Robin Raskin, featured columnist for Yahoo Tech and youth technology expert for many nationally syndicated newspapers and magazines, was recently in my area speaking about Internet safety and kids. There were about 300 people at the presentation. Half of the group were sixth graders (ages 11 – 12), the other half were parents. The event was held at a local university just outside the Boston area.

I’ve heard Robin speak many times about technology. Her latest presentation, as always, was great. She pointed out all kinds of Internet safety tips of benefit to both parent and child. Robin did not shy away from the tough topics to discuss with kids like online predators, scams, identity theft, and pornography. She offered some excellent advice about what kids and parents can do, both together and apart, to avoid being taken advantage of or exploited in this ever changing digital world.

One part of her presentation left me thinking long after its completion. It started when Robin asked the kids in the audience a few questions. The first was “How many “texters” do we have here in the audience?” (Or how many kids communicate with text via instant messaging or by cell phone?) Practically no parents raised their hands but more than 60% of the kids responded yes. This first question made it quite clear that computers and cell phones are common communication tools for both young and old, but each group uses these technologies to communicate in significantly different ways.

After the show-of-hands about texting, a couple more questions were offered. “How many of you use the social networking site Club Penguin?” Surprisingly, only about 8 hands went up in the audience. This question was followed up by “How many of you use Webkinz?” This time, only about four kids raised their hand.

In this day, it’s pretty hard not to know about these two successful social networking sites for kids. Club Penguin first came on the scene in 2005 and states that it’s an online service for kids ages 8 – 14 ( grades 2 – 8 ). Webkinz also started in 2005 and claims it’s target audience is for kids 6 – 13 ( grades K – 7 ). Social networking sites for kids are growing very fast in their appeal. Other kids’ social networking sites beyond these two include such destinations as imbee, Runescape, StarDoll, BarbieGirls, and Whyville. (Whyville being the strongest educational player of the bunch. To read additional thoughts I have about Whyville, take a look at a recent interview I had with a Boston area online magazine for tech saavy women called Misstropolis.)

The number one most popular destination for kids online today is Webkinz as reported by HitWise (HitWise is one of many different web research services available to businesses). Nieslen//NetRatings, another web research firm, reports that Webkinz had 3.6 million unique visitors in April 2007 with Business 2.0 Magazine reporting an average visit length of 128 minutes long. Those are some pretty impressive stats! As for Club Penguin, their numbers are equally impressive. Nielsen//NetRatings reports Club Penguin as having 4 million unique visitors in April 2007, with the Business 2.0 Magazine article also citing the average visit being 54 minutes long. Not too shabby!

So, if these two extremely popular websites for kids overlap nicely with the sixth grade demographic in the audience, why weren’t more hands raised? I found the response by this group of kids fascinating. Assuming that all the students heard the question, and I believe they did, here are a few theories:

  • As these social networking sites begin to age, the target demographic shifts younger, from tweens 8-12 (grades 4 – 6) to kids ages 5 – 9 (grades K – 3). This may imply that when a new kids’ web destination first becomes available, an older demographic will lead in the use of these sites more often than their younger peers. As more and more younger users discover the product, the older crowd moves on to find the next new destination.

  • As older tweens enter into their early teen years, it’s possible there’s a negative stigma attached to publicly admitting the use of these sites even though privately this older audience will continue to spend time at these destinations.

  • It could be that sixth graders in urban areas may not be using these specific social networking sites as much as those in suburban areas. I wonder if it’s possible that the likes and dislikes of kids from the same age group in urban versus suburban areas or coastal versus heartland parts of the country differ from one another.

  • It’s possible these sites never did have much appeal for an older audience as originally claimed by the owners of these companies (though I doubt this.)

  • Or maybe the answer lies in some combination of the above or other possibilities yet to be defined.

Whatever the answer, it’s amazing to see how the responses of kids answering as a group might differ from that of carefully analyzed web data and claims from many individual users of the same demographic (in the same geographic location).

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