Thu, Jun 07, 2007 - Page 13 News List

New Web sites lure girls with cute worlds

A new wave of interactive play sites for a young generation of Internet users, in particular girls, is stoking debate among child advocates

By Matt Richtel and Brad Stone  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

Presleigh Montemayor, 9, peruses the Cartoon Doll Emporium as she surfs the Web at her home in Sachse, Texas.

PHOTO: NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Presleigh Montemayor often gets home after a long day and spends some time with her family. Then she logs onto the Internet, leaving the real world and joining a virtual one. But the digital utopia of Second Life is not for her. Presleigh, who is 9 years old, prefers a Web site called Cartoon Doll Emporium.

The site lets her chat with her friends and dress up virtual dolls, by placing blouses, hair styles and accessories on them. It beats playing with regular Barbies, said Presleigh, who lives near Dallas.

"With Barbie, if you want clothes, it costs money," she said. "You can do it on the Internet for free."

Presleigh is part of a booming phenomenon, the growth of a new wave of interactive play sites for a young generation of Internet users, in particular girls. 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.

While some of the sites charge subscription fees, others are supported by advertising. Some critics wonder about the broader social cost of exposing children to marketing messages, and the amount of time spent on the sites makes some child advocates nervous.

Regardless, the sites are growing in number and popularity thanks to the word of mouth of babes, said Josh Bernoff, a social media and marketing industry analyst with Forrester Research.

"They're spreading rapidly among kids," Bernoff said, noting that the enthusiasm has a viral analogy. "It's like catching a runny nose that everyone in the classroom gets."

As the children are having fun, the adults running the sites are engaged in a cutthroat competition to be the destination of choice for a generation of Americans who are growing up on computers from Day 1.

These sites, with names like Club Penguin, Cyworld, Habbo Hotel, Webkinz, Piczo, WeeWorld and Stardoll, run the gamut from simple interactive games and chat to virtual worlds where children can visit fantasy lands with mountains and caves.

When Evan Bailyn, chief executive of Cartoon Doll Emporium, created the site, he said, "I thought it would be a fun, whimsical thing." Cartoon Doll draws 3 million visitors a month. "But it's turned into such a competitive thing," he said. "People think they are going to make a killing."

Even Barbie herself is getting into the online act. Mattel is introducing BarbieGirls.com, another dress-up site with chat features. In recent months, with the traffic for these sites growing into the tens of millions of visitors, the entrepreneurs behind them have started to refine their business models.

Cartoon Doll Emporium is free for many activities but now charges US$8 a month for access to more dolls to dress up and other premium services. WeeWorld, a site aimed at letting 13- to 25-year-olds dress up and chat through animated characters, recently signed a deal to permit the online characters to carry bags of Skittles candy, and it is considering other advertisers.

On Stardoll, which has some advertising, users can augment the wardrobe they use to dress up their virtual dolls by buying credits over their cell phones. At Club Penguin, a virtual world with more than 4 million visitors a month, a US$5.95-a-month subscription lets users adopt more pets for their penguin avatars (animated representations of users), which can roam, chat and play games like ice fishing and team hockey.

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