Q&A: Online interactive video games?

Kelly writes:

"My five year old sonhas become smitten with Toontown, the Disney "Second Life" interactive web site.  He was turned on to it by friends at school and those smart Disney folks will allow anyone to register to go into "Toontown" but you can only participate in certain levels of activity by, you guessed it, subscribing.  He is now begging to spend way more time than he is allowed on the web site.   He gets to play for a maximum of an hour a day on the computer at this point.  He can go to Toontown or the other sites we have deemed okay for him to visit.

Because he was so enthralled, I spend an evening on the site myself to really check it out and I'm so torn about whether this is something I want him to have access to or not (we are considering subscribing as a birthday gift or banning entirely).  Once on the site, you create a character with name and you manipulate that character's actions in a 3-D Toontown.  There's a Goofy Race Track, Donald has a boat you can ride to other places, and an area where you can go to "destroy" Clogs - guys in suits with funny business names (not really violent, just pie throwing and water squirting and they get mad and explode if you hit them correctly).   The games you get to play to collect "jelly beans" are fun and at that great place of not too hard, but not too easy.  That is harmless enough.

But you can also interact with the other characters.   Kudos to the Disney folk for limiting the allowable conversations to already scripted remarks from a pull down menu (you can't ask anyone for any personal information, you can't respond to anyone except in also prescripted form) .  You can ask them to "be your friend" and that both helps you with some of the tasks you can achieve and alerts you to when you are in the same neighborhood as one of your "friends".  For instance, you can ask some one to help you find a location within Toontown or if they want to be your friend (again, if you are a subscriber, you can ask them to help "teleport" you to other fun areas).  When you team up with other players it helps everyone score more "jelly beans" when they complete a task together.

When he is playing and another Toon character comes up to him to ask to be his friend (our computer is in a common area and his reading skills often require some help to decipher the instructions for games or read what someone has asked), I get rather freaked out.  Yes, that may look like a happy duck in green shorts named "Snackelberry Happyface", but I'm convinced it is really a thirty-something freakoid who really wants to.... interact secretly with children on a web site.  Ugh. 

So, my questions:

1. Like TV, are interactive websites/computer games poison for our kid's minds?  Or are they an okay way to divert a child so I can get the laundry folded, dishes put away, checkbook balanced (okay, I'm giddy here) while his baby sisters sleep?

2. Can I use these limited interactions as the spring board into conversations about good communication on the web vs.. bad communication or is that too subtle for a five/six year old and encouraging him to "make friends" on the web is just a bad, bad, bad idea."

Holy crap, there are interactive sites for kids that age?

And here I was already wondering if I was doing something horribly imprudent by letting my older son (the same age as Kelly's son) play the games on PBS online. He also has a time limit, but will play happily for that entire time without paying attention to anything else that's going on in the room.

I'm going to start with question 2, because I know the answer to that one: Yes, you definitely use Toontown as the beginning of the "keeping yourself safe on the internet" conversation that's going to go on for the next 20 years. I think it's a lot like talking to kids about sex. You don't want to hit a 3-year-old with every detail, but you also don't want to wait until your kid is 15 to tell them anything, because by then it's too late. So you start with the small bites, and then by the time your kid is let loose outside of the prescripted world (or at a party) they'll have enough knowledge to be able to discern reality from fiction when it counts.

It seems that starting with the idea of avatars might be a good way to introduce the idea that you don't really know who's typing at the keyboard to a younger kid. "You made your 'guy' look like Goofy, but are you really Goofy?" and other questions that help them start to understand playing a character could be a way to help them develop that awareness that not everything is literal.

If you're a family that watches TV, I'm guessing you've already had some conversations about commercials, and how they're trying to get you to buy things, and they're not always telling the truth, and you don't always need everything on the ads (and even if you do need it, you might find it better, or for less money, etc.). You're eventually going to get to that point about the internet, too (no, you cannot cite Wikipedia as a source in an academic research paper), and it's kind of the kissing cousin to internet safety.

Now, to question 1. I, personally, don't think it's good for kids to watch any TV or be on the internet at all. I think they'd all be better off running around outside and digging in the dirt all day. But that's not realistic for many of the kids in the world, and probably most of the kids of people reading this blog right now. My own kids watch TV, and my older one plays computer games. Do I ever think about unplugging completely? Of course. Do I think about it a lot? Not really. It's just too--I'm looking for the right word here--sensible to let them watch a half-hour show while I'm making breakfast and getting their stuff ready in the morning. (I'm still trying to wrap my head around the computer games, although logically they seem like they should be better than passively watching TV.)

I'm sure it's not the best thing possible for their brains, but I also think they get some positive things out of their limited media time. So I'm spending my energy moderating what they watch and play and trying to keep in mind that it's just a small slice of what happens in their lives on a daily/weekly/monthly/yearly basis.

I would LOVE to hear from some people with older kids about how you deal with media, especially the internet, as kids get older. I feel like I'm slowly finding a balance now while he's in Kindergarten, but suspect that it's only going to get more complicated as my kids get older. What do you talk about with your kids and when? How do you create rules to keep your kids safe, while still allowing them their privacy?