The Best Last-Minute Holiday Gifts May Be Virtual

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The most coveted last-minute gifts this holiday season may not be something you can wrap and stuff into a stocking. In a recent study at Carnegie Mellon University, researchers talked to young people about their most prized possessions. Many said that virtual assets – music, photos, Facebook gifts and items in online games – were more important to them than material possessions such as clothes.

To parents, the value of "stuff" made out of bits and bytes may seem dubious. Teens, however, treasure these virtual assets because they are portable, can be customized and help strengthen social networks. According to the researchers, many young people prefer a digital photo that friends have tagged, linked and annotated to a photo in an album or a frame. Young people also like the "placelessness" of virtual possessions, which are usually stored online so they are accessible anywhere. And they appreciate the fact that virtual possessions are so easily modified in response to new stages of development or even everyday moods.

From a parent's point of view, virtual possessions also have advantages. For one thing, they minimize clutter. A music collection stored in a cloud takes up less space than a CD collection – and is easier to organize. Some parents have found that kids get more satisfaction from an inexpensive add-on to a favorite game rather than a cheap plastic toy that is soon broken or forgotten. In some households, virtual assets have become the standard reward for chores completed or goals accomplished.

Virtual assets fall into two categories. The first mirrors goods that are available in the offline world such as music, photographs and books. Most parents are quite comfortable giving kids a phone with a built-in camera, an e-book reader or a gift card for downloading music. When you give one of these gifts, you also get the opportunity to talk about and, if necessary, oversee content so you can be sure it's age-appropriate and consistent with your family's values.

A second kind of virtual asset is less familiar to many parents. It includes items that exist only in an online environment. Although virtual goods are popular in Asia and have been enthusiastically embraced by hardcore gamers, they have only recently become mainstream in the U.S., thanks to Facebook games such as Farmville, Cityville and Sims Social. Many young people start playing these games for free and then want to accelerate their progress or enhance their status by purchasing items ranging from virtual weapons to playthings for virtual pets.

Virtual goods also include other apps that amuse, inform and educate. Although many of these tiny programs are free, it's a gift for parents to find apps that connect with a child's interests and then scrutinize them to be sure they are free of adware or malware. The following tips can help you avoid downloading contaminated virtual assets:

  • Download games and apps only from trustworthy websites. The website, run by C-Net, screens rigorously to be sure programs don't introduce viruses into your system or surreptitiously collect information about what your child does online. Never download anything from a window that pops up asking if you want software you didn't request.
  • Designate one credit card for all online transactions. Don't use a debit card because it provides less protection if you have problems. Use the card only on sites that show a locked padlock on the status bar and, if you use Paypal or another online payment service, link your account to the card. When the bill for the online credit card arrives, go over it item by item to make sure every charge is legitimate.
  • Avoid downloads that insist you install something else before the program will run. Most programs depend upon Java (made by Sun) and Flash (made by Adobe). If you need to update either of these programs, do it directly from the websites of the parent companies.
  • Sign off on every download. Kids are impulsive. Some run up big bills for parents by purchasing virtual products that cost real money. Require your child to get your permission before downloading an app or a piece of music so you have control not only of spending, but also of content.


If you think an older teen is ready for a little discretionary spending, consider Facebook Credits, which allow your child to purchase gifts or game accessories within Facebook. During the holidays, this may actually be a good way to use unwanted gift cards. For information about how Plastic Jungle converts cards to Facebook credits, visit


If you think about digital goods as entertainment, you can establish and enforce the same rules that apply to other amusements. The ideal virtual gift will, of course, please your child, but it should also reinforce your ideas about healthy, wholesome development. Even though your kids may not always appreciate it, that kind of thoughtful, involved parenting is always the best gift a child can receive.

Carolyn Jabs has been writing about families  and the Internet for more than 15 years. She is the mother of three computer-savvy kids.


Categories: Activities, Seasonal, Seasonal Fun, Tweens and Teens, Winter Holidays