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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
Despite all of the safeguards, it is possible for kids' feelings to be hurt on Club Penguin. The filters prevent kids from insulting each other in many ways, but my daughter said her feelings are hurt when she tries to talk to someone and they just ignore her.
Hap agreed. He said, "Sometimes I ask someone to be my buddy and they don't accept. That's fine - there are like 4,000 people on Club Penguin and I had 97 buddies. The only bad thing that happens is if I ask them to be my buddy and they don't even say no, they don't even answer!"
Kids have even found a way to use the reporting process at Club Penguin to hurt others. Lorraine Woodruff-Long, the California mom of two Club Penguin users, said her kids were sometimes upset because other kids would threaten to report them and get them banned from the site. "One day someone was being mean to him and he was starting to write back. I said, 'What are you doing?' He said a person was being mean to him and threatening to have him banned, and I told him that doesn't mean it is OK for him to do it, too. The more I know about it, the more I realized I need to be more wary. I need to sit down and spend time with these sites. The kids are ahead of where I think they are."
Parents often teach their children not to talk to strangers, but talking to people (or penguins) you don't know is one of the main activities on sites like Club Penguin. Does this send a mixed message?
Goodstein doesn't think this is a problem. She said, "If they are involved with [strangers] on a site that is explicitly for kids, it is the same as going to a playground where they play with kids they might not know. If they're on a site that is mixed, with kids and adults, then they have to be a lot more careful, listen to their gut and feel when something doesn't feel right."
Goodstein said that 7-, 8- and 9-year-olds mostly talk to penguins they don't know. "They just waddle around trying to talk to people, instead of being a real social network. For slightly older kids, Imbee may be more like a real social network. There you have friends that are mostly your friends in real life, but in Club Penguin, they're usually not quite old enough for real social networking."
Emily Fiorentino, an 8-year-old from Connecticut, confirms that on Club Penguin she generally just starts random conversations with people. "You only know their penguin name, color and costume," she said.
It is possible to meet your real friends on Club Penguin, if you know their penguin identities. Dennis Dobbyn from California, said his 11-year-old son Sean enjoys chatting with his real friends on Club Penguin, and Hap from Washington meets up with a real-life friend who lives in California on Club Penguin a couple of times a week. "We play hide and seek," he said excitedly. He described how buddies can find out which part of the site their friends are visiting by clicking on their profile, but you can hide within that page of the site by using camouflage. "I went into the underground pool and turned my penguin that same color. It was exactly the same color! The only way to find me was my beak!"
Some sites, like Whyville, have ads spread across the site. Others, like Webkinz, include promotions for their own products. Club Penguin is ad-free, although kids must pay around $6 per month for access to some of the popular features. A letter from Club Penguin's founders posted on the site states that they remain committed to maintaining their no-advertising policy, despite Disney's purchase of the site. That said, a penguin with mouse ears can already be spotted in several places around the site. Woodruff-Long said she wouldn't want her 8- and 10-year-old kids being bombarded with ads for Disney products.
"It would definitely bother me if they asked for stuff all the time when they were using Club Penguin," she said. "We watch limited TV, and now I can have reasoned discussions with them about advertising, but I really don't like it."
Almost all of the sites include ways for kids to earn points or virtual money and then spend it "buying" virtual items on the site. Oxford finds this aspect of Club Penguin to be positive for her son: "I like that he has 12 puffles and he really has to pay attention to them and feed them. He understands that you have to pay to feed them so they won't run away."
Goodstein says that earning virtual currency to buy things teaches kids valuable lessons about economics. However, she cautions parents to talk to their kids about the message some of these sites are sending and the goals of the companies - to make money.
Goodstein says kids can learn to socialize on kids' sites but in a much more controlled way than their older counterparts on Facebook.
"They are like the training wheels for socializing that is becoming so much a part of teenagers' lives," said Goodstein.
She also said that many sites promote learning, especially reading, writing and communication skills. "Kids are using their imaginations, and when they are creating an avatar, they are sort of beginning to experiment with identity, what they wear and what they want to look like. It is a virtual way of doing what we used to do when we'd pretend."
Some of the parents I spoke with aren't so sure.
"It's a tough call," said Epstein. "I lull myself into thinking it is good. Some of the games build timing skills and it is good for kids to have downtime. When I was a kid I would have been working on mazes or connect the dots." But Epstein said she did not think kids need to start training for social networking site MySpace at age 8 or 9.
Goodstein does caution that parents should limit the amount of time their children spend online. "Anything in excess is bad. Kids need to play in real life, and go outside. It is incumbent on parents to set limits and allow it as a treat maybe an hour a day."
Yes, it happens. Some parents report that their kids cry when told to log off. Goodstein doesn't have too much sympathy for this problem. "Parents need to be really firm about how much time their kids can spend online. If they have a fit, that's too bad. You're the parents. Tell them to go outside, do something different. You need to push them into a new activity. They shouldn't be able to get hooked in the first place." She noted that the addictive quality of the gaming on some sites makes kids want to be on the computer all the time. It also makes it more important for parents to be sure they aren't.
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