As a parent with young children often on the Internet, I have been asked more than once “How do you spell Disney.com?” This summer as we moved from Texas to Oklahoma, my six year old asked this question from the back seat of our car where she worked on my laptop. I had to explain that we don’t have Internet access from our car YET– And reflected how “magical” the Internet must seem to a young mind: This invisible, seemingly ubiquitous virtual world of bells and whistles that we can access wirelessly from our laptop computers.

I am a vocal advocate for critical media literacy, for people of all ages, and am also concerned about targeted advertising for children that seems to be all around us in the United States and many other countries. Young people wield considerable financial influence in many households, and the marketers definitely know this. I object to the idea that it is ok for our children to be constantly bombarded by media messages encouraging consumption and constant entertainment. According to the article “Commercial pressure on children and young people” from the Norwegian Ministry of Children and Family Affairs:

Children and adolescents are increasingly becoming target groups for aggressive forms of marketing practices and for commercial pressure with a view to stimulate and increase their consumption. One reason for this is that they play an important role as consumers. In addition, children and adolescents have a vital role in choices concerning consumption in the family economy. At the same time, consumer goods are becoming more important factors in shaping the identities of children and youngsters. This means that minors are concerned with the symbolic value of objects and that their perception of these factors are more important than the actual functions of objects. We see too many examples of commercial interests that cynically exploit the uncertainty children and adolescents feel about their identity and self-esteem.

Given this environment of “aggressive media marketing towards children,” I agree with Tim Donovan of Imbee.com that:

  1. The Internet is not just for adults, it is also for kids, and kids deserve their own spaces online that cater to their own interests and needs without a barrage of advertising.
  2. Developers of online spaces for children should acknowledge the need to develop ENGAGING environments for them that do more than entertain and serve as conduits for targeted advertising.

Yesterday’s CNet article, “Imbee goes where Disney, AOL failed” observes (correctly I think) that it’s amazing adults haven’t been faster to recognize this need for non-commercial (or at least LESS commercial) online destinations for young people. The article mentions the strategic partnership just announced between Imbee and Web Wise Kids, a non-profit Internet safety group. Web Wise Kid’s motto is, “Equipping Today’s Youth to Make Wise Choices Online.” This needs to be the motto of many school districts– but it could be extended to be, “Equipping Today’s Youth to Make Wise Choices Online and INRL.” (In Real Life)

Imbee is just getting started, and Disney.com has been around a relatively long time by Internet standards– but I think a strong case can be made that engaging destinations like Imbee are BETTER than places like Disney for our young people precisely because they are not motivated fundamentally by a desire for commercialization, monetization, and (to take a cynical view) exploitation of children’s monetary influences in their own families at the potential expense of their own self-esteem and concept of identity.

I do NOT want the self-image and identity of my own daughters shaped and defined by PowerPuff girls, Barbie, American girl dolls, or any other commercial product. No we do not ban these products in our home, and I think they can be fine to play with– but the line between play and identity can be a fine one. In the future when we DO have Internet access in our car and my daughters are online, I think I’ll be much happier to hear them ask, “how do you spell Imbee.com, Dad?” instead of asking for Disney.com. 🙂

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4 Responses to Imbee is better than Disney

  1. Doug Belshaw says:

    Hi Wes,

    After persuading our Headteacher to sign the legal agreement for Think.com and using it for a week with my students, I’ve now moved them over to Imbee.com. Although initially they preferred Think.com, I’m beginning to see them come round to using Imbee more powerfully. It’s a Year 7 class (11/12 year-olds) that I currently take for both ICT and History which means we can use it in a cross-curricular way.

    At the moment their homework is to explain to the world what the key historical terms to which they’ve been introduced (chronology, anachronism, etc.) mean and give some examples. Some of them have really gone to town customising their ‘spots’.

    Due to the restrictions of the Headmaster I have to approve all of their content before it goes live, but I’m hoping to negotiate to remove that restriction once the students have got a few weeks responsible use under their belt.

    The best thing about Imbee is that its more of a grown-up environment than Think.com, whilst still appealing to almost-teenagers. They’re already talking about what they want to ‘add to their blog’ – which is great!

    Finally, a couple of annoyances which I noticed were pointed out to the developers in an email. They responded within 24 hours saying the points I made were good ones and they’d get onto them ASAP! 🙂

  2. blogreader says:

    I signed my kids up to imbee for a free trial over the summer but they found it pretty boring after a couple of weeks and stopped using it. Perhaps they have made changes to make it more enticing. The fact that they wanted to charge 3.95 a month for the service seemed like a stretch when so much is free on the Internet these days. I can see how brining an entire class onto imbee might work but although I like the idea of the parental control I wouldnt want my kids teachers knowing every thought my kids communicate online its rather Orwellian, don’t you think?

  3. Wesley Fryer says:

    Well, in schools teachers have a legal responsibility to be moderating conversations that are required, in contrast to discussions that kids have after school on a voluntary basis. I think it is vital that adults be engaged with students in discussions about what is appropriate and not appropriate in both online and F2F contexts. So I definitely wouldn’t consider monitoring of the sort permitted to be “Orwellian.” Remember also this is targeted at 9-14 year olds. Imbee is free now, so that is a major plus. I think kids will find this environment much more enticing if all or a majority of students in their class were/are using the tool. I agree that it can seem boring if there aren’t many people to talk to and with that kids want to socialize with!

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