Embedding Social Supports For Tween Online Wellbeing
Katie Salen Tekinbaş and Claire LaBeaux
“Think of Kid Club as training wheels for younger players to learn how to participate in digital social spaces,” said Mimi Ito, with whom I (Katie) co-founded the non-profit Connected Camps. Kid Club, our free moderated Minecraft server, was created as a safe, online space for kids ages 8-13 to hang out and play a favorite video game with their peers. We also saw it as an online platform that could tap into the power of near peer mentors to guide and support players’ social and emotional wellbeing.
In the Spaces of Refuge series, we’ve learned about different ways platforms and organizations are leveraging social and digital media in service of adolescent wellbeing, especially among vulnerable populations. We’ve explored ListoAmerica’s use of Discord to maintain connection and community during the pandemic; Novelly, an online book club designed to spark critical thinking and empathy; and Esports programs as a context to support youth wellbeing. Four guiding principles organize the posts in the Spaces of Refuge series.
The Spaces of Refuge series highlights organizations, technologies, and programs that leverage social and digital media to support mental health and wellbeing for vulnerable youth, and embody the following guiding principles:
Meet Youth Where They Are: Too often, experts and adults have designed technologies and programs only to struggle to have youth, particularly minoritized youth, engage with them. Youth populations that innovators are seeking to serve should be involved from the start, with their interests, practices, and lived experience informing and driving the development and deployment of new efforts.
Tailor to Diverse Groups and Ages: Youth are often described as a monolithic group, even though we know that young people’s backgrounds and interests are just as diverse as we see in the adult world. Approaches must be tailored to and draw from the needs and assets of specific populations and communities in order to arrive at equitable solutions.
Build Connections Between Existing Assets: Despite an explosion of apps and online content for mental health, wellbeing, and self-care, the evidence is clear that vulnerable youth are not connecting to these assets. The critical gap in the ecosystem is the connection, translation, and tailoring of expert content and wellbeing resources for vulnerable youth, where and when they need them.
Tap Youth Agency and Peer-to-Peer Support: Youth leadership, knowledge, and lived experience in supporting each other in times of distress, amplifying positive practices, and working against toxicity online, are generally not considered in the design of wellbeing apps and interventions, even when they are intended for youth. Tapping youth agency and expertise is critical, particularly with technology-intensive interventions that require youth buy-in and engagement.
This case study highlights these principles in the context of Kid Club, a free Minecraft server that has found increased relevance to youth during a year in which many have felt isolated and cut-off from both fun and friends. We’ll provide some background, examine how Kid Club meets the guiding principles of this series, and share several design strategies that have emerged from the work.
The Evolution of Kid Club
Mimi and I have been collaborating for more than a decade as part of the Macarthur Digital Media and Learning Initiative and members of the Connected Learning Research Network. Through that work, we helped to develop the connected learning model that underpins Connected Camps.
As outlined in this 2013 report, connected learning is learning that connects personal interests, supportive relationships, and academic, civic, and career opportunities. Connected Camps was created to develop a way to give more kids access to connected learning experiences.
Connected Camps focused on the use of a game platform like Minecraft because we saw a big opportunity with the popularity of Minecraft at the time. It was the first social, project, and game-based learning platform that was both hugely popular and customizable to our learning approach. We also saw an emerging talent pool with the first Minecraft generation entering their college years. All the pieces came together at that moment when Connected Camps was founded. Connected Camps was launched with a paid Minecraft server that families could subscribe to for the summer. Eventually we shifted the model, offering paid programs with a more structured schedule and curriculum and making Kid Club a free server that was primarily social in nature.
Besides offering a free, fun, safe space for kids to connect with others around shared interests, Kid Club offers a way for us to explore innovative ways of supporting the social and emotional development of our middle school-age players. Studies suggest that the wellbeing of youth is determined, among other factors, by the quality of social experiences they encounter online. This is especially true during middle childhood, a period marked by a rapid convergence of significant cognitive, neurobiological, emotional, and social transformation. It is also a time when youth experience increased social interest and independence, and when parenting behaviors can both support and hinder these developmental processes. Whether gaming with friends, hanging out on social media, or building together in a virtual world, youth are interacting with others in social settings.
Meeting Youth Where They Are: Playing Minecraft
Minecraft has been a wildly popular game among tweens and teens for years. In order to play Minecraft, kids join servers; there are many options across the internet, with varying prices and levels of oversight and safety. Participation in Connected Camps’ Kid Club Minecraft server is free. A code of conduct is upheld, and counselors are always present to support and challenge participants, as well as maintaining a positive atmosphere.
