Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Webkinz fun for all

I am wrapping up my series on online virtual worlds for children with a look at Webkinz.com. Webkinz is a site designed around the popular stuffed animals that you purchase at a retail store. If you have a child, you are probably already familiar with webkinz stuffed animals. To sign up for the website you must have a webkinz stuffed animal which will have a tag attached to it. Simply create a user name, password and provide the information found on the tag of the animal. The most important thing to remember is that you must keep track of your user name and password or your child will not be able to manage their registered animals.
The entire content of the site is very kid friendly. Children from 6 and up can find an activity that is suitable for them. Many of the games within Webkinz promote education and are age appropriate.
There is the ability to "chat" with other players within Clubhouse chat rooms. There are two available: KinzChat and KinzChat Plus. In KinzChat members select pre-constructed messages from chat menus. Members CANNOT type in their own messages. In KinzChat Plus messages are limited to words from a restricted dictionary. To enter the KinzChat Plus area, most members need parental permission. The parent can set access controls in the Parent's Area.
Overall, Webkinz is a fun and safe place for kids to get a start at online virtual worlds.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Watch out for WeeWorld

I have started this mission of researching Virtual Worlds designed for children. During my research I found that my 10 year old daughter has an account for Wee World. Now I remember her asking me if she could join and I remember her saying that it was like Club Penguin. Well I am here to tell you that it is NOT like Club Penguin. I have suspended my daughter's Wee World account. This is why...
I noticed that several people had sent my daughter friend invites (similar to myspace). When I logged into her account, I noticed that most of the chats revolved around her WeeMee (her virtual character) being "hot". She had several requests from boys asking if she would be their girlfriend. She had comments about how they "would like to have ***" with her.
I found that she lied about her age to gain access to the site which you must be over 13 to join - a little detail that she forgot to tell me. It was easy for her to lie about her age and gain access to the site.
To get started on WeeWorld, your child designs a WeeMee. They pick body color, eye color, and are able to accentuate body parts like their chest. This is an image of a Mee under design:
I am glad that they have covered the private areas. Oh My!
Once the child designs the Mee they are able to and encouraged to make new friends. They are having a contest for the Mee that sends the most friend invites. The site also offers a Mee look a like contest. I noticed that some of the contest entries are adults well over the age of 18. I am not comfortable with my young daughter or even my 14 year old daughter being encouraged to chat with other people that are over the age of 18. I know that it is my responsibility to keep my child safe online, however, this site is targeted to children, unlike a site like myspace that is targeted to teens and adults.

Their safety policies are also very vague. They go into detail about how to protect your child online. They put the responsibility on the parent to police your child's behavior online. They state that they have filters for inappropriate language but they ask that the child report any abuse. This warning message is listed in their Safety Advice area:
"Remember the person you are in contact with may not be who they say they are. If you are under the age of 18, speak to a trusted adult before arranging to meet someone in the real world."

In fairness of WeeWorld, here is the link to the Safety Advice section of WeeWorld for you to view (it is too long to copy within the text). http://www.weeworld.com/popups/safetyAdvice.aspx#safety

Based on reading the Safety Advice and spending time on my daughter's WeeWorld account, I think that it is important to know that this Virtual World is intended for children over 13. Make sure that if your child is under 13 that you do not allow them to sign up for this. I am writing this to warn parents of the potential danger for children of all ages. I hope this helps you make an informed decision.

Monday, March 10, 2008

What Every Mom Should Know about Club Penguin

Just how many times a day do you hear the question, "Mom can I get on Club Penguin"? When my girls aren't watching yet another episode of Hannah Montana or The Suite Life, they are begging me to log them into Club Penguin. If you are like me, you are and should be very careful about the websites your children visit. So, I have taken some time to research Club Penguin. Hopefully you will find this helpful in your decision to let your kids participate on Club Penguin.

