“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.

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