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 ClubPenguin.com, 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.)
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?