My 11-year-old son is permitted to go online for 30 minutes a day, after homework of course, and perhaps a tad longer on weekends. More often than not, he calls up his friends to arrange a rendezvous at www.clubpenguin.com, an online hang-out for kids, to chat, play and generally goof around in their chubby penguin avatars. Club Penguin has created quite a buzz and caught the imagination among his set (remember Pokemon cards and Beyblade?) and like sheep, they all follow online to a site which some have billed as “training wheels” for the next MySpace generation.
What Club Penguin does is to take the fun pieces of the more grown-up and adult social networking sites and surround them in a safe environment. Kids have their own customized penguin avatar in this colourful, fun world and compete with other “penguins” in indoor and outdoor games, eat pizzas and buy pets to care for. They can interact with other penguins by chatting, sending greeting cards or using emoticons (emotion icons) and a set of predefined actions. By helping other participants and playing games, players earn virtual coins which can be used to buy
clothing and accessories for their penguin or furniture for their igloo.
What I like is that Club Penguin provides a safe introduction for kids to social networking. The Ultimate Safe Chat mode option limits what users can say to a predefined menu of greetings, questions and statements, as well as emotes, actions and greeting cards. While chatting, these users can only see other Ultimate Safe Chat messages. Standard Safe Chat allows players to type their own messages to other users. Every message first goes through a sophisticated filter that blocks inappropriate words and phrases. The filter also breaks up words and phrases phonetically in order to decipher and catch codes or other methods to communicate a phone number or other personal information. In addition, moderators monitor what’s going on and receive player reports of misconduct. Players who engage in inappropriate behaviour can be silenced or banned.
I don’t mind the fact that my son loves going online on Club Penguin as long as it is balanced by real life, face-to-face social interaction, say at the swimming pool with kids his own age. The rise of social gaming sites for kids at younger ages means my wife and I need to start talking to our kids about safe online communication at ages earlier than we may have thought we have to. Although these social-networking precursors for kids have more safety measures than MySpace, Facebook, Orkut and other sites geared towards teenagers and adults, experts warn that parents can’t simply sign their kids on and leave them there. We can’t be there every time my kids go online so it’s even more important to spend more time upfront teaching them how to be safe and smart. Dropping your children off online is like dropping them off in a mall unsupervised. Just as you monitor what type of books or magazines your child is permitted to read—so should you approach the Internet issue in your home. There is a great deal of easily accessed pornography. There are predators and bullies who would harass your child. There are sites that promote any activity you can think of that you would prtotect your child from.
Just like any safety issue, it’s a good idea to talk with your kids about your concerns, take advantage of resources to protect them from potential dangers, and keep a close eye on their activities. There are online tools that you can use to control your child’s access to adult material and help protect your child from Internet predators. Filtering programs can block sites from coming in and restrict your child’s personal information from being sent online. You can also find programs to monitor and track your child’s online activity. No option is going to guarantee that your child will be 100% risk-free on the Internet, so it’s important that you be aware of your child’s computer activity and educate your child about online risks. By becoming computer literate and by taking an active role in your child’s Internet activities, you’ll be ensuring that he or she can benefit from the wealth of valuable information the Internet has to offer, without being exposed to any potential dangers.
As working parents who may not be present all the time, my wife and I have a written pact with our kids that I found at http://www.safekids.com/kidsrules.htm tacked on to their computer table.
* I will tell my parents right away if I come across any information that makes me feel uncomfortable.
* I will never agree to get together with someone I “meet” online without first checking with my parents. If my parents agree to the meeting, I will be sure that it is in a public place and bring my mother or father along.
* I will never send a person my picture or anything else without first checking with my parents.
* I will not respond to any messages that are mean or in any way make me feel uncomfortable. It is not my fault if I get a message like that. If I do, I will tell my parents right away so that they can contact the service provider.
* I will talk with my parents so that we can set up rules for going online. We will decide upon the time of day that I can be online, the length of time I can be online and appropriate areas for me to visit. I will not access other areas or break these rules without their permission.
* I will not give out my Internet password to anyone (even my best friends) other than my parents.
* I will check with my parents before downloading or installing software or doing anything that could possibly hurt our computer or jeopardize my family’s privacy.
* I will be a good online citizen and not do anything that hurts other people or is against the law.
* I will help my parents understand how to have fun and learn things online and teach them things about the Internet, computers and other technology.
* I will not give out personal information, such as my address, telephone number, parents’ work address/telephone number or the name and location of my school without my parents’ permission.
And while you are reading this on Saturday morning, I’ll be at Club Penguin throwing snowballs at my kids.
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