No surprise here: Kids are spending more time than ever online. For some parents, the amount of time their children spend on the internet can be worrisome – it can seem like one more arena that separates them from their family. But before you think about cutting off their web access, consider this: According to Experian Simmons, formerly Simmons Market Research, while online kids watch more movies and TV than their offline counterparts, they also read significantly more magazines, and are more likely to read books for fun.
Surprisingly enough, according to the study, kids who are online also play more sports. And they’re more likely to say they want to go to University than kids who aren’t online.
So the answer isn’t to cut them off. A better idea is to get to know what sites your children are visiting: Being able to talk to them about their favorite sites can transform the internet from something isolating into something that brings the family together. Here are some of the most popular sites for kids.
Stardoll.com was ranked as the most popular site for children under the age of 12 by a Nielsen study in the UK. It’s also popular in Canada. Essentially a giant social-networking dollhouse, it allows girls (their primary demographic) to create virtual MeDolls and dress them up in a huge number of different fashions. Children can also dress up celebrity dolls or design their own.
“Most online sites are focused on violence and competitiveness,” writes founder Liisa on the site. “I wanted to create a positive online environment for young girls who are creative and interested in fashion.”
While Facebook is the most popular social network for adults, teens are heading elsewhere to get social online. (The terms of service prevent younger children from using almost all social networking sites.) There are a number of competing services aimed at the younger demographic: Bebo.com and Skyrock.com are two of the most popular. Bebo gives its users the ability to create band pages and author pages, but is limited to mostly English-speaking countries. Skyrock is more worldly; it launched in France and can be used in German, Dutch, Spanish, Norwegian and more.
Virtual worlds are immensely popular with kids – it makes up for the fact that they’re not technically allowed to join most social networks. Club Penguin—bought by Disney in 2007—is committed to safety, with chat filters and live moderators. The site won a Kidspot Best Website award in 2008 for kids aged 8-11.
Halfway between a Club Penguin-like virtual world and a video game, Neopets lets kids create up to four pets and use them to explore the land of Neopia. Its game-play is better suited for older children than Club Penguin: It’s hard to imagine your seven-year-old getting excited about investing in the Neopia stock market; there’s also an area called the Battle-dome. Kids can befriend and chat with each other, but children under 13 will need parental consent.
Kids love playing games online. (According to Neilsen, gaming sites are the most popular destinations for teens.) There are tons of sites that offer up free online games (Yahoo Kids, Miniclip, PBS Kids), but kids in to fantasy turn to Runescape. The world’s most popular free Massively Multiplayer Online role playing game can be run in a browser at a low-graphics setting which is friendlier to older computers. Like many MMORPGs, combat is integral to advancing your character, so parents with younger children who want to limit the violence might want to steer their kids away.
Children—especially younger ones—are drawn to entertainment and product-based sites. Familiar characters make Disney.Go.com a favorite; CartoonNetwork.com is popular in the United States. Lego’s games site is especially good. Sure, it has fun games with tie-ins to Indiana Jones and SpongeBob Squarepants, but it also has a slew of more creative games that challenge kids to build their own Lego plants, record news, and design flying vehicles.