Sites let preteens network online

Sites let preteens network online

By ANICK JESDANUN, AP Internet Writer7.12.2007

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This past spring, 10-year-old Adam Young joined other tweens on Club
Penguin, playing games, throwing virtual snowballs and chatting with
fellow kids who appear onscreen as plump cartoon penguins. A few weeks
later, Adam asked Mom to pay $5 a month for extra features, such as
decorating his online persona’s igloo.

 Karen Young demanded to learn more about what some have billed as
"training wheels" for the next MySpace generation. She spent time on
the site with Adam and consulted with her sister, the mother of another
daily visitor.

"I said, `Well, what is it? What does it involve?’" Young recalled.
"I wanted him to show me what he wanted and what it was about."

Drawing preteens as young as 6 or 7, sites like Club Penguin and
Webkinz are forcing parents to decide at what age they are willing to
let their children roam about and interact with friends online. They,
along with schools, are having to teach earlier lessons on safety,
etiquette and balance with offline activities.

"It’s kind of like what happened in the real world with Cabbage
Patch dolls and Beanie Babies," said Monique Nelson, executive vice
president of Web Wise Kids, a nonprofit focused on Internet safety for
children. "Their friends are doing it, so like kids who follow like
sheep, they go online and go on these sites."

According to comScore Media Metrix, U.S. visitors to Club Penguin
nearly tripled over the past year, while Webkinz’ grew 13 times.

Peggy Meszaros, a professor of human development at Virginia Tech,
said kids’ identities begin to blossom by 8 and they start wanting to
meet other children, so these sites may become their introduction to
social networking. But she said kids that age would get much more
"going to the swimming pool and meeting friends face to face," making
parental oversight of online usage ever-important.

Young, a first-grade teacher in Louisville, Ky., ultimately deemed
the environment relatively safe and agreed to pay for a membership.
Unlike News Corp.’s MySpace, the anything-goes site frequented by
Young’s older son, Club Penguin limits what kids can say to one
another, reducing the risks of predators and online bullying.

That sentiment was echoed by Tony Bayliss, father of 7-year-old
Maisie in England. Club Penguin is the only site Bayliss lets Maisie
visit unsupervised; Bayliss also has a cartoon penguin of his own and
visits his daughter online while traveling.

"It’s what the future is," Bayliss said of the online environment. "It’s what she’s going to be using for the rest of her life."

Club Penguin was started more than a year ago as "an online
playground for kids," said Lane Merrifield, the site’s co-founder and
chief executive. "How can we take the fun pieces of these more grown-up
and adult (social-networking) sites and surround them in a safe
environment?"

Kids win gold coins by playing games such as sled racing and, with a
paid membership, buy virtual items like furniture and clothing. Kids
can attend parties and make friends by adding other penguins to their
buddy lists.

The site, from Canada’s New Horizon Interactive Ltd., does not try
to keep out older users — after all, anyone can lie about age. Rather,
it builds in controls meant to curb outside contact and harassment. The
company says it has never had a problem with predators.

Parents can choose an "ultimate safe" mode, meaning chat messages
sent and received are limited to prewritten phrases, such as "How are
you today?"

In the standard mode, kids can type messages like any other chat
program, but only the sender sees messages containing foul language and
even innocent-sounding words such as "mom" — to prevent someone from
asking, "Is your mom home?" Senders would think they are being ignored
and not try tricks to bypass filters.

The filters also catch numbers that might form a phone number a kid
is trying to share, even if someone tries to replace "1" with "one."

Veterans can apply to become "secret agents," responsible for
patrolling the site and reporting bad behavior, and violations can get
a kid banned for a day or longer.

Likewise, Webkinz limits chats by permitting only prewritten phrases, and e-cards go only to those already on friends lists.

Kids take quizzes or perform chores to earn "KinzCash" to buy furniture
for their virtual room and food for their virtual pet. They must return
to the site regularly to keep their pets fed and healthy; otherwise,
it’s a trip to Dr. Quack for medical care, though the pets themselves
never die.

Unlike Club Penguin, though, access to the Canadian-based site
from Ganz is restricted to those who buy a Webkinz plush toy at a
retail store for about $15, many of which have been selling out because
of high demand. Think Beanie Babies with an online component. A code on
each toy unlocks the site for a year.

Both sites do require some reading skills, though younger kids can participate with older siblings or parents.

Other popular tween online hangouts include Millsberry, a
General Mills Inc. site that promotes good eating but features product
placements for its cereals, and Numedeon Inc.’s Whyville, where tweens
play games and earn clams.

Although these social-networking precursors for tweens tend to
incorporate more safety measures than MySpace, Facebook and other sites
geared toward teenagers and adults, experts warn that parents can’t
simply sign their kids on and leave them there, especially during the
summer months when kids have more time to spend online.

"We want them to develop and grow physically, spiritually and
emotionally," Meszaros said. "If they are on the computer three or four
hours a day, that’s time they could be doing other things. Parents need
to be monitoring."

Step one is to decide whether kids should be there at all.

Jane Healy, author of "Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect
Our Children’s Minds — for Better and Worse," said kids may feel they
are "going to be a hopeless social failure" if they can’t participate.

Advocates say the controlled environment can teach kids
important lessons about typing, communicating, caring for pets and
budgeting — they must learn to work and save for the trampoline they
want for their virtual room.

But Healy said these sites also teach kids to be "a good
consuming member of the consuming culture (and) to need stuff to be
considered successful or good."

She urges caution in opening the door to "powerful forces out
there trying to intrude into your family life and personal relations
with your child." Not only do these sites introduce commercialism, she
said, but they also can take kids away from offline environments where
they can learn to pick up body language and facial expressions.

Software tools are available to help parents control Internet
activities, including use of these sites. Monitoring software can
record a kid’s chat conversations and whereabouts — secretly if the
parent wishes. Other tools, some available for free, aim to block porn
or limit when or how long a child can be online.

Parents should at least keep computers in an open room and surf
the Web side-by-side with their kids now and then. A discussion on time
limits is important because rules are far easier to impose from the
beginning, and Club Penguin will soon introduce a feature for parents
to set such limits on the site.

"As soon as the egg timer comes up, we’re going to have a list of activities they can do outside," Merrifield said.

Parents should also start addressing safety and online etiquette.

"They can’t be there every time they go online …. so it’s even
more important to spend more time up front teaching them how to be safe
and smart," said Susan Sachs, chief operating officer with the
nonprofit Common Sense Media.

It helps that many parents are now using the Internet not just
for work but also for recreation, information sharing and other social
interaction.

"When kids start to use technology, (parents) can be much more
part of the process, as opposed to, `Gee, this is all new and strange
to me. I don’t want you using it,’" said Peter Grunwald, a researcher
who specializes in kids and technology.

Nonetheless, Grunwald said, "kids are using online services at
an earlier age, and that means parents do have to exercise their role
as parents and be mindful of it at an earlier age than, say, seven,
eight or nine years ago."

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