Club Penguin is a leader among a tidal wave of new community Web sites designed specifically for tweens and even younger kids: think of it as MySpace in braces. At Club Penguin, which launched in October 2005 and had 4 million unique visitors in January, according to comScore Media Metrix, your 8- to 14-year-old can waddle through a virtual world as a flightless waterfowl, interacting with other penguins of her choice. Registration is free, but if junior wants to decorate her penguin’s igloo or use other advanced features on the site, you’ll need to pay a $5.95 monthly membership. And Club Penguin is just the tip of the (sorry, can’t resist) iceberg. A new site designed for the skinned-knee demographic seems to pop up nearly every day. Their potential market is huge: there are some 28.5 million kids between the ages of 8 and 14 in the United States, according to emarketer.com. A 2006 Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg survey found that an equal 38 percent of both male and female teens aged 12 to 14 use MySpace (even though the site’s age cutoff is 14) or some other social-networking site.The sites geared specifically for youngsters tend to fall into one of two categories. Most of them—like Club Penguin, Whyville.net (286,000 unique visitors in January) and Habbo Hotel (704,000 uniques)—are fantasy virtual worlds, reminiscent of Second Life, the three-dimensional online planet built, owned and inhabited by its 3.8 million members. Otherwise, a few networking sites for tykes are more like Imbee.com, which launched in July and already has 20,000 members despite a complete absence of advertising. Imbee resembles MySpace much more closely in that kids can create blogs, post photos and share music. Where it differs from MySpace, which has had no shortage of child-predator horror stories, is that Imbee “helps parents and kids control the scope of the publishing,” says cofounder Tim Donovan. “When you connect with friends, it’s not six degrees; you’re not connecting to all your friends’ friends. It’s point-to-point.” You can’t be “friends” with anyone you’re not actually friends with.
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