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Study: Kids' virtual worlds poised for growth spurt

By 2011, more than half of the population of kids online will be residents of a simulated world of animals and avatars.

About 8.2 million kids in the United States, or roughly a quarter of the population of 3-year-old to 17-year-olds online, will log onto a virtual world this month, according to a new report from research firm eMarketer. That number is up from 5.3 million kids last year, or 16 percent of the total population.

The numbers only go up from there. In 2008, researchers predict that 12 million kids will visit virtual worlds at least once a month, and by 2011, more than half of the audience of kids online will be residents of a simulated environment of animals and avatars, according to the company's report, "Kids and Teens Online: Virtual Worlds Open New Universe."

The findings aren't that surprising, given the rapid growth of virtual worlds such as Club Penquin and Webkinz, which encourage tweens to socialize, play games and dress up avatars. For example, Webkinz, a virtual world tied to plush toys sold in stores, attracted 4.1 million visitors in May, up more than 1,300 percent from the same period a year ago, according to research firm Nielsen NetRatings.

Kids are drawn to these digital societies as a way to explore and indulge their curiosity, tap into creativity and express themselves, according to eMarketer's report. eMarketer said that kids' engagement in these worlds could make for a good marketing opportunity, considering all of the detailed information they can collect about kids' habits. (Disney no doubt had that in mind when it bought Club Penguin for about $350 million earlier this year.)

Debra Aho Williamson, senior analyst and author of the report, said that the downside is that it's hard to understand the value of a marketing campaign inside a virtual world. "What value is there in a person's avatar drinking a Pepsi? Or wearing a shirt bought from a virtual store? What if a person?s virtual activities have no bearing on their real-world activities?" she wrote.