The photo accompanying today's New York Times piece about how girls are spending hours playing with pixelated, rather than plastic, dolls online says it all: A cute little blond girl is seemingly swallowed up by an enormous couch, her grinning face eerily lit by the laptop perched on her tiny little thighs -- which are, by the way, about as big as the laptop itself. (It's a near-perfect contemporary iteration of that creepy "Poltergeist" movie poster.) I know that vacant smile, too -- it's the exact, brain-has-evacuated-the-premises look I sometimes get from the bunch of kids I tutor when I ask how their work's coming along. And, I swear to you, on several occasions, the culprit has been one of the very Web sites this Times article talks about.
Apparently, these sites -- which allow users to dress up dolls, adopt virtual pets, visit fantasy lands and chat with one another -- are a huge success with kids and adolescents who aren't ready for MySpace or, good lord, Second Life. But, for some of these major virtual play sites, the percentage of female users is staggeringly high: Stardoll's audience is 93 percent female and Cartoon Doll Emporium's user base is 96 percent female. And several sites -- like BarbieGirls.com -- are overtly marketed toward girls.
Some experts, like Sherry Turkle, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who focuses on the social side of technology, are worried about the potential for all sorts of insidious advertising. Already, WeeWorld, which lets kids chat and play dress-up with virtual characters, has penned an advertising deal allowing characters to carry around bags of Skittles candy. And several sites allow kids to purchase credits -- some via their kiddie cellphones -- that allow them a larger virtual wardrobe or better character-selection choices. And then there's just the most obvious concern that this kind of virtual play will eat kids' brains -- and, um, cause their non-virtual muscles to atrophy.
I'm proudly a part of that first generation to grow up with the Internet constantly at its fingertips and, in fact, have a prized photo of me as a diapered baby banging on the keyboard of some early-model PC. But I'm with professor Turkle's old-fashioned advice: "If you're lucky enough to have a kid next door, I'd have a play date instead of letting your kid sit at the computer." Not to mention, there's something to be said for that adolescent rite-of-passage that simply can't be duplicated virtually: The maiming and defacing of a formerly prized Barbie doll.