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Friday, March 13, 2009

Undercover Mom in ClubPenguin, Part 4: The 'dating' game

by Sharon Duke Estroff

I'm not exaggerating when I tell you that at any given moment in any given corner of any given chatroom on, there is someone saying something to the effect of “boys say i” or “beautiful girls come over here” or “are you single?” or “will u be with me?” - which is exactly what Cowboy217 asked me one moonlit night in his igloo.

We’d met earlier that evening at the pizza parlor when I’d heeded Cowboy’s open call for available girls. By the time we got to Cowboy’s crib (which, I might add, was the Taj Mahal of igloos), we’d already swapped at least a dozen heart emoticons. We played a few rounds of “Spin the Lava”, a popular CP party game involving a lava lamp, some truth or dare, and tons of Eskimo kissing, (I’m not kidding with screenshots to prove it) before he popped the question, and I (trying not to think about how appalled Cowboy217 would be if he knew he’d just asked a married, mother of four to go steady) accepted.

Mom Break: I want to start out by recognizing that Club Penguin has excellent safety measures in place to prevent predators from tracking down children via their website. But keeping our kids safe online doesn't simply mean keeping them away from cyber-predators. It means ensuring their social, emotional, intellectual, moral, and physical well-being in both the real and virtual realms. Which is why, of all my undercover mom surprises to date, I found Club Penguin’s sexual undercurrent by far the most unsettling. It's not that every penguin I encountered on CP was engaged in some kind of flirting or dating behavior, but many were. Many, many, many were. It all makes sense if you think about it. The anonymity and lack of adult supervision in children’s virtual social worlds like Club Penguin make them natural spaces for curious kids to act out sexual themes they see in the media, even before they're ready in real life. There's no doubt that pretend romantic play is part of the course and magic of childhood, but Club Penguin is not a kindergarten dress up corner. It is a vastly populous virtual playground where digital natives of all ages and maturity levels share the same turf...and grow up faster together. (I continue to grapple with scope, implications, and complexity of this issue and welcome your insight on the screenshots that follow.)

  • "Come here all beautiful girls"
  • "Where the boyz are"
  • "Spin the lava at my iggy"
  • "Me playing spin the lava"
  • "Looking for the ladies"
  • "Are u takin?"
  • "One of many prom invites I received"
  • At the nightclub: "Who is single?" (we're talking 9-to-12-year-olds!)
  • Invitation to a "Boys Meet Girls Party" at someone's igloo
  • Dating drama at the pizza parlor - Sharon explained, "The pizza parlor is one of the most popular destinations in ClubPenguin - there's one in every chatroom, so technically there are hundreds, and there always seems to be lots of dating-related talk in them."

    Note from editor Anne Collier: One thing I hope this installment illustrates is why we as a society - as we address child online safety together - can't afford to be focused on fear- instead of research-based messaging about predation online. Predatory behavior, power abuse, and bullying occur at all ages (but so does developmentally appropriate sexual exploration). We also can't afford to focus only on the negative behaviors and experiences in virtual worlds because - though clearly they are not the new Saturday-morning cartoons - there are so many good things occurring in them, including informal learning (see "Serious informal learning: Key online youth study). Sharon's reporting is important - I have seen nothing like it as I survey youth-tech and online-safety news each day. But my other hope is that readers who find this report disturbing will consider the context Sharon's expertise in child development gives it and help channel concerns into a renewed societal effort to teach ethics and citizenship - offline as well as online. Because civil, mindful behavior is protective (see "Social media literacy: The new Internet safety").

    For an index of the Undercover Mom series, click here. Next week: Cyberbullying penguins?

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  • Thursday, March 12, 2009

    Violent videogames 'forbidden fruit': Study

    A study published in the journal Pediatrics found that violent-content warnings and ratings on games have the opposite effect they're intended to have. "While research has found that ratings increase the attraction to raunchy TV shows and movies, the hypothesis had never been tested with video games," the Chicago Tribune cites the researchers at VU University Amsterdam and the University of Michigan as saying. They tested "310 Dutch children ranging in age from 7 to 17. Participants read fictitious game descriptions and rated how much or how little they wanted to play each game." Their conclusion in the February issue of Pediatrics was that," although the PEGI system was developed to protect youth from objectionable content, this system actually makes such games forbidden fruits." [The Trib incorrectly states that the article is in the March issue of Pediatrics, but it wisely concludes with the idea of putting "M" ratings on algebra books.]

