Online Playground Getting Bigger and More Popular

Filed under: Toys

baby onlineParents who worry that their children are spending too much time in front of a screen now have about 200 more reasons to worry. That's the number of virtual online worlds for kids that are either active, in development or being planned, according to Virtual Worlds Management.

Club Penguin, Tootsville and Barbie World-- there are already plenty of virtual hangouts filled with imaginary characters and imaginary environments out there aimed at kids of all ages. But children aged seven and under have fast become the focus of developers' attention. Of those 200 virtual worlds identified, 107 of them are aimed squarely at the under-sevens.

Sure, they're fun. I even have a tricked out igloo of my own. But those who create these virtual worlds aren't doing it for kicks. They're in it for the money, and they've devised several ways to accomplish their goal.

Some of these sites give users free access but once there, kids must pay up for virtual goods. Others make their money solely off advertisers. But for little kids, who generally have no money of their own and are not making many purchasing decisions, the subscription-based model is preferred. In this scenario, mom or dad must pony up a monthly fee before their kid can even set an imaginary foot in the virtual world.

In today's economy, with so many of us eliminating purchases that aren't absolutely necessary, I can't imagine all of these sites will prosper. According to a report released by ComScore, free gaming sites have recently seen a surge in popularity.

"It appears that online, ad-supported gaming is one of the activities that has benefited during this economic downturn," said ComScore analyst Edward Hunter. "Not only have consumers turned to outlets such as gaming to take their minds off the economy, but as they curtail their discretionary gaming-related purchases they are turning to free alternatives."

Well, you've got to love free. But what do you think of these games and virtual worlds? Do you allow your kids to play online? And how much are you willing to pay for the privilege?

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.