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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?

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.

The bigger picture is that Club Penguin is one of a new breed of online communities designed specifically for kids between 8 and 13 years old. These kids' communities have been called training grounds for virtual worlds like Second Life and social networking sites like Facebook, which are popular with teens and young adults. The terms of use require people who use these sites to be at least 13 years old. As pre-teens often want to do what teens are doing, it was only a matter of time before someone created similar Web destinations for the pre-teen set.

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."

Understand that virtual interactions can be as hurtful as real ones.

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."

Is it OK to make virtual friends?

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!"

Do these sites promote too much commercialism?

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.

Is there any benefit for kids in using these sites?

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."

What can you do if your child is hooked on Club Penguin?

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.

Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

04/19/2012:
"I have been on club penguin since 2006 when i started school. me and my friends always play on club penguin i recon its better than all these tv programs they show now. that last comment was pretty bad though and really disturbing but there isnt to many people like that. parent should stop spying on kids just dont let them have an email. and make your own account on the site to see how it is if its good let them join. if its inappropriate dont let them join and delete the email. "
04/6/2012:
"I read this and I just wanted to say that Club Penguin is not a safe environment. I saw my child "dating a blue penguin" he invited her into his igloo and said "Shoves it in". This is inappropriate for someone young. Kids do this and go to a store to pick babies then they are taught that you have to be "cool" to have friends. Some penguins are rude and swear in slag like what the fire truck! Or What the if? I caught someone committing suicide online too. Don't go online "
11/22/2011:
"im 11 and me and a few of my friends play this. its deffintly safe and if you dont like something someone says, you can just click their penguin and block them so they wil disapear and u cant see anything they say. "
11/18/2011:
"Club penguin isn't a tween website. It is ages 4-12 "
09/19/2011:
"I really love club penguin. you know it is really amazing that my teacher gave me to play cp i like my teacher and im in 2nd grade!!!! "
05/31/2011:
"I wouldnt worry. I may be only 12, but I love club penguin, and I am always told that I am the most responsible kid. And I hang out with the mosat responsible friends. Trust me club penguin is safe, sure some people arent that nice or approprate, butthere are live moderators, and if you do something bad you will be banned from 24 hrs to forever its very safe, trust me disney cares."
05/19/2011:
"reading all these comments made me laugh. TEENS AND KIDS CUSS GET THE HELL OVER IT. if you don't want your kid seeing it or oops I learned a new word on clubpenguin mommy-*kid says bad word* and all of a sudden your in shock and get mad at them. don't. its your fault for letting your kid on the internet when their too young in the first place."
04/15/2011:
"i do NOT think clubpenguin is safe i was on there like an hour a go and since you cant say bad words on clubpenguin kids are making up words that RYHME with that swear word like 'beach' they dont mean lets go to the beach they mean the bad word! Parents are not being very responsible they are so 'busy' doing stuff and never have time to check what their kid is doing on the computer!I mean seriously this should only be like a 7 to 10 website teens are taking over clubpenguin by trying to be there girlfriend or boyfriend! If i was a parent i would check your kids computer and what there doing right now because you don't know who they are talking to on the internet!"
03/7/2011:
"I think Cp (club penguin) is maybean okay site for kids under the age of 8!! I am 13 and I play on it. I do LOVE CP, but it's weird when people say stuff like well, ship, crab, beach, and such! IF you look at them in an adult way you can see they're swear words! Other then that, club penguin is a fun, safe, place!they throw parties and ALWAYS have fun things to do. I hope this helps. I hope your child has a fun time on Club Penguin like how I do! Love (Penguin name) Gerlp908 <3 God Bless"
02/7/2011:
"8-13? that's.....stupid. (I'd say something else but choose not to.) No self-respecting middle schooler would admit to using Club Penguin, or even MySpace. those are for third and fourth graders. Now Facebook is in. (not in my opinion though.)"
10/20/2009:
"Thank you so much for this article - my son has been asking for membership in club penguin, and I got exactly my questions answered here! "
09/16/2009:
"I think - personaly, that clubpenguin - which kkids like me call it (cp), is a not so safe site to be on.... Even though disney blocked swearing words and inappropiate words, penguins seem to use some words like what the yell, and oh crab. That is from my point of veiw. And, me myself, play on it, because im a pre - teen, and, Adults play on it too! When you sign up, there is a choice of 13+ - that gives disturbing, and um, not appropriate adults to chat to children."
