November 16, 2007

Analyzing Virtual Worlds for Kids

Through, I learned about yesterday's conference (Nov. 15) about the experiences of online virtual networks for children, specifically focusing on Club Penguin and Webkinz, it seems. Here's a link to Cnet's article "What kids learn in virtual reality." This is a fascinating quote from Doug Thomas, associate professor at USC's Annenberg School of Communication:

"I wouldn't be worried if they're engaged and playing these games, I'd be more worried if they're not."

Well, that doesn't seem to be the reaction of most parents I know. They're terrified of their kids playing on the computer beyond 15 minutes. Maybe I'm just hanging around with conservative parents in Illinois' heartland. But these parents are well educated and most have a high speed internet connection at home. Many use computers as an important part of their job. So why are they reluctant to let their kids online, communicate with their friends online, or even have online 'jobs' to earn money to 'buy' things?

If they're worried about commercialism, as the cnet article indicates, isn't what they're describing more like 'why it's important to have a job so you can buy things you need: food, shelter, clothing?' True, the kids are buying fun things, but they are learning about the connection between earning money/points to buy something that you want and then using it. Or they find out that maybe they didn't want what they bought, like a boy getting a pink tutu for his penguin. Webkinz, in particular, doesn't let you earn points unless you can pass certain tests, some of which are difficult for me to pass on the first time. So the 'jobs' are not easy-peasy, but require some skill and effort.

Other parents are reluctant to pay the cost of Club Penguin. But it's $5 to $6 a month, depending on the plan. That's less than two McDonald's happy meals. Or less than most Lego sets. Or about the same as seeing one movie in a theater a month, without popcorn. More parents seem to be allowing their kids to have a Webkinz, which cost from $8 to $15 (I think that's right) because that's the only entry fee. Well, at first that's the only cost. But there's more! Kids are begging parents in stores to buy them another Webkinz. I met a mother whose children each had 10. And then there are clothes, trading cards, etc., with special codes to unlock more stuff online. This may cost me more than $6 a month if I keep going to the stores that are easily noted on the web by our Webkinz fan.

Or, is it the obsessiveness that these virtual worlds generate? Okay, this is troubling. Adults get obsessed about being online, so it's not surprising that kids do too. I wish that the academics had responded to this problem.

What about the weirdness of making friends online, and then not being able to make friends, and then being shunned by friends? I sometimes think this is rather overblown by parents. Kids' friendships are often fluid, especially on playgrounds, which is what I think is a good analogy for Club Penguin, in particular. Maybe it's okay to learn how to be friends quickly, to learn how to let go, to not get too jealous of friends. That might be a good life lesson.

For an added perspective, here's a link to a recent poll that says "Parents and Video Games don't mix." The following quote from a parent, who here is talking more about fantasy and violent games not really Club Penguin and Webkinz, still seems to present another position of parents
"It's just such a waste of time," said Lackman, 47, a power plant operator from Center, North Dakota, "I tell him, 'Do something that has some lasting value."'
But maybe learning how to negotiate in virtual worlds is going to continue to be an important skill for this new generation. My mom always wanted me to 'go outside.' I ended up bringing a typewriter outside and learning how to type in a tree with fingers that were freezing because I had to be outside during spring break in March. I was using my mom's old Royal typewriter with the hard-to-hit keys.

Perhaps that's why I particularly like that kids have to type to communicate. That's why I'm okay with Club Penguin in our house. I like that we have lots of excitement for Thursday's newspaper on Club Penguin, as I've mentioned before here.

The one parent that I know that regularly lets her daughter on Club Penguin does so because her best friend moved to Texas. This way they can talk to each other for a long time without tying up the home phone.

But the panelists in California seemed less concerned than many of the parents that I know. Yasmin Kafai, associate professor of the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, suggested that

parents become a member in the virtual world that their kids belong to and play with them. "Go into the world with them," she said.

So, looks like there's a big divide between many parents, kids who like virtual reality and will be involved in it probably for the rest of their lives, and academics on the west coast.

