There are a number of popular websites that are the online portals of particular toy brands. There are also social networking sites and interactive virtual worlds, often dubbed ‘virtual playgrounds’. The distinction between these three types of sites is rapidly blurring.
- How are they making their money – paid subscriptions to premium services? Selling virtual merchandise for real $$$? Selling real merchandise?
- How hard do they push what they have to sell? Do they employ ‘pester power’, telling the child to ‘ask Mom or Dad’ for the thing they want? Do they use language that makes a child feel less about themselves if they don’t have whatever it is they’re selling,
- Is the way to acquire status in the environment to acquire things? For example, in some sites you outfit a living space with furniture and ‘stuff’ to impress your new friends.
- Is advertising marked as such, or is the whole environment a giant ad for children to explore?
- Are there adequate spaces where children can play in the environment that are free from the ‘hard sell’ or is the sales pitch relentless?
This kind of evaluation will help ensure a website is a positive, empowering space in which your child can spend some of their time online.
Advertising or Virtual Playground?
Many commercial websites for children are graphically rich, interactive environments. These sites entertain and generate revenue through selling one or more of the following: ad space, product placement, virtual items like furniture, real merchandise, or subscriptions for premium access. The site can also “cross-promote” other lines of merchandise owned by the company.
Online websites and worlds are big business. As a parent, you are best placed to evaluate if an environment is suitable for your child or too commercialised. It is a good discussion to have with your child as well; you can help them understand what is behind some of the marketing messages.