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.