Saturday, June 9, 2007

Is Solitary Play with Virtual Dolls Replacing Peer Bonding Over Real Ones?

MC Milker over at "The Not Quite Crunchy Parent" recently wrote a very thought-provoking post called "The Avatar next door – Virtual worlds, Electronic Pets and kids". It discusses a recent article in The New York Times article entitled "Doll Web Sites Drive Girls to Stay Home and Play". Apparently, the popularity of "virtual world" websites aimed at children and young adolescents is booming. According to the NYT:
"Hitwise, a traffic measurement firm, says visits to a group of seven virtual-world sites aimed at children and teenagers grew 68 percent in the year ended April 28. Visits to the sites surge during summer vacation and other times when school is out. Gartner Research estimates that virtual-world sites have attracted 20 million users, with those aimed at younger people growing especially quickly."
These websites allow children to create, dress, and accessorize virtual dolls and other animated creatures such as penguins. Some of these websites are free, while others charge a monthly subscription fee (typically around $6-8). They have names like Cartoon Doll Emporium, Stardoll, WeeWorld, Webkinz, and so on.

I can certainly see the appeal of these types of sites. My 4 1/2 year old DD and I had fun creating my Yahoo! avatar. Were I to permit it, I'm sure she could easily amuse herself for hours on end playing with virtual dolls. However, I tend to agree with Dr. Sherry Turkle, the child psychologist from MIT quoted in the NYT article:
"If you’re lucky enough to have a kid next door- I’d have a play date instead of letting your kid sit at the computer."
MC Milker of the NQCP blog also worries about the impact these types of virtual experiences have on children's development, particularly on learning how to interact with others. She points out that up to 93% of interpersonal communication is determined by non-verbal cues, which is noticeably absent from online interactions. In a post I wrote a couple months ago about educational software, I discussed Dr. Jane Healy's excellent book Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children's Minds and What to Do About It. Dr. Healy talks at length in the book about the risks of inappropriate computer use by children, including the potential to create social awkwardness so severe it mimics autism.

I have fond memories of countless hours spent playing with my friends using our Cabbage Patch and American Girl dolls. DH and my brothers have similar memories of bonding with their friends over He-Man and Transformers action figures. Not only did we learn valuable lessons about getting along with others, but the open-ended nature of the toys fostered creativity. Whereas a virtual doll can only be used in a few proscribed ways, a real doll can be used in any way the child imagines.

While MC Milker currently does not allow her DS to watch TV or use the computer, she worries about the influence his peers will have on him once he begins school in the fall. She writes:
"Maintaining a TV free household will keep some temptations at bay but, the impact of peer interactions and remains to be seen. Raising a child out of step with the conversations of their peers is a challenge I dread but know I will face in the name of raising a human being, in the old fashioned sense of the word."
She has reason to be concerned about negative influences on her DS from his classmates. This month's edition of the Bay Area Parents Paper features a humor column by Gregory Keer called "Dad: The Video Game". Mr. Keer laments how despite his early efforts to limit screen time, his 9 year old DS has now become an "electronic junkie":
"Benjamin rarely watched TV until he was 2, then got 30 minutes of daily screen time (with more on days when my wife and I passed out on the couch) until he was in first grade. That's when peer influence kicked in and he came home from playdates naming anime cartoons and video-game characters about which we were oblivious....[I]n Benjamin's second-grade year, another child's father explained that he bought his kid a PlayStation to keep him on the social curve of the rest of his friends. So, that holiday season, we purchased a GameCube system....Benjamin has built an arsenal of techno toys that he lords over with the command of an evil genius- that GameCube, the Nintendo DS, the Tamagotchi, the old laptop computer and the TV."
What will be the impact on society of a generation who spent so much of their childhood alone in front of a screen rather than playing with their friends?

A recent study done by Duke University sociologist Dr. Lynn Smith-Lovin found that Americans are far more socially isolated today than they were two decades ago. This problem is likely to get worse unless parents take active measures to limit children's screen time and facilitate more face-to-face interaction with peers.


Sara Thacker said...

Most adults, at least most adults in white collar industry, spend most of their days staring at the computer doing reports, having confrence calls instead of meeting in person, working on projects where there is little interaction.

Neither children or adults spending so much time not interacting is healthy but it is the reality of our current situation.

Amazingly most of the children I know who spend a lot of time in front of the TV are perfectly normal kids. There are also kids who's parents severly limit the exposure and they are shy, quite and reserved. The reverse is true.

I think there's more to the childs personality, the way their parents interact with them and their family situation.

Crimson Wife said...

It really depends on the occupation. The jobs that can be done without any face-to-face contact are also the ones most vulnerable to outsourcing to places like India and China. The ones that will remain in America are precisely the jobs that depend on a high level of interpersonal skills- the health professions, the courtroom side of law, sales, teaching, and certain types of personal services.

My DH was chosen for his current job in the financial services industry not because he was the best number cruncher (he did well in b-school but was not at the top of his class). Rather, it was because he is good at creating and maintaining relationships with both clients and colleagues in the firm.

Mom not Mum said...

We live quite a distance from most of my children's school friends. This makes afterschool playdates VERY inconvenient. It has actually been great now that they have found a few of these online sites because they can meet up with their school friends afterschool and I don't have to run around all night. I do limit their computer time - 30 minutes a piece - but that seems adequate enough and still gives them time to actually go outside and play as well.

MC Milker said...

Thanks for the link and the intelligent continuation of this discussion. I agree with many of the points brought up by you AND your commenters.

Lately I've been thinking about what role I would like my DS to play in the world. To me, it's about keeping options open. By exposing him to a limited amount of popular culture, I keep him, at least somewhat in the mainstream; by limiting that exposure, I have the chance to introduce him to other things.

I wouldn't say that most children whose parents limit media are shy- they may not have much to say in a conversation about popular media, but blossom in other situations.