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Teach Your Children Well

June 8th, 2007 · 6 Comments

Ygz is creeped out by Caitlin Flanagan’s description of a social networking site for the Spongebob set:

What fun they had! Club Penguin is a cute, happy virtual world in which you create an adorable little penguin in whose guise you can travel to all sorts of fun spots and play video games (making pizzas against the clock, playing ice hockey, going inner-tubing), for which you win coins. With the coins you can buy clothes and furniture and cool stuff for your virtual igloo. The boys loved it. Everyone loved it. Club Penguin was the most happening event of the second grade; to be denied it was to be denied not just a pleasure but an essential mode of schoolyard discussion and inclusion, a way of being a second-grader.

But I never let them play again, because something about it scared me: The penguins could chat with each other. True, the chatting is monitored by paid professionals and a citizens’ army of tattlers, children who’ve been members for more than 30 days and who’ve been commissioned as “Secret Agents” to loiter in the public spaces and report on inappropriate chat, including the exchange of telephone numbers and e-mail addresses. But these protocols only highlight the paradox at Club Penguin’s core: It’s certainly the safest way for unsupervised children to talk to potentially malevolent strangers—but why would you want them to do that in the first place?

I’m not quite as disturbed as he is by the whole Young Pioneers setup, but I wonder if this level of parental paranoia is common. As I recall, I wasn’t all that much older than Flanagan’s kids when I was running a BBS, and while doubtless my parents would not have approved my surreptitious downloading of grainy nudie-pics at an agonizing 2400 bps, I like to think this was not ultimately all that scarring, and I know that the sense of autonomy and competence that grew out of being able to create this sort of successful space was an important formative experience.

Yes, of course, there are creepy people out there. But something seems awfully blinkered about a view of the Internet as, above all, a haven for predators and pederasts. And all the software filters and moderator oversight in the world aren’t going to be as effective as simply making sure that your kids understand the importance of never giving out their real names, e-mails, or addresses. If a child doesn’t give out that information, online creeps just aren’t going to get it. You can’t blame parents for being alarmed at all the awful stories of the kids who have been victimized, but the Internet is probably safer for a properly informed and circumspect child than, say, the stroll home from school. All the technological baffles might help, but I’d think the best way to ensure a child’s online safety would be to start teaching them early how to protect themselves.

Tags: Nannyism



6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Grant Gould // Jun 9, 2007 at 6:08 am

    The solution to free speech, to many minds, is no speech at all.

  • 2 Dave Schoonover // Jun 9, 2007 at 11:27 am

    You’d probably be interested in reading this. That article–as well as much of the rest of the site–are the musings of a wizened developer of virtual communities. Some great anecdotes and thoughts on just these problems.

    The one I linked above is specifically about Disney’s similarly draconian chat policy… which spawned “BlockChat”. It’s awfully hard to stop people from communicating.

  • 3 Christine // Jun 9, 2007 at 7:08 pm

    Chatting online can definitely be dangerous. Email accounts for kids, like offered on zilladog.com, are safe and fun for kids to communicate over the internet. It takes a couple minutes to set up and the parents can feel confident that their kids can only chat to people they know.

  • 4 Julian Elson // Jun 9, 2007 at 11:20 pm

    I don’t see how downloading nudie pics with a 2400 bps modem could fail to be scarring. I’d think you’d need at least a 14.4 kbps to avoid serious psychological damage from the sheer frustration.

  • 5 Tom G // Jun 11, 2007 at 8:26 am

    It’s part of the whole right-wing anti-science (and fear appeal) deal…I don’t claim its a plot, or even deliberate, but the bias shows. I’ve heard way too many radio shows that only talk about the Internet as a danger zone, never as useful. They really don’t trust it, deep down. Obviously they don’t trust PARENTS either.

  • 6 JOhn // Jun 12, 2007 at 4:54 pm

    Yomod (www.yomod.com) is a website that just launched that is designed to comply with COPPA (Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act) and is really pushing a safe but fun online experience for kids. I would be interested in what you all think.

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