Here's a CNet article about a USC panel discussion concerning how virtual worlds are affecting children, sponsored by the MacArthur Foundation, who are investing in research in virtual worlds. Telling points from the discussion:
Spaces like Club Penguin and Webkinz encourage consumerism as part of being a good citizen. Well, this is true, but let's lift our heads from the monitor and realize that American culture itself embraces that model, and virtual worlds are merely the latest iteration of that concept. If we're not careful, these things will become yet another scapegoat for undesirable behavior, just like videogames have been and continue to be.
Educators continue to extol the virtues of virtual worlds as beneficial for learning. One of the strengths of online distance learning is its ability to provide the chatroom experience, which is inherently social, with the ability to immediately gratify the desire to search for background information. Being in your class in Second Life and Googling facts at the same time brings to your education a valuable 'live' experience that is difficult to match with standard real life classrooms. Add to that the playful nature of speaking through a customizable avatar, and this is a worthy new color in any educator's palette.
Real world ugliness is promulgated throughout virtual worlds, including bullying, racism, and homophobia. The problem is that, no matter how you view virtual worlds, either as utopias or dystopias, human behavior is a learned thing, and that frequently begins at home. Respect for your fellow humans must be taught. If it isn't taught, it isn't learned. Of course online spaces are filled with abusive behavior; life itself is filled with it. Like consumerism, this is a problem that virtual worlds are only bringing into sharper relief, not engendering themselves.