What Every Parent Needs to Know About a Kid's Online World

Should you let your preteens get involved in an online social network? The following link is what a mother and writer for Good Housekeeping online found when her eight-year-old asked how to spell “Penguin.” It is an excellent article that all parents of preteens should read.

If you don’t have the time to read the complete article of more than 2500 words, the following are the highlights. She has great insight. I wish I has said it.


The following article was for space only.

Undercover in a Kid's Online World
What one mom learned in her journey through kiddie cyberspace — and what every concerned parent needs to know

By Sharon Duke Estroff
In the middle of a playdate with one of his best buddies a few months ago, my then-8-year-old came over and asked me how to spell "penguin."
"Penguin?" I asked, puzzled. "As in Mr. Popper's Penguins?"
"No," Jake clarified. "As in Club Penguin. We want to play, but we can't get to the Website." And just like that, my third grader's age of digital innocence ended, as both of us dove headfirst into the junior cyber-social world.

And I do mean both of us. Because after Jake went to bed that night (giddy with excitement over the creation of his penguin alter ego — or "avatar"), I decided I needed to find out just what was going on in those millions of online igloos that have kids so addicted.

Aimed at ages 6 to 14, the Disney-owned Club Penguin may be one of the most popular kids' sites, but it's hardly the only one. These new virtual worlds, like Poptropica and Barbie Girls, are part social networking, part online game, part Saturday-morning cartoon — and they're everywhere. There are currently more than 100 children's social-networking sites either live or in development. By 2010, projects Nic Mitham, CEO of K Zero, a virtual worlds consultancy firm, 150 million children will be members of one of them.

These sites generally sell themselves to parents as safe, convivial places for kids to play, learn, and make friends. But I wanted to find out exactly what Jake would be experiencing in this icy paradise. So I opened my own account at Club Penguin (I call it CP) and created my avatar, ChilyLily437, a bright-eyed, hot-pink go-getter with her own digital igloo and cyber hangouts — and even the potential to buy an online wardrobe. Via this character, I virtually sunbathed, snow tubed, and even picked up my daily cup of joe at CP's answer to Starbucks.

And by typing in cartoonlike speech bubbles, I mingled with waddling hordes of other penguins.
During my two-week mission, I did find four serious surprises — both good and bad. Here's what you should know before you let your kids out into the cyber snow.

1. A Virtual Playground Is Still a Playground

Given the stats, I expected CP to be hopping, but I was awestruck at just how packed with penguins it was. After I logged on, I was prompted to select from more than a hundred chat rooms with names like Snow Angel and Polar Bear.

The following are my concerns from what she found. - Al Menconi

It's true that Club Penguin, like many other sites, works overtime to keep the chat civil. CP filters out rude language and personal information, lets kids act as secret agents and report rule breakers, and provides monitors to discourage bad behavior. According to Lane Merrifield, cofounder of Club Penguin and executive vice president and general manager of Disney Online Studios, the filters are modified almost hourly to keep up with kids' changing slang. "We strive every day to improve and be the best, safest site out there," he says.

Still, I saw cyber-savvy kids come up with all kinds of clever ways to evade these precautions, like putting consecutive words in separate cartoon bubbles ("I" "DO" "NOT" "LIKE" "YOU"). CP's safeguards are updated so often that some of the talk and tactics I observed are already impossible — and probably more will be by the time this story is printed. But kids find a way. While many penguins were amicable, I was called "weirdo" twice and "nerd" three times, told to go away six times, and pummeled with snowballs and mean-face emoticons. (Merrifield explained that the site allows some words that can be negative — nerd, geek — if some kids identify themselves that way.)

"It stands to reason that bullying happens in kids' virtual worlds," says Collier, "because it happens in school and on the playground, too." But in the virtual world, the inherent anonymity compounds the problem. "Kids may be much more likely to say things through an online avatar that they wouldn't say in person," says Debbie Glasser, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Richmond, VA, and founder of newsforparents.org. While kids also misbehave on the real playground, in cyberspace, they assume they're anonymous, even invisible, and because the virtual world is "just a game," they don't feel the accountability — or guilt — they would in real life, where they have to confront their victims.

2. All Play Is Not Created Equal

Unlike traditional imaginative play, CP and other sites generally don't let kids dream up places — graphic designers do it for them. Merrifield says his team's goal is to be the "stewards of creativity." But I'm not convinced. Kids' opportunities to pretend creatively on these preconceived sites seem sadly limited. And the sites' games aren't fueled so much by children's imaginations as by preprogrammed, circumscribed choices.

