Mom undercover in kids’ virtual worlds

How would you like to go in-world and experience ClubPenguin's igloos, icey games, and penguin pizzeria first-hand (well, almost first-hand)? You can, if you haven't already, with ChilyLily437, aka writer, former elementary teacher, child development expert, and mom of four (ages 6 to 16) Sharon Duke Estroff in this month's issue of Good Housekeeping. Her article, "I Was an Undercover Penguin: What One Mom Learned in Her Journey Through Kiddie Cyberspace – and What Every Concerned Parent Needs to Know," "even spurred some very positive changes to the ClubPenguin Web site following its release," Sharon told me.

While writing the article last July, Sharon called me for an interview, and I interviewed her back! I didn't want to wait six months for those insights into elementary-school kids' behavior on virtual playgrounds, which Sharon found pretty much mirrors what happens in real-world schoolyards, hallways, classrooms (when the teacher's not looking), family rooms, and backyards (see "Top 8 workarounds of kid virtual world users"). This is the grade-school version of social networking, and these are just additional – digital – environments for growing up, playing, expressing oneself, being a friend, testing boundaries, working out social norms, and exploring identity.

That interview last summer was the start of many fun conversations that 1) revealed a shared philosophy about youth, parents, and social media and 2) got us to thinking we should collaborate! So I'm pleased to announce a new series for NetFamilyNews: weekly installments from Undercover Mom about her experiences with fellow avatars of all sorts – "eye-opening guided tours through some of the most popular cyber-locales" of today's elementary school-aged kids. "Expect a balanced perspective and practical advice," Sharon writes, "as we delve into this uncharted parenting terrain together." This brings a new kind of balance to NetFamilyNews too, because my coverage has always been a little more focused on tweens' and teens' experiences with social media than those of 4-to-10-year-olds.

Avatar anthropology

Undercover Mom is not a spy, though. She's really a cultural anthropologist in kid virtual worlds, one with nearly 20 years' experience as a schoolteacher and educational consultant and 16 years' experience as a parent. "My intent is to give parents an understanding of what it means to be a child in the digital age," Sharon wrote me, "to help bridge the gap between digital natives and their parents with insights into the subtleties and complexities of digital childhood – not from the point of view of the media, which is perpetually hyperfocused on the dangers of Internet predators and online porn, but through the eyes of a fellow engaged parent focused on the well-being of the whole child."

Related links

* "200 virtual worlds for kids"
* "Good citizens in virtual worlds, too"
* New digital citizenship primer for parents: Raising a Digital Child, by Mike Ribble At Kansas State University
* "New sites & services for kids, tweens, teens"
* Another new site along the lines of NewMoonGirls.com and AnnesDiary.com: "GirlAmbition integrates tweens to Web," reports WESH TV in Orlando, with lots of screenshots from AppScout.com.


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