One child, responding to our survey, said, “I like that we can communicate with one another and have fun with each other. I also like that we have at least one person to help us if we’re unsure on what to do. I love how we can express our creativity by building what we want to.”
Thomas was a member of Kid Club when he was in middle school. In high school, he joined the volunteer program, which trains students to facilitate Kid Club alongside more experienced counselors. Now, he’s a full-fledged counselor. He said, “I love Kid Club because it’s open and fun and unique. It’s a perfect space for campers to explore everything they want to do—and being free makes it accessible in a way not many places are.”
Thomas’s continued involvement is a good example of one of the principles of Spaces of Refuge: that youth interests, practices, and lived experience inform and drive the development and deployment of new efforts.
Programming Tailored to Diverse Groups and Ages
Another guiding principle of Spaces of Refuge is that approaches must be tailored to and draw from the needs and assets of specific populations and communities. With many online spaces targeting older teens, Kid Club fills a vital need in guiding kids age 8-13. Developmental science is clear that this age range is a critical one for developing early social and emotional competencies, and the needs of kids in that age range are quite different from older teens. They need a more socially supportive and forgiving environment, and Kid Club provides a place to learn with “training wheels.” Every player must read and sign off on a Code of Conduct before being allowed on the server. When they break the rules, rather than being banned, counselors spend time helping the players involved reflect on what happened. They work with players to cultivate a climate and culture where mistakes are ok, as long as they are acknowledged, and damage (social or otherwise) is repaired.
Build Connections Between Existing Assets
Members of Kid Club see the server as a community where kids are encouraged to bring in interests from school or family contexts and counselors often build out activities based on these interests. Whether it is a PVP arena, a roller coaster challenge, or a slew of new mini games, counselors are constantly looking for ways to connect to and acknowledge kids’ outside interests. From a professional development standpoint, Kid Club counselors are trained in youth development practices that reinforce techniques and rituals that may be familiar to kids from school or other after school programs. This includes co-creating community norms, mindfulness activities, and gathering to share collective “grows and glows.” The translation of these familiar techniques into a context like Minecraft allows our counselors to lean into situations of authentic conflict to support kids’ social development. “I like being a mentor in Kid Club because I get the chance to build relationships with truly awesome and unique kids,” says Jason, a Kid Club counselor. “I also get the chance to see their personalities and behavior grow and develop over the course of an extended period of time. It’s really cool to see when a kid makes a positive change to their attitude/behavior that proves to be permanent for hopefully the rest of their lives.”
Peer-to-Peer Support is the Key
Connected Camps high school volunteer program supports teens in learning the ropes as junior counselors, providing assistance to our college-age moderators and developing their own skills as leaders and mentors on the server. The intergenerational make-up of the server, which includes youth ranging in age from 8-24, allows for non-stop peer to peer learning, a key hallmark of all Connected Camps’ programs. The volunteers and counselors in Kid Club are carefully chosen and trained so they know how to foster a growth environment while building quality near-peer relationships with players.
Counselors experience many aspects of development. “My favorite thing about being a mentor at Kid Club is the camaraderie between camper and counselor,” notes Gibs, a veteran Kid Club counselor. “There is a really strong bond between the kids and us; they look forward to spending time in the realm of Minecraft with counselors. On the other hand, It’s difficult when we see that kids are sometimes struggling in social environments. Although it’s hard to watch a kid struggling in their day to day lives and see it coming out on Kid Club too, the understanding and support that counselors provide to help these kids is astounding. In this way, I think the hardest part of Kid Club is also the most rewarding. We watch kids grow up, change, interact, and then eventually move on from our server.”
Skyrocketing Relevance during the Pandemic
Many parents described Kid Club as a lifeline at a time when kids were stuck at home and had very limited opportunities for social play. We expanded free Kid Club hours during the pandemic, at considerable cost to our organization, because there was such a need for safe, friendly online spaces for kids.
In summer 2019, players spent a total of 3,532 hours on the server. In summer 2020, that number skyrocketed to 10,124 hours on the server! While quarantine might have made them feel disconnected with the outside world, Kid Club gave players new ways to keep in touch with friends, oftentime new friends they might have otherwise never met.
While some dropoff from those numbers is expected as the pandemic subsides and people are able to return to in-person events, a survey of Connected Camps users in April 2021 showed that 69% planned to have their children continue online learning in the fall, even if in-person classes had resumed. The stay-at-home orders opened many families’ eyes to the fact that structured online video game play allowed kids to maintain friendship bonds in a multifaceted way.
