Should kids hang out at Club Penguin?
Internet sites for tweens are booming, but are they safe? Is this what our kids should be doing?
Popular virtual communities and social networking sites for kids:
Club Penguin: Kids play games, chat with other penguins and earn virtual money to "buy" clothes, puffle pets and igloo furnishings for their penguins. There are currently no ads on the site, but to have access to all features kids must pay a monthly membership fee. The site is monitored by live adults. Kids are limited in what they can say to other penguins. Parents can choose a safe mode in which kids can only use pre-written phrases to communicate with others. Disney announced August 1, 2007, that it was buying Club Penguin.
Whyville.net: As a citizen in this virtual city, you can write for the newspaper, run for office, earn a salary, hang out at the beach and participate in educational math, science and art activities. Before kids are allowed to chat with other users, they must earn a "chat license" by passing a test about safe chatting and the site rules. Children are welcome on the site, but users under age 13 must have parental permission. Whyville is monitored, but not around the clock, so inappropriate chat may occur. There are ads and product promotions.
Webkinz.com: If you buy a specially marked stuffed animal, you receive a secret code giving you access to the website for a year. On the site, you can name and care for a virtual version of your stuffed toy. You can invite friends over to play and talk with pre-scripted discussion. With parent permission, kids can create their own messages using words from a pre-set dictionary. Kids can earn KinzCash by playing games and taking quizzes; the money can be used to buy food, furniture and accessories for their virtual pets. There are product promotions for Webkinz products.
Sparktop.org: Originally developed for kids with learning disabilities, this site has quizzes and movies about topics like ADHD and bullying. Kids can send messages and voicemails to each other, and write, paint, play games and get advice from teen hosts. Kids earn badges and points by participating in different activities. Kids' memberships must be validated by an adult, although they can use many features as guests.
Fanlala.com: Like a junior MySpace, this site has blogs, music, groups and circles of friends. Parent approval of memberships is required and parents can choose how closely they want to monitor their children's accounts. They can even choose to approve individual messages and blog entries. Fanlala requires verification that the parent is an adult via phone, credit card, or by faxing an ID. There are no ads.
The Club: In this virtual world, kids can decorate their own rooms, play games, watch videos of Nickelodeon shows, talk to Nickelodeon characters, and visit interactive rooms where they can meet and chat with other players. Kids are not permitted to exchange personal information and chat can only use words from the approved dictionary. Nickelodeon characters and television shows are heavily present on the site and there are ads.
By GreatSchools Staff
"Mom, what's your email address?" my 8-year-old daughter Madison called from the computer one afternoon last spring. Thinking she was just sending me an email, I told her. Minutes later she was at my side begging me to check my email messages so she could finish registering for Club Penguin.
What I didn't realize then was that my daughter had homed in on a major tween Internet trend. I had a lot of questions.
Tweens on the Internet? As parents, we wonder if this is a good thing. What do kids do on sites like Club Penguin? Are these sites safe? Are our children being bombarded with advertising when they play? Do they have any value? Should our kids be playing with virtual friends? I turned to other Penguin parents and Anastasia Goodstein, author of Totally Wired: What Teens and Tweens Are Really Doing Online, for answers to these questions.
What is Club Penguin all about?
Club Penguin is a virtual world where kids create an online persona, often called an avatar, in the form of a colored penguin. They waddle around the virtual penguin world playing games, chatting with other penguins and visiting their igloos, attending parties and earning points to buy puffle pets, penguin clothes, and furnishings for their igloos.
Tween sites are clearly a booming business. Disney paid Club Penguin's founders $350 million to purchase the site. The founders will continue to manage the site, and if they meet aggressive growth targets over the next few years, they will receive $350 million more, according to news reports. The Club Penguin website has more than 12 million active penguins.
Are they safe?
Club Penguin and other sites aimed at pre-teens put a lot of effort into keeping their sites safe for kids. Most sites require parents to give permission for their kids to access most of the site's features, and they offer varying degrees of parent control over kids' day-to-day use. Fanlala.com, a tween social networking site, offers parents the ability to approve each post their children make and each friend request they receive. Some sites, like Webkinz.com and Club Penguin, let parents set their children's settings so that the kids can only use pre-written questions, comments and answers to communicate with others. Even when kids are not restricted to the pre-written chat, many kid-oriented sites, including Club Penguin and Nickelodeon's The Club, have filters set to exclude inappropriate words or personal information. Whyville.net requires kids to pass a test and get their "chat license" before they are allowed to chat with others. I took the test, and it wasn't easy.
These sites also have reporting systems kids can use to report inappropriate comments that somehow get past the filters. Club Penguin is moderated around the clock and kids can always click on the Moderator button present on the screen to report something. Whyville has different levels of safety tools kids can use, ranging from "silencing" someone so the child won't see or hear what the other user is saying to filing a 911 report, which is intended for reporting serious safety concerns. Whyville, however, is not moderated constantly and some inappropriate comments may slip in.
Goodstein said, "I definitely think they're safer [than sites not aimed at kids], but no site is 100% safe or not hackable. However, when the core audience is kids under 13, safety has to be a priority. They spend a lot of time, money and effort making these sites as safe as they can be."
The parents I talked to agreed that Club Penguin generally seems safe for their kids. Laura Epstein, the California mother of 9-year-old Leah, said, "It seems to be safe since they take on a penguin identity and the interactions seem to be fairly limited. I think they do a fairly good job of making interaction positive and limited."
Dana Oxford, a mom in Washington, limits her 6-year-old Penguin fan, Hap, to Club Penguin's Ultimate Safe Chat. This means Hap can only send messages using chat terms on the site, and he can only see what others say if they're also using Ultimate Safe Chat.
"It is definitely safe," Oxford said. "There's no way for him to give personal information."
Despite the apparent safety of many of these sites for kids, Goodstein warns there are precautions parents should take.
Talk to your child about the Internet as a public space.
"The challenge is that people can say they're different people, for example say they're kids if they're not kids," Goodstein says. Parents need to create an atmosphere where kids can tell them about problems they encounter online without the fear of the Internet being taken away, she says. "Parents should talk to kids about how to treat people online and emphasize the differences from real life. For example, photos can be spread quickly online and it is easier to be meaner. Technology puts distance [between a bully and a victim]."
Warn your child not to put personal information on the Web, ever. She recommends that "parents have kids listen to their gut if something makes them uncomfortable. Kids have to be able to talk to their parents about what was said and why it made them uncomfortable."