Wednesday, 18 June 2008

How Young is too Young?

With the level of internet usage ever-increasing and with the age frame beginning as early as preschool, it begs the question – are we letting our children loose in cyberspace too early? Is our want to embrace early childhood development going a step too far?

The reason I ask is this – I stumbled upon a website through Technorati for a new craze in children’s toys called Webkinz. The way the site works is that a soft toy is purchased from a local retailer which has a unique product code that is registered online, unlocking a virtual world designed for kids.
This site is one of the most popular sites online at the moment, getting millions of hits a day, creating a buzz throughout networking sites, and having every teenage blogger scouring the internet for up-to-date cheats and tips – hence the reason why I found it. It’s everywhere!

The Webkinz site is a plethora of colour and stimulus, allowing children to build a virtual world for their online pet. This site does everything from creating your pet’s home (through winning Kinzcash – the Webkinz currency) to socialising with other Webkinz, and attending virtual events.

Straight away a thought pops into my head; this is a website designed for children aged 5 and above – how safe is it really?
I decided to investigate as much as possible without actually purchasing my own pet, and to be honest, I was very pleased with the results:

1. The only personal information they ask for is First name, Age, and Gender.
2. You register a screen name which it is suggested should be different from your real name.
3. If you engage in any online interaction with another pet (person), there are only specific phrases and words you are allowed to use and no personal information is ever shared.

This goes to show that designers who are creating these websites are finally thinking about what it is like to be a child and how to experience the internet - safely.

Childhood is a time for learning and the amount of information we retain from an early age helps us form a basis for what we know as an adult. Take for example, a 7 year old and a 57 year old; who is going to master computer basics first?
The child.

Therefore, the earlier we start our children using computers and the internet, the more proficient they will be in the future, and with the development of safe online environments, such as Webkinz, we will feel a lot more comfortable doing this.