November 14, 2007

Abstinence Ed doesn't work but Hip-Hop Ed might

I thought this article from the NY Times about using the language of hip-hop to reduce teen sexuality and increase empowerment of girls might be interesting to my friend who's an expert in studying teen sexuality. Then I thought it might be interesting to post on this blog as well. Only some of the hip-hip songs lead to risky sexual behavior. The study indicates that it's not the lyrics necessarily but the milleau surrounding listening to the music in groups that's the problem. To quote the article:

Most of the teenagers in the study were sexually experienced. But the researchers found that the overt sexuality of the music and dancing was not the main influence on sexual behavior. Rather it was the old standbys of alcohol, drugs and peer pressure that typically led them into sexual encounters.
When I was talking to my friend, she politely pointed out that studies show that abstinence education doesn't really work with teenagers. They are still going to have sex.

In Amanda Robb's NYT Op-Ed piece Oct. 18, 2007, she points out the tragedy of abstinence education:
In addition to provoking shame about a nearly universal activity, abstinence-only sex education is ineffective and dangerous. Last April, a 10-year study found that students who took abstinence-only courses were no more likely to abstain from sex than other students. Previous studies revealed that abstinence-only students avoid using contraception.
Here's a link to the AP article about the major study released in April 2007 about how teenage abstinence programs don't work. Here's a link to the Mathematica Policy Research report, which you can the download as a pdf, on which the news article is based on.

I think that the study noted in this Nov. 7 2007 Time article ("Abstienence not curbing
teen sex") is what I was thinking about when I was talking with my friend. It's by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. I found the images there from the group's new ad campaign. They are a tad odd, I think. Not sure if telling someone to 'stay self-centered' or 'stay a slacker' is such a good idea. But I'm sure they've been extensively market researched.

Just to be balanced, here's a study by the Heritage Foundation that teenagers who have sex are more likely to be depressed ad commit suicide. This sounds a lot like all those 1950s thinly veiled sex ed movies about kids who were 'fast' and then died in car crashes.

In the end, I have to agree with the Media Project's web site on teens and sex. It notes: "Young peopl
e have the right to sexual health information & services." As much as parents don't want to admit that their kids have sex, I think it's better to be informed all around. Perhaps good information can reduce problems.

And I have trouble spelling abstinence, so glad that my smart friend is doing the research -- she also knows more spelling rules than I do.

November 13, 2007

50,000 words in a month...with notes on the Hillary problem

I decided to try out the National Novel Writing Month program in which you try to write a 50,000 word novel in a month. So far I am nearly 10,000 words into it. The best part is being part of a group of writers. I sometimes have found the blogging world rather disconnected unless you work hard at connecting.

I have also been spending some time on Gather, which I got on through the website I got onto that by listening to the podcast of the APR radio show Splendid Table. I love listening to podcasts about food while cooking. Something inspirational about it. Unfortunately, the one recipe I have tried from Splendid Table, a pumpkin curry soup, was only partly successful. In general, I am struggling with how much curry to put into anything.

Ok, I am just going to tuck this in -- What if I wrote a website that was about pros and the obvious cons related to Hillary Clinton? Would anyone be interested? How many of those websites are there out there? I guess I will have to count. Well, just typing in "Hillary Clinton" and "critique" on Technorati leads to more than 470 posts.

I particularly liked Alison Owing's piece on Nov. 12 in the Huffington Post on her problems with Hillary. Here's a good clip:

Even after years in office, Hillary's wide-eyed oh-it's-you!-here-at-my-rally look seems, to me, practiced. So, for a wider check, I called another old friend in New York to ask how she likes Hillary these days. She said she could not bear her. Personality, huh? I asked. No, she said, she doesn't care about that. It's her votes. For the war in Iraq. For confirming Alberto Gonzales. For building the wall along Mexico. And now the vote that may lead us to war in Iran.

Ah, yes, the votes. They are part of my Hillary problem, too. So is the maneuvering of positions, the being maybe not so pro-choice after all-ing. And there is the cattle-futures trading. The Whitewatering. The Walmarting. The stand by your man anyway-ing.

That is how I am feeling. Like older feminist women are forcing me to like Hillary, and really, I just don't want to. I don't trust her. She betrayed many of her liberal friends, I particularly think about Marion Wright Edelman, and seemed untroubled by that. Maybe that's how politicians work. But it seems she could try harder to get people to work together, instead of just her way.