Thomas & Kafai: Tweens and Reproductive Health in Virtual Worlds

 

8.12.08 | by Douglas Thomas and Yasmin Kafai

Virtual worlds are experiencing incredible growth among youth, with a host of worlds having populations well into the millions. Over the next few years, we expect to see a dramatic increase in both the number of virtual worlds for youth and a significant increase in that age group’s participation in them. Because these spaces provide large scale social environments, they are often used as resources for peer networking and information sharing as well as a site of identity formation and exploration. This project aims to understand how tweens, an understudied but growing group of online players, approach topics pertaining to reproductive health in their online life.

Whyville, one of these virtual worlds, is an informal science site that has currently over 3.3 million registered players ages 8-16 with girls representing over 68% of Whyville participants. Our goal is to better understand the online practices of this group of tweens and to examine what kinds of resources they rely on for information about sexuality, reproductive health, and romantic relationships. This demographic is ideally suited for a project on tween reproductive health because it is a group that is prone to receiving misinformation primarily through social networks about these issues and it is a group which is difficult to reach through other venues. It is also a time period when tweens’ growing physical maturity is accompanied by an increased interest in sex and reproduction. This results in tweens exploring their curiosity about sex through talking, reading, and flirting with others. Virtual worlds such as Whyville serve here as a digital public for this exchange, perhaps because of the anonymity of chat and the perceived absence of adults. An interest in romantic relationships, also called pairing off, often accompanies these interactions. Based on online and offline observations of hundreds of tweens over several months, we will examine concerns about these issues discussed by the tweens themselves.

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