Are websites like “Animal Jam” appropriate for tweens and young children?

Michael RichQ: Is Animal Jam an appropriate website for tweens and children as young as 5-year-olds? As a parent and librarian, I am concerned by a number of Animal Jam’s features, such as pushing players to purchase items within the website, and am skeptical as to the site’s “educational” value, even though it is associated with National Geographic. Is it ok for kids to be on the site?

– Jammed Online, USA

A: Dear Jammed,

Animal Jam is just one of many kid-oriented websites that present themselves as both free and educational, largely so that parents will allow their children to use them. Their association with a larger, well-known educational entity, such as National Geographic, is typical of these sites. They often purchase a sponsorship from a reputable, often non-profit institution for added credibility—even though they are not, in fact, part of that larger institution.

You are correct in noting that sites like these require some media literacy skills to fully understand how they work. These types of websites are called “freemium” sites, which means that while entry is free, you need to pay for “premium service” or additional features, as you and your children discovered with Animal Jam. Freemium sites for kids are designed to engage their imagination and desire for more. This tactic is common in the marketing world and is appropriately called the “nag factor” where a child nags a parent to buy a product or service—or, in this case, premium features.

Another issue is that freemium sites that claim to be “educational” should be scrutinized in terms of what they are actually teaching children, since few, if any, are developed with the rigor of educational TV like Sesame Street. The information your child provides through creating a user profile and by participating in their games is used to tailor information to your child’s interests, in a variation on the individualized marketing done by social media. So instead of teaching your child about a wide range of animals, Animal Jam may only focus on a very limited subset in order to keep your child on the site, interacting with and desiring more of their content.

Children under the age of 8 are not yet at a stage of cognitive development where they can distinguish “persuasive intent” so they tend to take all content, even commercials, at face value rather than as an attempt to sell them something.  Because children are not capable of understanding and protecting themselves against covert marketing tactics, social media, which is “free” to users because it can profile them for marketing, is prohibited for children under the age of 13.

Even though there are many sites like this that can grab your child’s attention, there are steps you can take to help ensure that your kids are using developmentally optimal websites rather than those that are marketing to them:

  • When possible, surf the web first yourself in order to identify websites that have information, games, and other content that your children are interested in. Look at the site’s “About Us” section, check out third-party user ratings, and, as the person who knows your children and their learning styles best, explore the site yourself to assess the content for its value to your children. Although they cannot do it for themselves, you are clearly savvy and can determine whether a site is marketing itself or products to children.
  • Take the time to explore the site with your children, so that you can observe how they respond to the content and whether they are able to navigate it effectively themselves.
  • If necessary, help your children set up profiles for specific websites, and make sure you that create passwords together, so that they know you are able to check in with them from time to time and will be there in case they need help.

For additional tips regarding children’s online safety, see our Internet Safety Toolkit, and for more information about how to talk to your kids about how to respectfully use the web, see our resources on having the Internet Talk.

Enjoy your media and use them wisely,

~ The Mediatrician