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    New Halo game: Focus on strategy

    Remember the board game "Risk"? Real-time strategy (RTS) videogames - played from a top-down perspective - are its descendents. Now, with the just-released "Halo Wars," Microsoft has folded RTS into its popular Halo series, USATODAY reports. This is good news for parents in two ways. Not only is strategy more the focus than shooting, it's rated "T" for Teen because it "transports the hit sci-fi game franchise from a first-person shooting style to a more cerebral, real-time strategy mode," according to USATODAY, and this could boost sales for other strategy games. The article mentions several of them.

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    German teen shooter's threat in chatroom

    The 17-year-old German boy who killed 15 people and then himself this week warned about his plans "in an Internet chat room six hours before" he went on a shooting spree in his former high school, the Associated Press reported. The message he posted was seen by "a teen in the neighboring state of Bavaria. The Bavarian teen told his father and then police about the chat when he realized the threat had been real." But police didn't have enough time to locate the boy, apparently. The school, however, had fortunately done some training in case an incident like this should happen. "Authorities said they found some 60 shell casings in the school and that the number of victims could have been much higher had educators and police not carried out a plan learned in an earlier training program preparing them to respond to such a shooting." Pls see the article for details about the boy and the school's warning system. Here's coverage at the New York Times.

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    Wednesday, March 11, 2009

    Schools: How to handle group cyberbullying?

    I have a question for you, but first here's what it's about: A recent group cyberbullying incident involving two high schools in Palo Alto, Calif., has "sparked intense discussion" among parents, school administrators and general community members "about the proper role of the school district" when cyberbullying involves students but doesn't happen on school grounds," Palo Alto Online reports. School officials called the parents of students known to be involved and took no disciplinary action. Each incident is unique, but digital pile-ons are not unusual, in fact a very similar group cyberbullying story in Oregon arrived in my in-box just a few days ago. In both incidents, an "I Hate____" group in Facebook had been established by the bullies, but that development is often not the beginning of an altercation, and it definitely wasn't in the Oregon case. So even the lack of users' anonymity in Facebook couldn't expose every student involved and doesn't get to the bottom of what happened. In the Oregon case (it's hard to tell from the Palo Alto story), even the target of the hate group apparently wasn't completely the innocent victim. It's important to note, though, that in both cases, Facebook deleted the groups upon notification. This isn't the solution (it doesn't end arguments), but it's an important part of the resolution process.

    My question is, what do you think school officials should've done? In California, a new law gives schools authority to suspend or expel students for cyberbullying, but as I read through these cases - saw their complexities and how hard it is for schools to know exactly how the argument started, who started it, how many students are involved, whether the victim was the original instigator, or even whether it was staged for the instigators' instant fame online - I think suspension is like a blunt-instrument approach that of course punishes some involved but discourages students from reporting such cases in the future and doesn't resolve what the argument was about. The schools were right to call parents. But tell me if you agree that the schools could also turn incidents like this into "teachable moments" in the form of school assemblies about all possible implications of taking fights public online. In such assemblies or in digital citizenship instruction, schools might teach students the three basic types of leadership behavior described by Nancy Willard of the Center for Safe & Responsible Internet Use: "speaking out against the harm, reporting the harm to an adult who is in a position to intervene, and helping the targeted student." Would appreciate your thoughts - via comments here or in our forum at Feel free, too, to email them to me via anne(at)