The stay-at-home restrictions put in place during the COVID-19 pandemic led many organizations to offer online programming, but Kid Club and the underlying connected learning principles pre-date the pandemic by many years. Beyond anticipating the need for such spaces, Connected Camps has also been a leader in developing a research-based approach to the design and moderation of kid-friendly Minecraft servers with embedded social emotional learning (SEL) supports (Slovak et al., 2019; Salen Tekinbaş et al., 2021). Through our research and that of others, we’ve found that positive youth outcomes are much more likely to develop when kids feel a sense of agency and belonging on the server; have friends and mentors who share an interest; and are able to access ongoing activities that sustain their involvement (Ito et al., 2020). These principles—youth agency and belonging, mentorship around shared interests, and persistent access to engaging activities—are foundational to both the design and moderation of Kid Club.
Kid Club counselors, for example, are trained to be particularly sensitive to the interests and emerging social abilities of children in middle childhood. Part of this work involves helping Kid Club players see themselves as capable of solving problems and resolving social and creative conflict, rather than relying on adults to intervene. Kid Club counselors support players in developing this mindset by creating situations and opportunities that help kids embrace conflict, rather than avoid it, as well as recognize that they have values that contribute to the growth and evolution of Kid Club. When this kind of moderation is done well, kids can develop confidence in their ability to problem-solve with others.
As Kid Club has grown and developed over the years, we’ve noted some emerging best practices, which we’d like to share here. They include:
Lead with community norms: Design game activities to maximize opportunities for youth to reflect and iterate on formalized community norms, in a safe environment. Scaffold opportunities for players to engage in discussion, reflection, and decision-making about the rules and norms of their community.
Offer youth opportunities to exercise their agency and make decisions on their own: Support youth in voicing their ideas or opinions, defining their own goals, and deciding what activities to participate in on the server. Allow them to decide for themselves how to participate in any kind of team-based challenge or group discussion. Be attentive to times when kids appear to be tired or distracted, and respond by planning spontaneous activities or asking participants to suggest ideas for an upcoming event in the game.
Moderate with empathy and openness: The role of moderators rests in helping youth develop productive mindsets around their behavior, and in helping them develop the ability to problem solve with others. Moderators have a key role to play in guiding youth through such experiences. Train moderators to support and mentor kids on the server rather than policing them, through mechanisms like reflective discussions, moderator facilitated community agreements, and the design of game-play quests aimed at increasing positive social interactions among the youth.
Have a protocol for supporting kids in crisis: Like teachers and coaches, Kid Club counselors are trained as mandatory reporters and Connected Camps has developed an incident response protocol that helps members of our team make decisions and take action when one of our campers expresses concerning ideas or behaviors. This might look like a kid repeatedly killing their own avatar, acting out in ways inconsistent with prior behavior, or sharing thoughts of self-harm. Have a protocol in place to not only provide support for the player but also to alert their families when it is appropriate to do so.
Connected Camps Incident Response protocol
Kid-friendly Minecraft servers like Kid Club, through their community governance structures, moderation practices, and activity design, can model and incentivize pro-social, caring behavior among players, and support adolescent wellbeing. Through a combination of careful moderation by near peer mentors and activities that support kids in learning how to problem solve and resolve conflict, Kid Club provides an emotionally supportive environment that is both interactive and relational. Youth are given permission to try and fail and work together to define and refine the norms of their community.
Ito, M., Arum, R., Conley, D., Gutiérrez, K., Kirshner, B., Livingstone, S., Michalchik, V., Penuel, W., Peppler, K., Pinkard, N., Rhodes, J., Salen Tekinbaş, K., Schor, J., Sefton-Green, J., & Watkins, S. C. (2020). The Connected Learning Research Network: Reflections on a decade of engaged scholarship. Connected Learning Alliance.
Salen Tekinbaş, K., Jagannath, K., Lyngs, U., & Slovák, P. (2021). Designing for youth-centered moderation and community governance in Minecraft. ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction (TOCHI) 28(4), Article 24 20, 40 pages.
Slovák, P., Salen, K., Ta, S., & Fitzpatrick, G. (2018). Mediating conflicts in minecraft: Empowering learning in online multiplayer games. In Proceedings of the 2018 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing 1556 Systems (CHI’18) (pp. 1-13, paper 595). ACM. doi: https://doi.org/10.1145/3173574.3174169