"Creative play allows young children to digest life and make it their own. It's an outlet for their creativity and an absolutely critical part of childhood," states Joan Almon, director of the U.S. branch of Alliance for Childhood. But when kids spend hours in front of screens — TV, video game, or computer — they're just absorbing other people's stories and imaginations and not creating their own." That's resulted in a steady decline in children's play," says Almon, "and will have serious negative consequences for kids' cognitive, emotional, and physical development."

3. Kids Can Become Virtual Materialists

Club Penguin, like many similar sites, may bill itself as being all about collecting friends, but believe me; it's about collecting a lot more than that. Like the sparkly-pink evening gowns (600 coins), wide-screen TVs (5,000 coins), and Ice Castle igloo upgrades "crafted from the finest ice on Club Penguin" (5,100 coins) that I saw during my 14 days of penguinhood.

Which is why ChilyLily437 decided to go to work. On CP, that means playing video games. Forty-five (excruciating) minutes of digital ice fishing later, I'd accumulated enough coins to get shopping.

But when I tried to make my purchases, a message informed me that I couldn't buy any of these items because I was not a member! However, I could become a member if I'd like...for $58 a year (and I don't think they were talking penguin money).

"Parents should never forget that most of these sites are money-making ventures," warns Liz Perle, editor in chief of Common Sense Media. "The behavior they encourage — playing games to build up 'money' kids can't spend without paying real cash — is driven by commercial impulses."

So maybe I was naive, but I'm still not sure which part is most disturbing: (a) that Club Penguin is perpetuating such a materialistic mind-set; (b) that it's bribing kids with cyber loot to play otherwise pointless video games all day; or (c) that it's getting away with this bait-and-switch routine ("free Club Penguin account," my flipper!). Or maybe worst is that, despite CP's strict policies against it, so many kids have found off-site ways to cheat so they don't have to "earn" coins or rewards at all. Regardless, the result is to spur kids' materialism, both online (as penguins) and off (as potential paying members).

4. Kids Grow Up Faster Online

I'm not exaggerating when I say that at any given moment in any given location on Club Penguin, there's someone saying "Cute girlz" or "I like boyz" or "Will u be my girlfriend?" — which is exactly what a penguin whom I'll call Kingpizmo asked me one moonlit night in his igloo.

We'd met earlier at the pizza parlor when I'd answered his open call for available girls. By the time we got to Kingpizmo's crib (the Taj Mahal of igloos), we'd already swapped heart emoticons and mwah mwahs (kisses). We played a few rounds of "spin the fish" (a popular CP "kissing" game) before he popped the question, and I (trying not to think about how appalled Kingpizmo would be if he knew he'd just asked a married mother of four to go steady) accepted.

Of all my virtual-world surprises, I found CP's sexual undercurrent by far the most shocking. Kafai was less surprised. "Flirting and dating are major parts of kids' virtual-world activity," she says. "The anonymity and lack of parental supervision make them favorite spaces for even tweens to act out sexual themes they see in the media and at the playground, even before they're ready in real life." But such cyber dating can actually hinder their ability to develop off-line relationships, says Marshall P. Duke, Ph.D., clinical psychologist at Emory University. "In the real world, people communicate in many ways — body language, facial expressions, gestures, and tone of voice. Not so in virtual worlds. But kids may think they understand relationships based on online experiences, and that can be damaging."

Smart Rules for Virtual Play

Realistically, we can't raise Internet-free kids — nor should we. But here's what I've learned about helping your child find a balance between virtual worlds and the real one.

Be his copilot. Understanding your kid's virtual world is a must, even if it means going undercover yourself. Then go online with him as he explores the site. "You wouldn't put your child in a car, hand him the keys, and say 'See ya,'" says Perle. "Don't do it with the Internet."

Teach her how to act. Provide your kid with clear behavior guidelines for the virtual world, just as you do for the real one. "Before letting your child access a site, discuss how to be a good online friend," says Patricia Agatston, Ph.D., coauthor of Cyber Bullying: Bullying in the Digital Age. And make sure she knows how to recognize inappropriate behavior from others (like flirtation, questions about age, bullying) and will tell you if it happens so that you can report the offender to site authorities.

Use parental controls and monitoring software. Protect your child while giving him the appropriate level of independence with Website parental controls (Club Penguin offers some excellent ones that allow parents to control when and for how long kids can use the site) and monitoring software (like those listed in the searchable database at getnetwise.org). Be up-front with kids from the start about keeping an eye on them.

Say when (and mean it). Common Sense Media recommends waiting until your child's eighth birthday before letting her join a social network. Once you do, the American Academy of Pediatrics advises limiting kids to no more than two hours a day of any kind of screen time. And balance it out with real face time with friends: These sites were never meant to replace going outside and playing.


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