Mar 09 2008
Friday evening my oldest son asked me “Dad, can I join Club Penguin?” I’d heard of Club Penguin before, when Jeremiah Owyang had written it up, but I really didn’t give it much thought after that. It’s a social media/virtual world for children ages six to fourteen owned an managed by Disney. So when my son asked if he could join, I clenched my teeth and told him I’d talk to his mother about it. Little did I know at the time that she’d already told him to talk to me. I was tense about it, because I knew I couldn’t let my eight-year-old participate in this social networking tool unless I let my six-year-old play too.
I did some research this morning on Club Penguin, starting with their “Parents of Penguins” page and moving on to a Google Search. I wasn’t able to find any truly negative reviews, though a few borderline examples did exist. What I found out is that Club Penguin is a social media experiment started by three fathers in Canada and then purchased by Disney. They heavily monitor activity on the site, there are language filters in place and I, as the parent, have control over their accounts. As much as I wish I could have found something that would have allowed me to say no to them, it just isn’t there to be found.
The sign up process was fairly simple and basically just required a valid email address to send the account activation code to. I think this is a weak point of the system because there’s no verification that the email account belongs to an adult, but in my kids case, they don’t have email yet. There are a number of good, common sense hints on the Player Safety page, such as “Don’t use your real name for your account name.” As part of the account creation process you’re asked if you want to allow your children to use Standard Safe Chat or Ultimate Safe Chat. I allowed my older son to have the standard while I placed my youngest son in the Ultimate category. Using the Ultimate Safe Chat, the parent has a password that must be typed in to change to Standard Safe Chat. Both of these have decent filters, but several articles state they can be gotten around using some of the standard schemes, like putting spaces between the letters. I haven’t tested this yet.
Each of the boys got their own accounts with names they made up with a little help and they got to choose their own penguins. They each have a password that exceeds the site’s minimum requirements and I made each brother leave the room when we were typing in the other boy’s password. We sat down and discussed what is appropriate behavior online and what is not. I guess I’ve talked about it enough in the past because they both knew that telling anyone their real name, phone number or address is a no-no, which makes me feel I’m doing my job. We then came up with three rules for using Club Penguin and added a fourth while they were playing. We wrote out the rules, posted them on the wall next to their computer and let them go at it for an hour. I let my youngest play on my Mac Book Pro and they finally found each other and started to throw snowballs at each other online. Everything in Club Penguin is Flash-based, happens in the browser and works fine on the MBP in Firefox, after I approved it in No-Script.
My boys are growing up and I’m sure this is only the first social media/virtual reality tool they’ll want to use. They already play a version of Pokemon online using the Wii, which is why the know the rule about not telling anyone their real name. But the Pokemon game is just battling other Pokemon masters (Why, oh why do I actually know what they’re called?) where as Club Penguin was created from the start up to be a social space. The tools to do this are only going to get more complex, easier to use and, I assume, more integrated with standard web pages, making it harder to distinguish when you’re in the social space. I hope I’m giving them the right grounding to be able to understand what’s acceptable and what’s not online.
As much as I’m cautious about Club Penguin, I know it’s safer than letting them go to the park at the end of the street. There are more automated safeguards in Club Penguin than there ever be at the park. But as Bruce Schneier sometimes points out, we tend to place more weight on the dangers we don’t understand than the ones we know and deal with on a daily basis.
Our four rules for Club Penguin, posted on the wall next to the computer:
- Club Penguin is a privilege, not a right
- The door to your room has to be open or you have to play Club Penguin on a computer in the common area
- Tell Mommy or Daddy immediately if anyone asks you for your real name, address or phone number.
- No logging into your brother’s account!!
Have I missed anything major? I’ll be sure to post if there are any major updates.
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