It might be argued that these sites contribute to the commercialization of childhood and youth. Indeed, the process of targeting youth for consumption through media and advertising has become increasingly more developed and sophisticated, as documented by many scholars and some policy people. It seems obvious that these new websites have become a part of that process.
Even before Neopets and other sites were created, child development specialist, David Elkind, poignantly observed that "Children’s play – their inborn disposition for curiosity, imagination and fantasy – is being silenced in the high-tech, commercialized world we have created." (Elkind, 1982)
While this development may not be surprising to many, maybe that is the point. The popularity of Neopets, Webkinz, and many other sites aimed at kids feed into the naturalizaton of the commodification and commercialization processes that are at the core of advanced capitalism. And, again, another new technology has been harnessed for commercial purposes, as well as promoting and teaching consumption to young people.
Nicely said. The past couple of months have seen a lot of media/academic/critic coverage of kids' virtual worlds, and there are almost too many interesting articles and commentaries to list. I'd recommend checking out Bonnie Ruberg's brief, but insightful, look at the new Build-a-Bear VW over at Terra Nova, and Izzy Neis' recent post on why FAO Schwartz won't be launching its own VW any time soon.