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Case Study of Children's WEB Utilization

1. Introduction

Due to the spread of the personal computer and the Internet at home as well as their installation at schools, many children now have experienced using the Internet. The way children use the Internet appears to vary. Some children visit websites for research and games, and others run websites by themselves. In addition, acts of juvenile delinquency using a personal computer or the Internet corroborate the fact that the Internet has become a part of children's daily lives.

Do we really understand the reality of children's Internet utilization, though? Schoolteachers might know that children use the Internet for their research. However, children's (computer-related) activities for hobbies and interactions have not been given very much attention or only one-sidedly. On the Web, people who act like a child are called a "lamer" or a "newb." (In Japanese, this is called "(chu)." The Kanji character, "" comes from "(chu-bou)" which is pronounced as the same way as "(chu-bou)" meaning a junior high school student or a child.) Regardless of whether a person is actually a child or not, this word has been used to describe a person's childish behavior, particularly on bulletin boards (BBS). Although one tends to think of the Internet as featuring anonymity in that personal information such as age and sex is concealed, it should be noted that people have been aware of the existence of children on the Internet.

We then set up the research question: How do children utilize the Internet?, and conducted the case study of Internet utilization from three perspectives: homepage browsing, construction, and operation.

2. Koganei Media Kids Workshop

Elementary school children and junior high school students participated in the workshop. The children joined several successive workshops on homepage browsing. It turned out that children found different websites each time they attended the workshop and browsed those websites actively. The most popular websites among the participants appear to contain the animation created by Flash as well as online games. It also was found that information about a website spread by word of mouth and children in different schools visited the same websites with Flash animation.

Three third-year junior high school students and a fifth-grade elementary school child, who previously participated in the workshop on homepage browsing, volunteered to join the workshop on creating a homepage. The workshop was held three times. The staff members provided a lecture in the first workshop, explained how to use a digital camera in the second workshop, and helped the participants to create a homepage in the third workshop.

[Workshop Schedule]
Workshop 1: Basic knowledge of creating a homepage
Workshop 2: Digital camera shooting in town by each participant
Workshop 3: Create the original homepage by using photos and moving images

The participants used basic homepage-making software to create HTML documents. A participant's homepage consisted of images, texts, movies, and links. Although the junior high school participants arranged their homepages neatly, the content of the homepages created by the elementary school participant was not so neat. However, the elementary school participant was aware of the concept of structure or layout of a webpage, since he/she noted that the content of his/her homepage was not well-organized. Junior high school participants stated that they created a homepage for themselves to have fun and did not think about others who visited their sites.

3. Fieldwork to Investigate Children's WEB Sites

We visited several websites that were run by children to investigate how the homepages were operated. Whether the site was operated by a child or not was determined by the profiles and content on each site. The information given particular attention was age and school-related topics. The following websites were examined.

Japanese Only
- Cafesta (http://www.cafesta.com/)
- Cyberkids Republic (http://www.cyberworld.ne.jp/kids/)
- Fumi Community (http://www.fumi23.com/)

Each of those community websites has a link to an individual website, which provides BBS, diary page, and chat room as a place to communicate.

The layout of an individual site on Cafesta is fixed, but it can be altered by choosing the provided objects. Each individual site has a diary page and BBS, and visitors leave tracks automatically by browsing a particular site. In order to update images, you need to visit other sites for tools. The users are given an avatar and can earn points by writing comments on diary page and BBS, or answering a questionnaire. Users can buy the items for changing avatar's clothes or changing the layout of the site.

The only place users can create their individual sites on Cafesta is a part of the text content. The users appear to express themselves and communicate with each other mainly by arranging this part of the top page, updating their avatars, and writing comments on diary page or BBS. (Outline of Cafesta system(PDF) here)

On Cyberkids Republic, both structure and layout of the site can be set and altered by choosing an object. It is also possible to create original structure and layout. The site has a page to draw pictures, update them, and display them to the public. The users can establish another place for communication by linking to the BBS and chat room on their own sites.

On Cyberkids Republic, the users appear to communicate mainly through pictures. Children draw pictures not only on the provided page, but also on the BBS which can contain images. Since the users can alter their site structure, many children also present their poems and stories.

On Fumi Community, the links to each individual site are categorized, and the structure of each site varies. The site also has a page for drawing, updating, and opening pictures to the public. "Puri-kura" (Instant photo mashine, print club) photos can be put on the site, too. Fumi Community also has a homepage ranking function.

On Fumi Community, many homepages have photos - even photographs of the site manager's own face - probably because the users are aware of the homepage ranking. They also appear to be interested in creating original banners and there are sites where people can order them. The banners are put on a server by using FTP (file transfer protocol). Site managers can also upload their banners onto an outside image-uploader and establish a link from their sites.

4. Summary

Various ways of communication are found on the sites visited. Users appear to express themselves by arranging page layout; presenting their avatars, illustrations, poems, and stories. Visitors also appear to become involved in written communication by posting feedback on the BBS concerning the site manager's diary and works. Those activities once took place on media other than the Internet or PC, but have been developed in the world of WEB. Judging from the content of the websites, children appear to ask for advice of the actual/direct acquaintances, family members and friends when they open or use a website. For children, the Internet might be a media connected to reality, not a world apart.

The style of communication was based on multimedia combining photos, illustrations, and texts. In addition to the time limit and slower typing speed, a possible reason for little written content presented on those websites is that more and more children are interested in illustrations and photos. Considering children's great interest in animation created by Flash, we can predict that increased online movie distribution and multimedia communication including movies if equipment and software for movies and music become popular.

Regarding communication, users are familiar with the manners and rules on using the BBS and chat room. Some sites clearly state netiquette and delete inappropriate postings on the BBS. However, some sites use extremely strong language to regulate the violation of netiquette, or state extremely subjective rules. There might be a gap between their knowledge and the reality of children's Internet use.
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