How to Play Safely at Virtual World SitesMichelle Hainer
As a mother of two toddlers, Erin Vest, 32, of Valencia, Calif., doesn't have time to go out dancing with her girlfriends or wile away the hours shopping -- at least, not in real life. But in the virtual world, it's a different story. On a web site called Second Life #IF($EnableExternalLinks)(secondlife.c#COMMENT#ENDCOMMENTom)#ENDIF she can create a world where she does all kinds of things she doesn't have time for in real life. Second Life is one of the more popular "virtual worlds" on the Internet where you can create an animated character for yourself (known as an avatar) and enter a world where you can make new friends or meet up with people you already know. So on Second Life, Erin Vest becomes "Queen Tureaud," a bejeweled beauty who lives in a beach house and wears couture clothing. What could be better than that?
"Second Life has taken the idea of community to a whole new level," says Vest. "It's become a great way to connect with my friends who live out of town, or to interact with people who read my mommy blog," says Vest.
And many people are getting in on the action. Second Life has more than eight million users. And there are other sites -- like #IF($EnableExternalLinks)There.c#COMMENT#ENDCOMMENTom#ELSEThere#ENDIF and Gaia #IF($EnableExternalLinks)(gaiaonline.c#COMMENT#ENDCOMMENTom)#ENDIF -- that are becoming popular with teens and adults alike. While teens mainly use virtual world sites for social networking and connecting with friends, many adults have used these sites to conduct business, hold virtual conferences and for entertainment. Getting started is simple. Here are a few tips to keep in mind:
Tip No. 1:
Customize your avatar It doesn't cost a thing to join a virtual world, and once you sign up and choose a username and password, you'll be prompted to design an avatar. An avatar is an online alter ego who will be able to travel through the world, talking and interacting with other users in real time. You can choose everything from your avatar's eye color to its outfits. If you want specialty looks, such as highlighted hair or designer bags, you may need to purchase them for a small amount of money. (The currency in Second Life is called Lindens. Users can buy Lindens with real dollars, and then use the Lindens to by clothes, food and even land.) On other sites, the avatar specialty offerings are usually free.
Tip No. 2:
Tip No. 3:
Keep an eye on how sites market to kids While virtual worlds are certainly fun and allow you to do things you may not be able to afford in reality, they're also another avenue for advertisers to sell you and your kids products. "Unlike on TV or in magazines, the ads aren't clearly labeled in virtual worlds," says Goodstein. "Instead, avatars can hang out in the Coca-Cola lounge, or they can eat virtual Skittles. The point is to get you to want real Skittles. Parents need to make sure their kids are aware of when people are marketing to them." If you are a parent, explore these sites to see if a company is marketing to kids.
Tip No. 4:
Watch out for bad behavior. Since many virtual world sites have adult users, there may be conduct that's unsuitable for kids. And just like on social networking sites, if a member is behaving badly, you can report them to the site's manager. "If someone does say something inappropriate to you, don't talk back," says Goodstein. "The whole issue around being safe is not that someone is going to see your picture, track you down and hurt you. It happens after you've talked to them and have developed a relationship."
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