What Do Kids Really Want?

By Michelle Walson ’99 / March / April 2003
June 22nd, 2007
It’s My Life, created by executive producer Jennifer Castle ’89 (pbskids.org/itsmylife).

With her PBS kids Web site, it’s my life, Jennifer Castle ’89 has fulfilled every parent’s dream: she’s made children want what’s good for them. The site is aimed at nine- to twelve-year-olds—“tweens” in today’s marketing lingo—but it’s the antithesis of most commercially driven Web sites. There’s no advertising, and not a Disney character or TV link in sight.

Castle proposed It’s My Life in response to a call from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which offered seed money for Internet sites aimed at tweens. Hers was one of five sites funded. “Kids are getting older younger these days,” she says. “They’re exposed to more serious issues, but the information out there for teens isn’t appropriate for a nine- or ten-year-old.” CPB’s goal was to create safe places on the Internet where kids could learn and be entertained in a noncommercial environment.

What no one could have predicted was how successful the site would be. When It’s My Life launched last April, it quickly became the go-to Web destination for tweens. AOL linked to It’s My Life stories in its Kids Only area, and the site started logging 1.3 million page views a month.

The content of It’s My Life feels like a cross between an After-School Special and a teen magazine. It’s organized along five channels: family, friends, school, body, and emotions. In each area, tweens can read stories, watch videos, answer polls, play games, and suggest topics or get advice from a staff of teen mentors and school counselors. The site devotes considerable space to such serious issues as depression, smoking, and eating disorders, but Castle says the driving concerns of most kids who write in are timeless: crushes (“How do I get my crush to notice me?”), sibling rivalry (“My little sister is getting on my nerves!”), and the transition to middle school (“I’m scared to go to sixth grade.”). The most popular links, predictably, are the games.

When I tried the games myself, they seemed too tame and simplistic to hold the attention of kids used to the graphics and shoot-em-up fare of PlayStation. But I tested the site on a group of nine- to twelve-year-olds I teach at a community computer center in the Dorchester section of Boston. The girls loved You’re in Charge, a role-playing game in which they act as big sister baby-sitting a misbehaving little brother while Mom’s away. The boys went straight for Beat the Bully, where they outsmart, rather than pummel, their opponent by answering questions about bullying and violence. They played the games over and over, and then started navigating to other parts of the site to watch videos about celebrities’ most embarrassing moments or to write in for advice.

“It’s about understanding what kids want and giving it to them on our terms,” says Castle. “They come for the games and stay for the rest of it.”

Michelle Walson is a freelance writer living in Somerville, Massachusetts.
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March / April 2003