07/7/2009:
"cool website peoples"
04/20/2009:
"i think kids should have a place to have fun and talk to people their own age and play around and have fun. I mean would do the same thing as them wouldnt you? they just want a penguin to see friends and play and but a puffle maybe or if your a member you could buy hats shoes shirts and etc. BUt dont say club penguin is bad. Its the kids who do the stuff on their own not club penguin like if you get banned its your kids would did it, if you cheat like go up in the tree at the dock and go in the cave and sit by the exit but dont go into the other room that is cheating and i agree that club penguin is safe for your children if not then just email club penguin and they will fix it for you and your child. thats all i have to say. from Paula schmid only 13 hope you agree with me!!!"
04/7/2009:
"clubpenguin is a safe site for kids to go on.they have alot of fun with kind friends on cp(clubpenguin).many kids go to small parties that other children create in thier igloos.thier real children.even adults enjoy goin on clubpenguin."
04/2/2009:
"I think it's quite safe. I love to watch my child go into the 'Pizza Parlor' and become friends with another penguin. Also, it's not as much as a training service for myspace, it's learing what to say to real people, caring for pets, and learning how to save up money. It's been a great experience for me and my child."
04/2/2009:
"i like club penguin it is really good."
02/26/2009:
"I don't think there actually are any mouse ears that you can buy on club penguin- as well as that- about threatening other penguins with reports when they have done nothing wrong- the moderator will look over the conversation before taking any action. So, if the penguin hasn't done anything wrong, then the moderator will not ban that penguin."
02/26/2009:
"I'm fifteen and on club penguin. I don't have my space but i do have bebo and i honestly prefer club penguin as you can walk around the different rooms. It is far more interesting and fun. It is completley safe as far as i can see. There is an issue with boyfriend and girfriends. It really annoys me when someone comes up to me and asks, 'will you be my girlfriend?' when i don't even know them! I have alot of interesting and helpful friends on club penguin and i tend to stay away from 'boyfriend/girlfriend' relationships. It's great meeting knew people and seeing the uniqueness of each person."
02/23/2009:
"HEY YOUR TRYING TO AKE OVER CLUB PENGUIN AND THATS NOT NICE I PLAY ON CLUB PENGUIN THE WORST THING THAT CAN HAPPEN IS HAVE FUN I MEAN WHAT WILL WE DO BE MEAN IF WE DO BE MEAN WE ACNT SEE IF IT GOES THROUGH SO I THINK YOU SHOULD RECONSIDER THIS NON SENCE WEB SITE"
01/28/2009:
"I think it is safe but my son Joshua was on club pnguin and some one told him to come when he was preforming with his guitar and he was tricked so he did what he could and got him."
11/12/2008:
"clubpenguin is safe!! i play on it ,and if you sware, you get band. other kids can also band other penguins for being bad. it is a safe site for kids like me and we have a ot of fun on clubpenguin. if you are so conserd, block the site! but me and my friends play on it!!! ps. i love clubpenguin!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"
10/14/2008:
"Hey. First of all, I don't think that hacking into your child's account and hanging out with her friends, checking out the safety stuff by getting her banned, seeing if she has a boyfriend, e.t.c. isn't very nice. I will be 12 in January, and my family believes I'm responsible to make my own decisions computer wise I own a Club Penguin and I am very happy with the safety choices, great job CP!"
09/19/2008:
"im 11 and i think club puinguin,disney channel,millsberry,and all the other sites for twees are totaly safe for kids. like you can show your personality on the virtual puinguin or whatever it is, but in a safe way that your personal info wont go into the whole internet! and parents you got to chill, let your kid(s) have some fun on the computer we kids what to spend time on the computer and play games or do something!"
08/15/2008:
"Hi my daughter is 11 and plays clubpenguin and she didnt even put my email in she put her own and accepted her self !!! lolz anyway i dont care shes big and tough she like a ball that gets squashed and bounces back up very cheeky though no punishment can stop her she will get worse so i have to just do it smoothly lolz but shes better now and she does not fight like she used to club penguin did her good and she has a website about it if you would like to tell your kids about it : www.fans4cp.wordpress.com it gives them info on clubpenguin and what clubpenguin is even a page for school :D kids dont like school well some mine does and like the pins they hide and the furniture catalog and clothing catalog secrets "
06/3/2008:
"i think clb penguin is a safe place as my child always plays on it and you can have a safe chat one and do't have to buy it "
05/30/2008:
