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Friday, March 20, 2009

Undercover Mom in ClubPenguin, Part 5: Cold shoulders

By Sharon Duke Estroff

I’m not even a week into my undercover expedition and I’m already racking up penguin pals like Pokemon cards. No wonder Club Penguin's signature tagline is "Waddle around and make new friends"! That said, not all the birds I’ve met in this hopping virtual world are amicable types. Here’s what happened when I (ChillyLily) approached a group of cheery looking penguins dancing outside the lighthouse:

Me: Hi I am ChillyLily and I am KEWL

Dancing Penguin 1: R not

Me: Hannah Montana Rules

Dancing Penguin 2: Weirdo

Dancing Penguin 3: We r going to a members only party

Me: Can I come?

Dancing Penguin 1: Ewww no!


Dancing Penguin 2: (angry face emoticon)

Me: (sad face emoticon)

Dancing Penguin 3: Go away or I M reporting U

Report me? As in clicking the monitor badge icon on my player card to tell the CP powers that be that I am behaving inappropriately (which wasn’t true at all)? Couldn’t Dancing Penguin 3 just click on the ghost icon and ignore me for a while (meaning none of the messages I send will show up in bubbles on her screen until she decides to reinstate me to her inner circle)? If I get reported, the monitors could silence me. Or worse yet, they could ban me from Club Penguin altogether! And then what good would I be as an undercover penguin? In the name of damage control, I took the hint and slunk away.

Mom Break: Like so many aspects of children’s virtual worlds, I found Club Penguin’s buzzing social scene to be a mixed bag of fun, fascination, and concern.

I’ll start in the Pro column. When we were growing up, kids ran around the neighborhood with their friends until stars filled the sky. But today not so much. (Why? Because oodles of extracurriculars, mounds of homework, a generally anxiety-ridden parental population, and the advent of the formal playdate have rendered such informal socialization among children ancient practice, but that’s a whole different parenting post.) Consequently, many contemporary kids experience unprecedented feelings of isolation, loneliness, and stress. Virtual social networking, when done safely and in moderation, can provide children with a comforting sense of companionship and community – and not just in the digital realm. Many kids I chatted with in my real world focus sessions reported meeting up with their school friends on Club Penguin at night and on weekends. Social networking at a young age (in secure and kid-oriented environments) helps build critical digital literacy in children while giving parents an opportunity to teach their kids appropriate online behavior and safety rules early in the game.

And now for the Cons. Despite the fact that Club Penguin, like many other sites, works overtime to keep the chat civil, believe me, social cruelty is rampant. A virtual playground is, after all, still a playground with all the classic bullying and power plays. But unlike a real-world playground, there are no parents or teachers around to set the mean kids straight. And, in my mind at least, the website monitors don’t count. (Would you trust a babysitter to watch your kids if she was also responsible for watching millions of other kids at the same time? I think not.) In my first five days on Club Penguin, I was called "weirdo" three times, "nerd" four, and hit with numerous mean face emoticons. I was excluded from eight private igloo parties, told to go away six times, and pummeled with more snowballs than I can count. And as for my encounter with those snobby dancing penguins, well, it felt like junior high all over again. Sure the CP filters prevented them from saying anything blatantly inappropriate, but the penguins' cattiness and cruelty come through like a bullhorn.

I managed to snag some screenshots of (what I consider to be) cyberbullying on Club Penguin. As you look at them, try to imagine how you would feel as a little kid sitting alone in front of a computer screen reading such messages.

Note from editor Anne Collier: For more kinds of cyberbullying in kids' virtual worlds, see "Top 8 workarounds of kid virtual-world users" that I wrote, based on an interview with Sharon last summer. For an index of the complete Undercover Mom series to date, please click here.

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My avatar's talk: Online safety 2.0

I - or I should say my avatar Anny Khandr - recently gave some talks about safety on the social Web in the virtual world Second Life. The experiences were great fun and kind of magical on many levels. First, I'm giving my PowerPoint-enabled talk from an easy chair in my family room, using a mic plugged into my laptop. I'm watching myself (or the Anny Khandr cartoon version of me) standing next to my slides before an audience of amazing tech educators around the country, who are all probably listening from easy chairs in their houses too, but at the same time gathered in one place: a beautiful "outdoor" virtual lecture space, complete with stage, screen, benches, and ambient birdsong. We were "gathered" on one of ISTE's islands in Second Life (ISTE for the International Society for Technology in Education, of which both my audience and I are all members).

