Virtual Playgrounds and Buddybots: A Data-Minefield for Tweens

Canadian Journal of Law and Technology, 2005

17 Pages Posted: 11 Jun 2005

See all articles by Valerie Steeves

Valerie Steeves

University of Ottawa - Criminology

Ian R. Kerr

University of Ottawa - Common Law Section


The online world of tweens - kids between the ages of nine and 14 - is fun, interactive, and cool. It is also a place that is structured by seamless surveillance and the aggressive collection of children's personal information. Whether kids are hanging out with Hilary Duff on, playing with Lifesaver products on Candystand, or chatting with ELLEgirlBuddy about their favorite celebrities, a marketer is listening - and sometimes talking - to them, to measure their likes, dislikes, aspirations, desires, wishes, and propensity to purchase product.

This article examines the online places where tweens play, chat and hang out. The authors argue that the vision behind these places is defined by commercial imperatives that seek to embed surveillance deeper and deeper into children's playgrounds and social interactions. Online marketers do more than implant branded products into a child's play; they collect the minute details of a child's life so they can build a relationship of trust between the child and brand. Although marketing to children is not new, a networked environment magnifies the effect on a child's identity because it opens up a child's private online spaces to the eye of the marketer in unprecedented ways. Online marketers accordingly invade the child's privacy in a profound sense, by artificially manipulating the child's social environment and communications in order to facilitate a business agenda.

The authors start by examining five of the web sites which have been identified by tweens as favorites. Each site contains examples of marketing practices which are typical of virtual playgrounds, and which turn kids' online play into a continuous feedback loop for market research. After looking at the places where tweens play, the authors turn to one of the places where tweens talk. The authors examine how the principles of human-computer interaction have been used in an instant messaging environment to create virtual people that interact with kids, for all intents and purposes, like a real person. By logging the interactions, these BuddyBot programs are able to learn about the child and create the illusion of friendship between it and the child. This perfects the relationship between the child and the brand by introducing a virtual person into the equation, a person who is able to give the child ideas about what clothes to wear, what movies to see, what products to buy.

Finally, the authors provide a brief overview of American and Canadian legislation dealing with children's online privacy, and assess whether or not current laws have been able to protect children's privacy in the online environment. The authors also examine the ways in which electronic commerce legislation has addressed the role of virtual agents, and assess how well fair information practices can protect kids from the invasive nature of child-bot relationships.

Keywords: Electronic commerce, privacy, surveillance, online marketing, data protection, consumer protection, children, human-computer interaction

Suggested Citation

Steeves, Valerie and Kerr, Ian R., Virtual Playgrounds and Buddybots: A Data-Minefield for Tweens. Canadian Journal of Law and Technology, 2005, Available at SSRN:

Valerie Steeves

University of Ottawa - Criminology ( email )

25 University Street
Ottawa, Ontario K1N 6N5
(613) 562-5800 ext. 1793 (Phone)
(613) 562-5304 (Fax)

Ian R. Kerr (Contact Author)

University of Ottawa - Common Law Section ( email )

57 Louis Pasteur Street
Ottawa, K1N 6N5
613-562-5800 (Phone)

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