"I am concerned over the safety of my child's online choices. She likes Club Penquin, but I fear that it will become too commercial now that it is part of Disney. A friend suggested that we try Xivio.com because it has more safety features than Club Penguin. My daughter likes it more than Club Penguin and although she likes to visit the site frequently for the social networking aspect, she doesn't seem as addicted to it as she was with Club Penguin. I feel that she spends a reasonable amount of time on the Xivio site. "
03/10/2008:
"Cub penguin is very safe they block out all the swearing and they take out any (kids) who swear. So dont take your kids off. (Unless they swear.)"
02/19/2008:
"I'm thirteen and I am a member of Club Penguin. I think parents should chill out a little more. Club Penguin is totally safe! When kids are in Club Penguin it prevents them to be on other sites like MySpace. To be honest, I have a MySpace too, but I usually spend my time on club penguin more than I do on MySpace. "
02/15/2008:
"GReat article, this sounded too familiar. My daughter did the same thing in wanting my email address, my worry is that these sites might suggest to our children to set up their own email. Thank you."
02/11/2008:
"i agree this to this letter that you gave me -thank-you very much this is a very good note for parents and kids so they would understand."
02/6/2008:
"keep up the good work. these types of pieces are very relevant to the age group from elementary schools. This was informative and helpful. Thank you."
02/4/2008:
"Sorry, but I find little to no credibility in Kate Steinheimer's (the author of the article) quest to answer 'Should this be what our kids are doing?' and 'Should our kids be playing with virtual friends?'. She queries the parents of kids who are actively using Club Penguin. But what are the opinions of the parents who no longer allow their kids to use the site? Worse, Steinheimer 'interviews' Anastasia Goodstein, author of 'Totally Wired: What Teens and Tweens Are Really Doing Online'. Guess what? Goodstein is founder/CEO of YPulse.com, a marketing research firm that according to their website 'provides news, commentary and resources about commercial media for teens' and which states 'Ypulse.com reaches a highly influential audience of agency, brand and media executives as well as social marketers trying to reach youth.' Bottom line, Goodstein's livelihood hinges on her success in finding new ways to sell more stuff to kids through the internet, cell phones, teen magazines, and 'link it all together' so that the kids AND parents can't distinguish the marketing from the fun or 'on-line experience' as they say. Maybe Goodstein sincerely wants parents to pull the plug on the computer and herd the kids outside. She wants them to go tell the kids playing outside (who are enjoying physical activity and having 'real' versus 'virtual' social interactions) to go beg their parents for the latest Webkinz-type gimmick, or about how many 'friends' they made at Club Penguin. Powerful viral marketing, folks. 'I made 65 new penguin friends today, Billy! How many friends did you make while you were on the swingset? Only one? Too bad, I win!' Sorry penguin-addicted kid. You lost. Someday, I hope that you'll learn it takes more than a mouse-click to make a friend. The experience of having one real friend, for better or worse, beats an infinite number of shuffling, cutesy virtual internet spawn. If you really want to have fun, try hide and go seek. Outside. To the woman who said, '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.' It doesn't really matter if Club Penguin does or does not have advertising directly. The simple fact that your kids are using Club Penguin means that Disney's marketing is successful. When Disney comes out with the 'Club Penguin Movie', guess which kids will want to see it? When the penguin toy goes into the Happy Meal, guess who's kids want fast-food (or the themed birthday party, or the DVD, or the Nintendo game, or the whatever). If you believe that kids should be allowed at least SOME time on the computer to help with their technological literacy, read the comments below submitted by kids and parents supporting Club Penguin. Some should definitely be spending more time working on their literacy. Without the computer. Finally, my answer to 'Should our kids be playing with virtual friends?' Why? Aren't there better things for a kid to do with his or her REAL friends and family, especially on a rainy day? Speaking of better things to do...."
02/1/2008:
"I appreciate your help in our child education. i'm living in this country since last year ago ,so there are new things for me and my daugther and she has joined this club since last week. I found this article very important.Thank you. one more time."
01/30/2008:
"Thanks - I agree with your perceptions of the site - good information for new user parents. - Thanks!"
01/29/2008:
"Very helpful article. "
01/28/2008:
"I love Club Penguin! They do everything they can to help with problems. And every day the are coming out with new ways to make club penguin safe."
01/24/2008:
"I love club penguin. There is a lot of good games and my parents like it too. They say that as long as we keep the 30 minits time limit and the games are semi-educational we can play. They classify club penguin as semi-educational because of the money stuff. I have never heard anything inappropriet on CP and I have been on almost 2 years. I tottaly reccomend it if you have nothing to do on rainy days."
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