Virtual Worlds: Are They Good or Bad for Children?

Sims-4-Go-To-School

Playing in online worlds is a growing phenomenon and children and young people are being exposed to many online games, social media apps and other community based platforms. Playing online appears to have many positive strength for children, from learning new social and communication skills that can have educational benefits for them in the future.

Lydia Plowman, Professor of Education and Technology at Edinburgh University, has commented children can learn through apps and games and how parents can obtain the benefits of technology. Plowman suggests that one of the key focuses in this learning is allowing children to explore through parental guidance, and part of this process is to allow children to make their own choices and decisions, Plowman refers to this as the ‘learning how to learn’.

What is a virtual world?

As discussed in previously, children and young people are spending a greater amount of time on social media platforms, online games, and online communities. However, for the purpose of this article it is important to have an understanding of what is meant by a ‘virtual world’.

Virtual worlds have a variety of different elements, for example:

  • It is an online computer animated 3D or 2D environment
  • A massively multiplayer online (MMO) experience
  • Interacts with others people in real life
  • Rules and guidance on how people effect the virtual world around them
  • Individual use ‘avatars’ or characters to represent themselves in the virtual world

To put it more simplistically, a virtual world is a platform where individuals can interact with each other, solve problems, explore and communicate with each other.

Here is a short list of virtual worlds you may be familiar with, please be aware there are many more:

  • Habbo Hotel
  • Moshi Monsters
  • Club Penguin
  • ourWorld
  • Fantage
  • Sims

In 2014, there were supposedly over 158 virtual worlds designed for young children, with the top three for primary-age being Club Penguin, Moshi Monsters and Habbo Hotel. It was found in AVG Digital Diaries in 2014, 6-9 years old who were surveyed found 46% spend their time playing an online virtual world.

Even though there are many online virtual worlds and massively multiplayer online games, parents and teachers feel allowing children into these environments can be dangerous, unsafe and damaging. Yet, throughout the course of this article we will be exploring some of the positive and negative aspects of online play.

The Positives

SW5As commented in the above, this new era of technology has allowed us to enter a new dimension of communication and learning, not just for children and young people, but also for adults.

This has been successfully achieved through the use of email, forums and social networks; but yet we can also connect in real time through Facebook messaging, texting and twitter tweets. We have a vase social community online and this can have profound implications for children’s social and emotional development not just online, but also offline.

The use of the immediate communication technology perhaps can support children and young people maintain friendships and family networks more effectively. In addition, parents will be able to gain deeper insight into their children’s lives through the use of this technology, (e.g. Facebook); in order to gain an understanding of their child’s lived experience. Face to face communication between young people and parents can pose challenges from time to time; therefore this technology can bridge the gap and loss in communication.

Dr. Jim Taylor comments digital communications can also enable young people who are shy engage in wider social environments and be able to find others with similar hobbies and interests within an online community, promoting young people to grow and be creative within this online environment. Johnson (2014) even suggested digital communication and online environments improves children and young people’s emotional connection and comments this teaches children to become more empathetic towards people rather than learning the traditional face to face methods.

The Negatives

As discussed previously, there is an array of positives to using online technologies to support children and young people’s social, emotional and educational development in a variety of different ways. However, this does not go without saying within their social communities children are certainly exposed to a wider range of people, material and risks.

The EU Kids online conducted a survey and found that many children have experienced some kind of cyberbullying, trolling and sexting. Furthermore, it was found 12% of 9-16 years olds were exposed to distressing images, (Livingstone et al, 2014, pg.6).

For instance, it has been suggested children who play violent video games and lead to more aggressive behaviour and this can have an impact on social interaction with others. Taylor (2013) however, does comment the research is unclear about the ‘direction of causality’. Meaning, it is inconclusive whether violent video games make children violent, or if naturally more violent children are attract to this genre of game. In addition, research has also suggested children who are exposed to digital networks to become more narcissistic, (Taylor 2013)

Mixed messages  

Throughout the course of this short blog, we have drawn upon some the positives and negatives of virtual worlds and some of the research that underpins this thinking. But what does this all mean? Well, it is clear virtual worlds are offering a rich source of new learning for children and young people that are certainly different from the traditional methods but has brought round positive outcomes for children and young people’s social, emotional, behavioural and educational wellbeing.

Nevertheless, it is important to highlight the problems and risks that technology and virtual worlds may bring. Parents, educators, social workers and other professionals have to clear understand of how children and young people are engaging in online social environments and how negative implications may emerge from them.

Where do you stand?

Even though this blog has been short, and there is certainly much more research and reading round this topic; I would like to take some reflection time to ask for your thoughts of the role of virtual social environments in the lives of children and young people.

It is certainly natural to not fear and the potential hazards that can be damaging; however is their room for positive learning and development to take place?

Further Reading, including research above.

Angela Barnes And Christine Laird – The Effects of Social Media on Children

The London School of Economics and Political Science – Risks of Safety on the internet

Young Children Consuming More Digital Media.

Published by

Greg Reardon

Greg Reardon is a registered qualified Social Worker who graduated from the University of Northampton in July 2014. Greg has many years of experience in providing a high quality care a support in a variety of different roles in the: health, education and voluntary sectors. Greg is also an experienced Community Manager and Moderation Specialist with over 8 years of knowledge and skills in help building platforms that intelligently manage content in kids', teens' and adults' communities, online games and social media. Greg’s main areas of interest is Sexuality and Gender studies and service provision with young people. Greg is also passionate in highlighting the concerns of round: esafety, Privacy and Online Behaviour. View all posts by Greg Reardon

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