Academic journal article Journal of Education for Library and Information Science

Tip of the Iceberg: Meaning, Identity, and Literacy in Preteen Virtual Worlds

Academic journal article Journal of Education for Library and Information Science

Tip of the Iceberg: Meaning, Identity, and Literacy in Preteen Virtual Worlds

Article excerpt

Every day millions of children ages four to 12 login to shared virtual environments (SVEs) where they play, social ize, create, and explore a digital landscape as avatars, or "virtual characters." While much of the research and media attention has been focused on adult virtual environments such as Second Life, or massive multiplayer games like World of Warcraft, children's virtual worlds comprise the largest and fastest growing segments of this online genre. Virtual environments are quickly becoming an important aspect of children's out-of-school lives. The challenge for educators is to see how virtual spaces may be leveraged for learning and literacy. This article provides an overview of children's virtual environments and presents a four-part framework for further analyzing these spaces. The author posits that SVEs may be viewed as (1) an identity space; (2) a new "literacy"; (3) a problem-solving context; and (4) an online community. The article concludes by suggesting a research program for the continued exploration of SVEs and the rich array of information practices that surround their use by young people.

Keywords: virtual worlds; information literacy; information seeking; children and youth; cognitive ethnographic methods

Introduction

An elementary school librarian in Washington State (US) was reading a book on penguins to a class of second grade students (age seven to eight years). One of girls interrupted to ask: "Can real penguins be more colors than just black and white?" She went on to explain that, in Club Penguin (CP; http://www. clubpenguin.com), a shared virtual environment for preteens, her penguin could be any color, even pink! The animated discussion that followed revealed that many of the students in the class knew a great deal about CP, and were regular visitors to this digital snow-covered land of fun and adventure. CP, just one of an array of new Web-based shared virtual environments (SVEs) for children as young as seven, received over 2.6 million unique visitors during November 2008.

The Internet is offering more opportunities for youth to engage in virtual interactions that extend beyond their real- world antecedents. More than just an online phenomenon, social network sites such as MySpace (http://www.myspace. com) and SVEs such as Teen Second Life (http://teen.secondlife.com) have become information portals for the developing social worlds of young people. Preteen virtual worlds have emerged as exciting new entries in this field: intoxicating and engaging for children, but causing consternation for parents who fear the potential dangers and perceived developmental effects of these immersive virtual spaces. Parents and child advocates have expressed concern over child protections and the potential for these sites to negatively alter real-life pro-social development (e.g., Flanagan, 2007; Slatalla, 2007). Little is known, however, about the impact these sites may have on preteens, even though the sites themselves suggest the activities offer potential benefits (communication and typing skills, budgeting money, caring for pets, etc.). For example, while many of these sites promote safe and responsible use of the Internet, a number of correspondingly negative practices have emerged, such as a community of young users who glorify cheating CP's reward system, publishing their rebellious exploits on blogs and YouTube (Benderoff, 2007).

This article explores an exploding segment of the online universe: shared virtual environments designed for children between the ages of seven and thirteen years. The focus is narrow, but critical; the preteen years are a key developmental period during which children build their personal and social identity. Nearly all the research in this field focuses on adults or teens, who have greater autonomy and maturity; thus, the absence of research in this area represents a potentially dangerous oversight. The article begins by introducing researchers and practitioners to these children and the online worlds they inhabit. …

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