Are ads on children's social networking sites harmless child's play or virtual insanity?

Social networking websites for children are really taking off – and the advertisers are closing in. Meg Carter reports on developments raising concerns for parents and regulators

As social networking spreads to users as young as five, makers of toys and TV shows are making the most of new opportunities to reach children online. But with more than 100 youth-focused virtual worlds now either up and running or about to launch – over half of which are aimed at under-sevens, according to one estimate – regulators and parents are struggling to keep up.

It was the £350m sale of children's social networking site Club Penguin to Disney last August that confirmed to many the commercial potential of targeting children online. "Before then, many still questioned how much time kids would be willing to spend online, what they would most like to do when they were there, and what they would be prepared to pay," says Michael Smith, CEO of the London-based online social games creator Mind Candy. "Club Penguin's sale, however, opened eyes – and doors."

Club Penguin is a virtual online world for six- to 14-year-olds in which children use cartoon penguins to waddle around a snow-covered virtual world, play games and interact with one another. It is advertising-free and free to use, although for £4 a month users can buy additional premium content – a model that Mind Candy now hopes to emulate with its new offering, Moshi Monsters.

"Moshi Monsters gives children the chance to look after their own virtual pet," Smith explains. "Sophisticated animation allows for emotional engagement in quite a deep way. It also includes a safe social network for children to use to show off their pets, and an educational element – the Monsters love puzzles, and users are encouraged to play at least one a day."

Moshi Monsters, which launched in April, is currently free although a monthly subscription for premium content will soon be introduced along with a range of plush toys and puzzles due out for Christmas.

"Children's online safety has been a major consideration," Smith adds. "But so too has our commercial model. You have to tread a fine line between developing a business and safeguarding children's interests given concern about advertising to children online, but with growing interest in developing online immersive experiences for children there is also a risk some will be lured by the commercial potential."

A number of different commercial models are emerging amongst child-focused virtual worlds, the most controversial of which involves paid-for advertising. One of the biggest players is Neopets, bought by media giant Viacom for $160m in 2005, which features "immersive advertising" – ads integrated into content rather than placed alongside it – by third party brands including McDonald's.

Another children's site to carry advertising is Webkinz, a virtual world that children enter by using secret codes embedded in cuddly toys – costing around £9.99. The codes are then keyed in online. Once inside, they can chat with friends and play games to earn points that translate into a virtual currency called KinzCash for virtual shopping.

Concerns were voiced both by parents and consumer groups when both these sites – run from the US and Canada, respectively – introduced third party advertising. The hybrid reality-virtual model now being adopted by a growing number of toy companies – Bratz dolls, for example, now come with a USB "key" allowing a child to access a Bratz virtual world online – raises another issue. While sites like Hasbro's Littlest Pet Shop carry no advertising and do not require a subscription, the purchase of additional cuddly toys is required if children are to assemble a virtual collection of toys and accessories online.

All of which throws up concerns for parents. For it's not just a question of brand targeting advertising at their children online. Another issue is the creeping commercialisation of children's online experience. Then there's the tactic used by some sites of actively rewarding children with virtual cash the longer they stay online to play.

"It's an area we are monitoring closely," says Will Gardner, deputy chief executive of Childnet International, which campaigns for children's safety on the internet. "Interacting online can be an incredibly creative and rewarding experience for a child, but the underlying commercial tone of many sites is an inescapable concern."

The Advertising Standards Authority is tasked with dealing with complaints from the public about online advertising. The organisation's current remit, however, only covers paid-for advertising such as banner or pop-up ads – despite the fact that most of the complaints it receives concern what companies say and do on their own websites.

"While a paid-for advertising message in a virtual world would fall under our remit, the commercial content of a site owned and paid for by that company does not," ASA spokesman Matt Wilson explains. "Given public concerns about online advertising generally and advertising to children specifically, it's a regulatory gap we are now working hard to address."

Those involved in developing children's virtual worlds are quick to emphasise their efforts to make their sites a totally safe environment. The appropriate extent to which they should be commercialised is less clear-cut.

At LEGO, for example, its yet-to-launch virtual world LEGO Universe is simply "another way to play LEGO rather than a marketing vehicle for the brand", insists Mark Hansen, director of LEGO Digital Play Studio. The question for many parents, however, is: just how do you distinguish between the two?

For BBC Children's controller Richard Deverell – who has recently overseen the launch of two non-commercial, virtual spaces for six- to 12-year-olds: Adventure Rock and MyCCBC – the question is erroneous.

"Any organisation seeking to engage people with a brand today needs a credible, intelligent web presence," he says. "It's become an essential, non-negotiable part of the mix – and for children, too. Is that commercially exploitative? Well I'm not sure how it's any different to what Disney has been doing for 80 years."

It's not in commercial organisations' interest to alienate children or their parents by being commercially exploitative online, Deverell believes. Besides, children can benefit considerably from the control, creativity and social interaction online virtual worlds provide.

"The key challenge is to provide legitimate reassurance to parents that the sites their children use adhere to strict codes and standards," he claims. "The simplistic argument is that children should be outside playing cricket or climbing trees. The reality is they do just that as well as other things like watching TV and playing online, so long as the content that they consume is safe, good quality and age appropriate."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Recruitment Genius: B2B Media Sales Professional - Work From Home

£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Enjoying rapid growth we contin...

Recruitment Genius: B2B Media Sales Professional - Work From Home

£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Enjoying rapid growth we contin...

Recruitment Genius: B2B Media Sales Professional - Work From Home

£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Enjoying rapid growth we contin...

Recruitment Genius: B2B Media Sales Professional - Work From Home

£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Enjoying rapid growth we contin...

Day In a Page

Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most
Katy Perry prevented from buying California convent for $14.5m after nuns sell to local businesswoman instead

No grace of God for Katy Perry as sisters act to stop her buying convent

Archdiocese sues nuns who turned down star’s $14.5m because they don’t approve of her
Ajmer: The ancient Indian metropolis chosen to be a 'smart city' where residents would just be happy to have power and running water

Residents just want water and power in a city chosen to be a ‘smart’ metropolis

The Indian Government has launched an ambitious plan to transform 100 of its crumbling cities
Michael Fassbender in 'Macbeth': The Scottish play on film, from Welles to Cheggers

Something wicked?

Films of Macbeth don’t always end well - just ask Orson Welles... and Keith Chegwin
10 best sun creams for body

10 best sun creams for body

Make sure you’re protected from head to toe in the heatwave
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon files

Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games
Women's World Cup 2015: How England's semi-final success could do wonders for both sexes

There is more than a shiny trophy to be won by England’s World Cup women

The success of the decidedly non-famous females wearing the Three Lions could do wonders for a ‘man’s game’ riddled with cynicism and greed
How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

One day to find €1.6bn

Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

Historians map out untold LGBT histories

Public are being asked to help improve the map