My, er, Anny's first talk - kindly arranged for by New Jersey tech educator Kevin Jarrett (aka "KJ Hax," who gives teacher tours: see this) - was in a bigger venue and had a substantial audience, but there were problems in the recording process. So the "machinima" you'll see is a more intimate talk I later gave to a small group of avatars/educators, some of whom amazingly came back for seconds! [A machinima is a kind of animated video, or moving screenshots - video recorded within virtual worlds - and can range in subject from "action" videos like what you see in videogames to videos of professionals' avatars giving PowerPoint presentations. Quite the range!] The recording of my talks was done by Marianne Malmstrom, aka the extremely clue-filled "Knowclue Kidd," another great teacher in New Jersey. The whole idea, I think, was Peggy Sheehy's. Peggy, literally a rockstar tech educator (a former rock vocalist), teaches in Suffern, N.Y., and on several islands in Second Life, where she/her avatar is known as Maggie Marat. These educators are the real magic of Second Life to me. If you opened your own account at, created an avatar, and teleported to ISTE Island, you'd experience what I have: the members' seemingly bottomless kindness and patience and what the tech education part of it has to teach about the gift economy (see this entry in Wikipedia).

The talk is best viewed here, but if anyone would like to download this animated 40-min. talk to their laptop as a better way to show it to fellow parents or educators, please feel free to download it here (it's a huge file, so it can be downloaded either in two parts or in full). Email me via anne(at) if you'd like my PPT notes, with links to all sources. If it's a cartoon, it's a serious one - maybe a little boring too, but also a snapshot of the latest research on social Web safety.

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Views of Net users young & old: Studies

Lots of international (individual and family) Internet-user data has been released via various studies this past week, courtesy of Symantec, Google, Yahoo, and Skype. Symantec's Norton Online Living Report was very family-oriented, having gathered the views of 9,000 adults and young people in 12 countries! Some interesting findings NetworkWorld led with were that "one in five children admitted getting caught doing something their parents didn't approve of," and parents are using a variety of means to keep better tabs on their kids online activities. "The UK, for example, has the highest usage of software to control Internet use," e.g., filtering or online curfews. A few other interesting findings: "1 in 5 online youth are more willing to communicate with their family about touchy subjects online than on the phone or in person" (great idea - let a text message about your concern kick off a calm parent-child conversation); "89% of online adults and 90% of online children agree that the benefits of using the Internet outweigh the risks," but 60% of parents feel kids spend too much time online. In another just-released sponsored by Google, Yahoo, and Skype, 90% of users in France, Germany, and the UK expect their Internet service providers to offer open and unrestricted access to the Web, Reuters reports. And the New York Times reports that a survey conducted in the US by TRUSTe, the privacy nonprofit, found that "more than 90% of respondents called online privacy a 'really' or 'somewhat' important issue." But in a separate story, the Times asks the good question, "When Everyone's a Friend, Is Anything Private?"

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Thursday, March 19, 2009

Self-published child porn in UK

I just posted on youth as self-published pornographer, but here's an exhaustive take on the subject from across the Atlantic. In the UK so far, 90 UK youth "have been cautioned as a result of posting sexual material of themselves or their underage friends online or on their mobile phones," the Daily Mail reports. I'll tell you more about the piece in a second but want to zoom right in on the operative word "cautioned." Not "arrested," which is what I'm seeing in too many news reports about sexting over here. That, I think, is what has to be law enforcement's role where sexting's concerned: helping youth understand the tragic, potentially life-changing implications of this behavior. Police are often called in when these incidents involving students occur, and rightly so because this is technically child pornography we're talking about, and producing and distributing such is a crime. But where minors are concerned, this is much more a behavioral than a criminal issue, and I feel it has to be dealt with as such. At the very least school counselors and parents need to be involved as well (I'd appreciate your thoughts on this via anne(at) or our forum at The article's exaggerated in places (e.g., "the avalanche of pornographic material beamed onto every computer screen unless it is actively blocked"), but the reporter, a foreign correspondent who'd just finished researching online pornography for BBC Radio 4 and - before talking with many UK secondary-school students about it - "was not prepared to hear they were also producing it" and to what extent. And she's a mother of three girls, 12, 14, and 15. "I spoke to children from a range of public and state schools. It is certainly not the case that this behaviour is being perpetrated by those from a deprived background or those who lack intelligence. In fact, it's the privileged, supposedly brightest youngsters who are most at risk," she reports.

