It stands to reason that bullying happens in kids' virtual worlds (e.g., Club Penguin, Webkinz, Neopets, Nicktropolis, etc.), because, well, it happens in school, instant messaging, and social-networking sites. But I hadn't learned how it happened until Sharon Duke Estroff called me about it. The Atlanta-based parenting columnist, former elementary school teacher, kids' pop culture expert, author, and mother of four spent a couple of weeks in Club Penguin to learn what her eight-year-old son might experience there. She didn't like everything she saw.
Having occasionally watched my own son waddle around and play games in Club Penguin and thought it was pretty cute, I asked her why. Sharon – who will tell you that she's definitely not an overreactor where parenting's concerned – proceeded to tell me what she learned about digital pre-adolescent behavior in CP (and I have no doubt similar experiences are to be had in every other virtual playground on the Web).
Not that her CP time was all bad, of course, but there were some "Lord of the Flies moments" just like in real-life elementary school, and I thought you'd like to know what the virtual versions look like – techniques kids have developed for beating the system so they can move all that social behavior at school, good and bad, online. Simply put, they're "workarounds"- some but not all about meanness or bullying. So I boiled the behavioral parts of what Sharon told me down to a list of eight (note how sophisticated these workarounds' young creators are):
1. Beating the language filter. Putting consecutive words in separate message "bubbles," spaces between letters, creative capitalization and punctuation, etc. – whatever it takes to say what they like, including mean stuff and invitations to "visit me alone in my igloo."
2. Code lingo. Not just POS ("parent over shoulder") or ROTFL ("rolling on the floor laughing"), but text-formatting tricks that get around safe-language rules: e.g., if language filters don't allow numbers, kids share their ages by expressing them in dots. For example, they ask, "How many dots are you?" and get back: "I'm ………"
3. ID theft, kid-style. One of the cardinal rules of online safety is never to share your password because best friends sometimes become non-friends and can impersonate and embarrass you. Password-sharing, however, is rampant in kid virtual worlds – a popular way of offering and accepting best-friend status. It becomes a problem when your "best friend" logs on as your avatar and makes it break the rules so you get kicked out.
4. Stealing virtual possessions. Kids also use peers' passwords to steal their virtual clothes, furniture, and other in-world possessions so the victims have to start over or walk around as naked avatars and so the thief, succumbing to some sort of pre-adolescent digital version of "keeping up with the Joneses," can add to his/her in-world prestige (as well as the real-world kind – because, Sharon said, a lot of penguins know each other as humans at school too).
5. Abusing abuse reporting. The digital version of tattling: being mean by reporting avatars just so they get privileges taken away. "Kids can report other kids for all kinds of vague reasons, but they don't have to give a reason – all they have to do is press a button on the player card and the complaint goes straight to the monitor," Sharon said.
6. Using safety features to bully. Using blocking, ghosting, ignoring, and other in-world user-security tools to ostracize a kid or make it clear he's not a member of "the club" – whatever the club-of-the-moment is.
7. Digital "Spin the Bottle." Those pre-teen games for exploring dating and sexuality have moved into cyberspace. Kids manipulate their avatars and a virtual world's systems to create opportunities to explore virtual sexuality too. An example in Club Penguin: "Spin the Fish," only the fish doesn't spin; "you have to pretend it does," according to young CP lifestyles blogger Imatweetybrd, whose blog Sharon found. "You either say 'I'll spin!' or someone will tell you to spin. Then, most likely, you are just going to say 'spin,' then 'it landed on [the penguin's name that you like most]. At that point, you go up the person and say 'mwah.' Then your turn's over. Your penguin might like you back and ask you out or maybe you want to ask him out, then you guys can leave the game or whatever."
8. Kid avatars have cheats too. Just because the person behind the avatar is only nine years old certainly does not mean s/he's any less savvy about how to find cheats to beat the game and make coins or points a lot faster in order to have a bigger place of residence and more clothes, puffles, and furniture. The kid just types the name of an in-world game into a Web search engine and turns up hundreds of tips, or "cheats," as they're called – situation normal in the world of videogames (clearly also for people of younger and younger age, we now see).
First it should be acknowledged that there are plenty of positive and just plain fun things about Club Penguin too (check out its kid philanthropy feature). It's possible the average child user (probably 7-10 – not teen hackers like Mike 92 in Related links below) could experience or use one or two of the above workarounds, but not likely all, unless he or she is looking for trouble, feeling mean, or really into power in a social sort of way. Putting all the workarounds together here is designed only to help parents ask intelligent questions.
My 11-year-old was an avid CP user for a few weeks last year, but he never noticed any of the above except a few cheats (penguins a little too good at some games) and occasional meanness – trigger-happy abuse reporters or safety-feature abusers – and none of it ruined his fun in CP, but CP also wasn't the all of his entertainment or social life (balanced lives do help us not take certain things too seriously). The workarounds only confirm for me that, wherever kids are online, alertness and critical thinking are needed on the part of children as well as parents. Club Penguin and other kid virtual worlds are not babysitters! But they are great social-networking training for both participants and parents. They offer many teachable moments for learning all kinds of things: e.g., how to treat others online as well as offline, how to be a good citizen and friend, how to detect social and commercial manipulation, how to deal with peer pressure and group think, and even how to be a leader.
Readers, we'd love to hear about your children's virtual-world experiences in the ConnectSafely.org forum. Email's ok too, via firstname.lastname@example.org.
* Visual aids: "Club Penguin Robbery" video at YouTube in which director/producer/penguin Mike 92 robs Club Penguin's bank and gets his just desserts (here's his cheats site). I'm guessing Mike is a teenager who uses CP as a hacking and video-producing creative outlet (hacking isn't necessarily illegal or malicious). Another, more bird's-eye view of cheating the systems is "How to move peoples stuff on Club Penguin."
* Numbers: "As of last month [4/08], more than 100 new virtual worlds had started up or were in development," the New York Times reports. "Many sites such as Empire of Sports, Planet Cazmo and Xivio are aimed at so-called tweens, ages 8 to 12…. This year, more than 12 million children nationwide under the age of 18 will visit at least one of these sites, and that number will grow to 20 million by 2011," the Times adds, citing eMarketer research.
* For some nearly original digital kid anthropology research, surf around the Club Penguin Coolers blog.
* Sharon Duke Estroff's bio Web site
* Good for dinnertable discussion: "How social influencing works"
* ConnectSafely.org's Safety Tips & Advice page