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    Online safety in Turkey

    An article in Turkey's English-language newspaper Zaman takes a thorough look at potential negative effects of Internet use on Turkish youth - the first I've seen or heard, including in discussions with Turkish Internet crime experts when I was there about 18 months ago. At that time there wasn't much discussion beyond child-abuse imagery, or child porn, and Internet financial crime. "A significant number of children these days spend much of their free time on the Internet," Zaman reports. "However, their parents often have no idea whether they are spending endless hours playing games online or if they are being victimized by pedophiles in chat rooms. Experts warn that surfing the Web can sometimes be as dangerous for children as wandering through dark city streets." The paper cites Turkish Statistics Institute statistics dated last August, showing that 24.5% of Turkish households are online. In them, "a large number of children are using the Internet on a daily basis to browse Web pages, chat, connect to peer-to-peer (P2P) networks and participate in online forums. Parents and teachers encourage children to use computers to prepare them for the future. Some teachers even assign homework that requires students to search for information on the Internet." The article covers everything from inappropriate content and contact to parental controls to Turkish law to parental responsibility (filters as offering some protection but also a false sense of security). [Thanks to the EC's QuickLinks for pointing this story out.]

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    Tuesday, March 10, 2009

    Canadian study: Cyberbullying seen as 'cool'

    A recent survey found that 40% of Canadian 9-to-17-year-olds say they've been cyberbullied (43% female, 38% male), nearly 60% said there were no consequences, and "some 60% of the respondents agree people bully because it’s 'cool'," reports the Vancouver Sun, citing the survey from Microsoft Canada and market research firm Youthography. The London (Ont.) Free Press reports that Canadian "parents are more involved than ever with their children's online activities," with 84% of respondents saying they've talked with their parents about Internet dangers. Here's the study's press release. In other findings:

  • 9-to-12-year-old Canadians are online just under two hours a day, on average, compared to three hours a day for teens 13-to-17-year-olds
  • Girls primarily go online to socialize, with "68% saying that is what they value the Internet for" and the same percentage of boys saying they value the ability to play games.
  • "Teens are more likely than tweens to use the Internet to escape problems, deal with stress and avoid family problems.
  • 30% have lied about their age on a social networking site, and 15% have pretended to be someone they are not.
  • 15% have had their passwords stolen.
  • 76% are very careful about the personal information they divulge online.

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  • Parental social networkers multiplying

    Well, an actual group labeled "parents" wasn't measured, but I suspect parents figured prominently in a Nielsen study that found 35-to-49-year-olds are the fastest-growing group in social-network sites. "Time spent on these sites is growing three times faster than the overall Internet rate ... [and] more than two-thirds of the world's online population now visits social networking and blogging sites," USATODAY reports, citing the study. In fact, one out of every 11 minutes of the average Web user's time is spent in a social site, the USATODAY article says, and one out of every 6 minutes in the UK, reports the BBC. The Nielsen study looked at nine countries. Among these, Brazil was No. 1 in social networking and blogging with 80% of Net users visiting such sites. Spain and the US were Nos. 2 and 3, at 75% and 67%, respectively, according to USATODAY. Social networking has surpassed Web email among top computer activities across the user population, the (others are search, portals, and PC software). As for mobile social networking, the numbers of Britons accessing a social site via their phone was up 249% (the BBC doesn't say, but that's probably in the past year). If you're a parent in Facebook or MySpace, check out "Virtual helicopter parenting" and, in the Los Angeles Times, "Big Mother is watching."

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    Monday, March 09, 2009

    Online music lessons taking off

    Some 800,000 people have watched YouTube videos of musicians teaching them how to play Colbie Caillat's 2007 hit 'Bubbly' on guitar," USATODAY reports; Sting teaches "Roxanne" himself in Apple's GarageBand software, one of many music lessons in the application's latest version; "Edison Mellor-Goldman, 17, a Los Angeles-area high school student, likes to go home from school and make video tutorials using his iMac computer's built-in webcam.... He's made 33 videos. His most popular - how to play Jason Mraz's 'I'm Yours' - has been viewed 200,000 times on YouTube"; and UK musician Justin Sandercoe gives video lessons in his own site,, which "attracts 600,000 viewers a month," according to USATODAY. Sandercoe's "lesson on how to play Guns 'N Roses' 'Sweet Child o' Mine' has picked up more than 2 million views." Through all these digital resources, music learning is getting a big boost. Joe Lamond, president of the National Association of Music Merchants, a trade group for music stores (where most guitar lessons are held), says the growth of online video lessons has paid off with more-attentive students." He credits the Internet and videogames like Guitar Hero for the fact that guitar sales are up 3%, he told USATODAY.

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