Monday, June 11, 2007

Girls and Indoor Play

A curious article on girls and virtual doll sites appeared in the New York Times last week, which both examines the phenomenon, as well as communicates some sort of disembodied (where does it come from?) enthusiasm for media content that keeps girls safely occupied indoors. What initially caught my eye was the predominantly celebratory tone of the article, which stands out in contrast to the current media emphasis on spreading moral panics about the dangers of social networking and the online environment when it comes to younger children. As Richtel and Stone describe,
Millions of children and adolescents are spending hours on these sites, which offer virtual versions of traditional play activities and cute animated worlds that encourage self-expression and safe communication. They are, in effect, like Facebook or MySpace with training wheels, aimed at an audience that may be getting its first exposure to the Web.

While the article does mention the advertising/marketing dimension of sites like WeeWorld, Stardoll, Club Penguin and, the overall argument comes across as quite positive, a tone that is reflected in the article's title, "Doll Web Sites Drive Girls to Stay Home and Play." However, the celebratory tone and opening emphasis on "self-expression" seem somewhat at odds with the rest of the article's contents. For example, many of the sites targeted at younger children mentioned in the article have implemented fairly tight restrictions on self-expression and communication between (young) members. The article even quotes Lane Merrifield, co-founder of Club Penguin, outright rejecting comparisons between his site and the social-networking sites popular among teens, stating, "We’re the antithesis of MySpace. MySpace is about sharing information. We’re all about not being able to share information."

As with previous coverage of virtual doll sites, Richtel and Stone focus on the popularity of the sites among female users/players: "[Lauren] Bigelow [general manager of WeeWorld] said that 60 percent of WeeWorld users are girls and young women, a proportion that is higher on some other sites. Stardoll said that its users are 93 percent female, typically ages 7 to 17, while Cartoon Doll Emporium said that it is 96 percent female, ages 8 to 14." Which might explain some of the apparent contradictions...I can't help but fixate on the article's underlying suggestion that the sites are somehow desirable because they give girls a reason to "stay home and play." Even though the article ends with a quote from Sherry Turkle advising parents to send their kids next door on a play date rather than "letting your kid sit at the computer" (she also criticizes the sites' commercial aspects, but this is not explored in any great detail), I can't help but read here an underlying linkage between girls and domesticity, between ideal girls' play as indoor play. Nonetheless, the article has some useful stats, including:

You should also check out Hitwise's new stats on kids online, which include the following:

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