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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Cellphones in the classroom

The cellphone industry says that, in promoting mobile learning, it's making a similar pitch as that of computer makers to educators since the 1980s, the New York Times reports. "The only difference now between smartphones and laptops, they say, is that cellphones are smaller, cheaper and more coveted by students." Cellphones are now computers. Mobile carriers point to an industry-funded "study of four North Carolina schools in low-income neighborhoods, where 9th- and 10th-grade math students were given high-end cellphones running Microsoft’s Windows Mobile software and special programs meant to help them with their algebra studies. The students used the phones for a variety of tasks, including recording themselves solving problems and posting the videos to a private social networking site, where classmates could watch. The study found that students with the phones performed 25% better on the end-of-the-year algebra exam than did students without the devices in similar classes." A huge factor, according to the teacher who administered the program, was her students' excitement about having the phones, which "made them collaborate and focus on their studies, even outside of school hours" - though it was tough for her to spend her evening hours monitoring the students' text messaging for program violations. See also "Mobile devices 'key to 21st-century learning'" about a study from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center.]

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Cellphones in cars

This is definitely good fuel for family discussion - why the National Safety Council recently "called for a nationwide ban on the use of cellphones while driving, citing overwhelming evidence of the risk of injuries and death from driver distraction," as reported in a commentary at the Christian Science Monitor. Or why California "banned texting behind the wheel and, along with several other states, prohibits the use of hand-held phones while allowing drivers to talk with hands-free devices." But even hands-free phone conversations in cars have been found to be risky. Because the risk is not where hands are (or aren't), it's in where the mind is. If the mind is elsewhere while driving, talking is risky even when both hands are free. Research at the University of Utah found that drivers talking on cellphones "performed no better, and by some measures worse, than drivers who were legally drunk," commentator Myron Levin adds. Meanwhile, 80% of cellphone owners make calls while driving, and nearly 20% send text messages, Levin cites a Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co. survey as finding. I'm thinking the discussion is only partly about phone in cars. There's a broader, deeper discussion about "presence" that needs to really kick in worldwide. We could talk with our children about how, when we're fully present in what we're doing any given moment - in a car driving, in a classroom listening to a teacher, or on the phone listening to a friend working through something, etc. - then the tools we use (cars, ears, phones) are more likely to be constructive and the experience more likely to be both safe and meaningful.

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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Cellphones = wireless connected computers

Landlines may be going away (see CNET), but don't think of cellphones merely as their replacement for voice communications - at least not if you're a parent. Because to get a better handle on how young people use phones, think of them as "the world's most ubiquitous computers," as the New York Times put it recently, adding that there are 4 billion mobile phones in use worldwide right now. The social network sites certainly get it. MySpace "has seen its mobile user base grow by 400% from last year, and now nearly 20 million users access the site through [mobile] phones," InformationWeek reports, and Facebook "is also looking to expand its mobile presence and is reportedly in talks with Nokia and Motorola for tighter integration into handsets." (BTW, on the landline subject, CNET reported that 17.5% of US households depended solely on cellphones for their phone communications during the first half of 2008, up from 13.6% a year earlier.)

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How 1 county is dealing with sexting

In western Massachusetts, the Berkshire County district attorney plans to "produce anti-sexting programs that will begin airing in county schools this spring," the Berkshire Eagle reports. His goal is to keep the problem from growing - he told the Eagle "he would prefer to deal with such matters outside the criminal justice system. If need be, though, offenders could be charged with any of a number of felony crimes." He didn't name the high school where the incident happened because he said he didn't want to stigmatize it, but "more than a dozen students were implicated in the sexting incident, which involved the circulation of explicit photos of a local girl.... No one has been criminally charged in connection with the case. [For other perspectives on the subject, see Slate's "Textual misconduct" and The American Culture blog's "Normalization of Pornography Cited in Texting Issue."]

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Monday, March 16, 2009

Kids as inadvertent child pornographers

To sometimes tragic effect, that is what the usually impulsive, unthinking behavior behind sexting can lead to: child child pornographers. "A growing number of teens are ending up in serious trouble for sending racy photos with their cellphones. Police have investigated more than two dozen teens in at least six states this year for sending nude images of themselves in cellphone text messages, which can bring a charge of distributing child pornography," USATODAY reports. The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children told USATODAY that, of the 2,100 children it has identified as victims of online porn, a quarter of them "initially sent the images themselves" - photos that can end up mixed in with adult-produced child-abuse images circulating online (Austrian police just reported breaking up a child porn ring operating in 170 countries, the International Herald Tribune reports). Two teens 15 and 18 were recently charged with soliciting and possessing child porn with the intent to distribute after seeking nude pictures from three other kids, one in elementary school, USATODAY adds. This is why I feel critical thinking - about what they send and upload as much as what they receive and download - is essential to youth online safety going forward. Have your kids either read this item or the full USATODAY piece, and they'll probably think twice about being manipulated or impulsive in this way and may even help a friend avoid being so. [See also "Social media literacy: The new Internet safety," "Teen suicide over sexting," and a number of other NFN items on sexting.]

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