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
- 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
- What parents need to feel comfortable with their kids’ online engagement
- 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:
- The ability to create your own avatar, or profile
- The ability to customize your “home” or profile page
- 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:
- Kids are getting involved in record numbers on social networks
- They are drawn to SocNets that are created with them in mind
- 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.
- 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?