Towards an online ethnography of children's virtual worlds: A review of current literature and research methods
Australian and New Zealand Communication Association
Faculty of Education and Arts
School of Arts and Humanities
The research around children’s use of the Internet has focused on some of the benefits and risks of online play, as well as the digital skills children require to use the Internet safely, particularly virtual worlds. These benefits, risks and digital skills have been examined in European studies, but minimal research attention has been given to young Australian children’s use of virtual worlds. Virtual worlds are simulated environments embedded with social network functions, which allow young children to explore and experiment with identity formation, interactive play and social networking. These Web sites for young children have become increasingly popular. Young children’s use of popular Internet sites, including social networking sites (Facebook) and young children’s online games (Club Penguin) have been researched using a diverse range of research methods. Some of these methods have been limited to offline observation of game play, surveys, and interviews. Whilst many of these methods have brought new insight into children’s use of the Internet, they have not examined children’s game play in real-time in order to identify how children use their digital skills (or lack thereof) to negotiate online risks, as well as how they maximise the benefits afforded by various online games, as they are playing. Thus, these methods limit the depth of understanding researchers can gain about young children’s online play. This paper reviews the literature on the known risks and benefits to young children playing within online worlds. It also identifies the digital skills that are known to help protect children against online risk. The article suggests that more research is needed to understand the risks and benefits to young Australian children and the digital skills they require when using virtual worlds. It also recommends that current research methods need to include more observation and participation techniques, which capture in real time, children’s use of virtual worlds.
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