Virtual worlds are becoming more frequent destinations as the percentage of children and teens who use the Internet increases.

 The Walt Disney Company’s $350 million purchase of Club Penguin signals a new focus of attention for marketers and media companies targeting kids and teens online.

"For marketers trying reach kids and teens on social networking sites, there is a new game in town: virtual worlds," said Debra Aho Williamson, eMarketer senior analyst and author of the new report, Kids and Teens: Virtual Worlds Open New Universe.

"Of course, virtual worlds are not new, but the level of development activity, venture capital investment and consumer interest in virtual worlds is unprecedented," she said.

Club Penguin is one of the fastest growing virtual worlds for young children. As of August 2007, it had 12 million registered users and 700,000 paid subscribers, according to Nielsen//NetRatings.

According to eMarketer estimates, 41.5% of children ages 3 to 11 will use the Internet at least once a month in 2007. In total, 14.9 million children will go online in 2007, rising to an estimated 16.6 million in 2011.

Among teens, eMarketer estimates 76.4% will go online at least once a month in 2007, rising to 87.1% by 2011.

Overall, children and teens make up 18.2% of all US Internet users.

"eMarketer estimates that 24% of the 34.3 million child and teen Internet users in the US will use virtual worlds at least once a month this year," Ms. Williamson said. "And by 2011, 53% of them will be going virtual."

As more kids and teens start to use virtual worlds, their viewpoint on the Web changes, too.

"They are growing up not only with social networking but also with the ability to interact with people, shop, learn and play in a graphic environment," Ms. Williamson said. "Flat Web pages with clickable links and banner ads may pale in comparison."

Younger kids are getting used to a graphical representation of a social network, Jonathan Collins, executive producer of virtual worlds for MTV, said in an interview with eMarketer.

"They’re going to feel a social network that doesn’t have [that] element is missing something," Mr. Collins said.

eMarketer expects that virtual worlds — particularly those for kids and teens — will see an increased level of interest from marketers in the next few years.

"The intense activity in virtual worlds for kids and teens is only a microcosm of the larger development work being done in virtual worlds," says Ms. Williamson. "Many believe that the graphically rich environment of virtual worlds will transform how consumers shop, communicate and browse the Internet."

Via eMarketer