Club Penguin Overview: Club Penguin is known as a virtual world. Club Penguin was recently purchased by Disney. The intended audience are children 6-14 years old. Of course it is open for children or anyone of any age. The intention is for children to create a penguin character of their own and to chat with or play games with other penguin characters. When the penguin characters play games the players earn coins that allow them to purchase accessories for their penguins. The site is set up to accept players for free with limited privileges. The players that select to subscribe for $5.95/month have the ability to decorate their own igloos and buy clothing. My daughters have a free account and they are perfectly happy with all the activities available to them. It is easy to join Club Penguin, the child simply requests access to the site by starting a new account. The child must read and accept the terms (rules) of the site. The child then creates and names their penguin. Then the parent is sent an email asking for confirmation that it is OK for the child to have a penguin. The process of starting an account is best done with the parent; otherwise your child will have to wait for the parent to complete the confirmation before they can play.

Safety on Club Penguin: Of course this was my major concern. I know that predators like to disguise themselves as children to gain personal information about the children. In studying the set-up of Club Penguin I have found several safeguards that help prevent any harm to children. First, most activity inside the virtual world is moderated by an adult employee of Club Penguin. Moderators watch and filter the chats between players. I am not 100% positive that all chat areas are moderated. My intention is to contact Club Penguin and get clarity on the subject. The following is an excerpt from Club Penguin's Parent's Player Safety area:
  • Chat Safely As part of its commitment to creating a safe online environment for children and their families, Club Penguin employs a large number of highly trained, on site staff to monitor activity and chat, and provide personalized player support. Club Penguin also offers two chat options:
  • Ultimate Safe Chat limits what users can say to a predefined menu of greetings, questions and statements, as well as emotes, actions and greeting cards. When it comes to 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 is filtered to allow only pre-approved words and phrases, and block attempts to communicate a phone number or other personal information.
  • Although the filter is continuously updated, comments that could be offensive to some players may occasionally get through. In order to limit that and further protect the security of participants, moderators monitor what’s going on and receive player reports of misconduct. An “M” icon on the upper, right-hand portion of the screen reminds participants a moderator is available to help. Players who engage in inappropriate behavior can be silenced or banned.
The rules state that the player could be silenced or banned for using inappropriate language or conduct (like revealing personal information). My experience with the site is that a player's account is suspended for a set amount of time if they break the rules.

At this point, I feel that Club Penguin is safe for children. I will be researching further to see if I can find danger zones or weaknesses within the site.

Update 3/13/08

I contacted Club Penguin and their Corporate Communications Manager was kind enough to provide more information about the safeguards that they have as well as their mission of keeping children safe online. The following is their response:

Your blog seems to cover most of the bases, although we really are more specifically classified as a virtual world than a social network. I think of a social network as someplace like Facebook where you’re encouraged to post photos and personal information and since everything at Club Penguin discourages that, and users are represented as cartoon avatars, I wouldn’t put us in the same category.

We are strongly committed to making Club Penguin a safe and fun online destination for children and, as the founders and many of the staff are parents themselves, it’s a commitment we all take very seriously.

Although we have very strong technological safeguards (such as our filter) in place to ensure appropriate behaviour on the site, we all realize that technology can’t do everything. That’s why we focus a large percentage of our company resources on our highly-trained, onsite customer support team, which consists of more than 100 people whose sole purpose is to monitor activity and chat on the site, respond to player questions and reports of misconduct, and screen penguin names to ensure they meet our guidelines.

An important aspect of Club Penguin and its level of safety stems directly from the fact that we encourage children to be stewards of the site. They feel a strong sense of ownership and responsibility for Club Penguin and the majority of our users are vigilant about following the rules and doing their part to ensure others do too. The sense of community and shared responsibility amongst Club Penguin users for the continued level of comfort and safety on the site is very impressive and plays a big role in keeping Club Penguin the kind of place children and families want to spend time.

Good luck with your blog. Please let me know if I can provide any more information in the future. We have a great new game that just launched which has some fantastic intentional educational outcomes and it might be something other moms would like to hear about. If you visit the upstairs room of the coffee shop and click on the library, just look for the two “Paint By Letters” books to try it out.