So this morning, when I walked through the living room to get my morning bowl of gruel, my daughter was planted in front of the computer with that “nothing can distract me from this” look on her face. This was a fairly unusual sight for 7:15 in the morning as she usually uses her metered computer time after school or in the evenings. And it was also unusual because she wasn’t busy outfitting her igloo on Club Penguin. Turns out it was some doll house site where she was designing and decorating a quite elaborate three-story mockup where, as best as I could figure, some virtual dolls live.

Of course the whole site was pink. Yuck.

I spent a some time watching her “play,” struck by the way she figured out how to move things around, and sensing the pride she was feeling for her creation. She has some pretty decent taste, I’d say, but way too much of an interest in shoes.

Later, my friend Warren Buckleitner pointed me to an article in today’s Times: “Doll Web Sites Drive Girls to Stay Home and Play.” And here’s the money quote:

Millions of children and adolescents are spending hours on these sites, which offer virtual versions of traditional play activities and cute animated worlds that encourage self-expression and safe communication. They are, in effect, like Facebook or MySpace with training wheels, aimed at an audience that may be getting its first exposure to the Web. While some of the sites charge subscription fees, others are supported by advertising. As is the case with children’s television, some critics wonder about the broader social cost of exposing children to marketing messages, and the amount of time spent on the sites makes some child advocates nervous.

I’ve blogged about this before, this social networking with training wheels analogy, and I think this is another interesting example of it. (In fact rumor has it there will soon be a “Preschool 2.0” book coming out. I’m serious.) I struggle with the commercial aspects, which is why we opted for Club Penguin. And I definitely struggle with how much time my kids should spend online. But I see all of these shifts that I want them to be able to navigate, and while I certainly want them to spend a good chunk of their time getting dirty and scraped up outside, I also think helping them spend time in online environments has a fair amount of importance as well. Like many parents, however, I have no real context for knowing how much. All I could do was watch “Lost in Space.”

But I better figure it out:

“They’re spreading rapidly among kids,” Mr. Bernoff said, noting that the enthusiasm has a viral analogy. “It’s like catching a runny nose that everyone in the classroom gets.”

At least, I hope, my own kids will have a certain level of inoculation from the constant conversations we’ve had about life online as they have been growing up.

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