we’re the young generation

The New York Times reported the other day on the growing use of virtual worlds by young children, who are getting engaged in record numbers on sites like webkinz.com, Club Penguin (A Disney site that looks like Habbo), Pixie Hollow (another Disney site), and Nicktropolis (a Nickelodeon virtual world).

As a nonprofit technologist, I’m interested in

  1. What social networks children are getting involved in on the web, because this is teaching them what to expect the web to do for them
  2. What parents need to feel comfortable with their kids’ online engagement
  3. How these children might use social networks (existing or yet-to-be-built) to learn about philanthropy and support causes that matter to them.

What Is It?

Of course, the virtual worlds discussed in the Times article are easily recognizable as just generationally-adapted (and VERY carefully moderated) social networks, as they share the basic components of any social network:

  1. The ability to create your own avatar, or profile
  2. The ability to customize your “home” or profile page
  3. The ability to interact with peers, both asynchronously and in real-time

Why Does It Work?

From a kid’s point of view, it’s characters and worlds that they want to be a part of. They see a popular movie or cartoon, and they want to extend the experience. From a parent’s point of view, it’s a trusted brand.

In this case, both Disney and Nickelodeon put information right on the front page for parents, explaining what the site is about, how it is moderated and vetted for safety, addresses concerns about fees and permissions, and gives parents a contact form or email for answers to any other questions.

So on both sides of the user-end, it’s about trust. Again, no big surprises.

What Does It Mean for Charities?

Obviously, not every charity can (or should) create a virtual world. The lessons here are larger-scale than that. What I’m learning is that:

  1. Kids are getting involved in record numbers on social networks
  2. They are drawn to SocNets that are created with them in mind
  3. Parents are willing to allow participation because of lessons the industry has learned about privacy, safety, transparency, and trust.

In meantime, more and more parents and educators are teaching their kids about philanthropy and social action at a very early age. At the same time, charities are struggling to adapt to the new web, to engage the folks who are online and using social networks. There is also considerable concern about where the next generation of nonprofit leadership will come from.

Today’s kids are the activists, donors, and leaders of tomorrow. And no, not ten or twenty years from now, but literally: tomorrow. Every month or so I come across a story in the news about a third-grader who used the web to send aid oversees, or a 12-year-old who rallied support for a local cause through the savvy use of technology.

I’m curious:

  • How does your charity’s web presence make it easy for youth to get involved?
  • How does it address issues of privacy, trust, and transparency?
  • How are you working to turn young activists into future leaders?

One response to “we’re the young generation

  1. Hi Beth,

    Great questions! Some nonprofits have an incredible job at youth engagement online, although mostly those where youth leadership is at heart of their mission.

    I’ve been doing some networking on Facebook on behalf of an org where I’m on the board and I was really delighted to connect with a young person interested in helping us fundraise

    I’m learning they go about fundraising in a different way — makes we wonder about the ladder of engagement theory and how or if it applies to socnets for nonprofits and causes.

    Not sure if you’ve explored, but significant nptech presence on Second Life (http://npsl.wikispaces.com) and the nonprofit tech commons project in world. Hasn’t been specifically to engage younger people, but interesting experiments going on.

    Also, Global Kids has done significant work in youth engagement and virtual worlds. (see http://www.holymeatballs.org)

    I got interview some of their kids at games for change last June

    Really inspiring.

    I think Chris M. is the role model for a parent encouraging young children to engage in virtual worlds

    Although, when I’m at the PTA meetings or waiting in the school pick up line, and in informal chat with other parents on the hockey or baseball field – I still hear lots of concerns about letting their children go online. I get funny looks when I share how I use it with my son. I’m not sure how that all pans out across different communities …

    MacArthur Foundation’s presence and work in virtual worlds has been interesting to follow:

    And, for the educator perspective, check out Vicky Davis’s
    Horizon Project

    My son is about to outgrow webkins — a social network in training. So, I’ll get some first hand experience .. when I first started exploring Second Life – I had no clue as to how to work my avatar .. he was in the room and came over and showed me (he was 6 at the time)

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