all supposed to be PG-13, and are probably not appropriate for younger kids and tweens. Because of this, it’s important to talk to your kids about giving their real age when they register and not lying to get in. And as with any environment where teens over 13 and adults can mix, it’s essential that you talk about how to be safe, especially when adults can create avatars that look like teens.
The reality is that even sites with active community moderators can’t always catch the normal teen drama that can happen in these worlds. You have to talk to your teen about the creativity and freedom of becoming someone else, but also about the responsibility of maintaining the same level of ethical behavior they would use on a site showing their real photo.
The other aspect of these worlds parents need to be aware of is the reality that marketers will be there, too. Whether they show up on a virtual billboard, or offer virtual cars your child can customize, they are there to get your child or teen to think about them, talk about them to their friends (and even more importantly, YOU), and ideally to interact with them as a form of “brand engagement.” Most of these sites allow marketers to be there — to my knowledge only Club Penguin (which is subscription based) and Teen Second Life have not (though they are all over adult Second Life).
I think these worlds really empower teens to be creative and provide a healthy outlet for experimentation. It’s your job as parents to understand how they work, make sure your teens are being safe when they are “in world” and behaving ethically towards others — even if that “person” is a flying two headed Cyclops.
Check out the list of virtual reality environments on the right side of the Totally Wired blog.