Club Penguin, Disneys’Toon Town, WeeWorld, WebKinz, and BarbieGirls all have something in common: Besides being social networking sites for the preteen (6-12) set, the ability to buy things is baked into their activities. What lessons are our kids learning from this? Are they turning into Web-savvy consumers who begin to understand that money supplies aren’t endless (we did say preteens)? Or future consumer brand loyalists (there are countless Skittles merchandising options in WeeWorld)? The answers depend on which sites your kids visit and what lessons you help them learn. Have a “value”able conversation with your kids today.
Here are a few things your kids can learn about being a savvy online spender:
1. Spending is optional. Even though the sites make it really unappealing to play without purchase, point out to your kids that they can still do it.
2. Point out that spending is encouraged. Show your kids all the ways they’re encouraged to “buy.” In fact, kids quickly figure out that the more time they spend on a site, the more money they eventually get. Plus, they’re rewarded by “leveling up.” This is a loyalty ploy, pure and simple. It’s designed to keep kids on a site in an increasingly competitive environment. And when your kids get older, this gets really expensive on other loyalty-based sites.
3. Detach purchase from pleasure. Ask your children whether they feel they have more fun when they’re buying and spending. Try to detach the act of purchasing from pleasure—unless you want to set up a mechanism that you will pay and pay and pay for. Remember, kids become teens all too quickly, and the sticker shock on the buy mechanism ratchets up exponentially.
4. Use the coins to teach the value of money. All of these sites have fictional coins and economic systems that are used as player rewards. Kids both “earn” money and search for it so they can upgrade their characters’ wardrobes, abilities, and environments. Point out that money isn’t limitless without effort. While kids trade tips and tricks for getting more money on the sites, you can explain how getting jobs is also a really excellent source of income.
5. Point out greed. When a character is more motivated by the desire to “get” more than play more, there’s a word for that. And you might as well teach it to your child. Greedy behavior has been known to occur on these sites and has even resulted in cheating (kids download cheats from online sites to get money that they don’t earn).
6. Talk about saving versus spending. Help kids feel good about saving up for things. Some kids just can’t help themselves—they have to spend the moment they get their hands on currency. Others hoard and hoard. Talk about your own values when it comes to saving and spending, but do point out that in the real world, debts are tough to handle and mean you can’t buy things you want because you have to pay for things you already couldn’t afford.
7. Envy is real. Just sit with an 8-year-old who’s just walked into another girl’s igloo on Club Penguin that has everything she dreamed of owning. Keeping up with the Joneses starts young. Talk to your kids about times when you’ve felt envy about someone else’s home or possessions and how you coped with it. This lesson will need repeating every year in every way, but it’s never too early to start.