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Do you let your children talk to strangers online?

Sometime around the age of six (or even earlier, if there are older siblings involved) children stop nagging for Hot Wheels and Bratz Dolls and start nagging for a Club Penguin or Moshi Monsters account. The reasons they give for this are as follows:

1) EVERYONE else at school has a Moshi Monsters / Club Penguin account. And probably both.

2) You can own virtual pets called puffles or moshlings that are SO CUTE.

3) You can earn coins or rox to buy things online, which is SUPER FUN!

4) Did I mention that EVERYONE ELSE has one?

So you cave in and open an account on one or both of these sites for your child. After all, it’s free and they get to play general knowledge games that could vaguely be considered educational. And for a while your child is quietly and happily absorbed in this virtual world. Your child is probably also more sedentary than ever before, but hey, I’m a mom too, and the blessings of a bit of peace and quiet can hardly be overestimated.

Just when the quiz-answering, game-playing and rox-collecting start to pall, your child will discover the real reason behind the overwhelming worldwide popularity of sites like Club Penguin and Moshi Monsters — which is to say the live-chat function. Children join these sites under an assumed user name, such as “Koolkidzrule” or “Bieberrox333”, and an avatar image, such as this:

Or this:

Much like on Facebook, they can send and accept friend requests. Once they have added someone as a friend, they can exchange short live-chat messages with that person. It is a status symbol among children to accumulate as many virtual friends as possible. But if you’re a parent, you already knew that, didn’t you? Kids will turn anything into a competitive sport.

On Club Penguin you have the option of signing your child up for “safe chat”, which is a facility that limits the messages the child can send and receive to certain set phrases, like “Hi!” and “Nice igloo!” and so forth. It will take your child approximately 48 hours to become bored with “safe chat”. On Moshi Monsters there is no such option. Users can send each other any message they like. There is a facility to report users for misconduct, and the site supposedly has keyword filters to protect children from obscenity or profanity.

Before long your child will be chatting up a storm. He or she will swap user names with friends at school and spend hours chatting online. Sites like Moshi Monsters are especially popular among children who haven’t received their first mobile phones yet. And by that I mean the under-10s. From the age of 10 and up, cellphones have become the rule rather than the exception among middle-class children. And the vast majority of these are smartphones, with BlackBerry leading the pack, thanks to its free BBM service.

Chatting to friends is one thing, but chatting to strangers hiding behind cute little penguin avatars is quite another. Because however much you may preach to the contrary, very young children will always assume that the person behind the avatar is a child just like themselves.

As a parent it is far, far easier not to worry about these issues. Moshi Monsters and Club Penguin keep our children quiet and occupied for hours. So why mess with a good thing? And besides, what’s the worst that could happen?

I recently decided to shake off my apathy and investigate further. I made my children give me their passwords and warned them I’d be going onto their accounts to conduct a spot check. What I found filled me with a certain disquiet. There were messages from strangers asking my children what their real names were, where they lived, and what their passwords were. Not one of my supposedly intelligent and computer-savvy children had seen fit to mention these messages to me. When I asked them why not, they responded with blank shrugs.

Since that day, a new regime has been introduced. The children are only allowed to chat online to people they know in real life. They are allowed one online identity each, with all other multiple identities having been deleted. I have a record of all their passwords and periodically conduct spot checks to make sure they are towing the line.

When they are old enough for Facebook accounts, these rules will remain firmly in place. Their accounts will be closely monitored by me, their parent, the person whose responsibility — nay, duty — it is to protect them from strangers until they reach the age of 18. And, no, it is not a question of not trusting them. It’s the many and varied online psychos out there that I don’t trust.

I'm an online predator. Aren't I cute?
I'm a hairy 45 year-old man from Vereeniging

The online landscape changes faster than any of us can keep track of. Most of what I’ve written here will undoubtedly be obsolete in a year’s time, and possibly less. But the vulnerability of very young children does not change. They have no one to protect them in cyberspace besides us. We wouldn’t let them talk to strangers on the street — so why let them talk to strangers online?

Author

  • Fiona Snyckers is outrageously opinionated for a novelist-housewife. She is the author of the Trinity series of novels, and hopes to continue getting paid to make stuff up.

9 Comments

  1. Jean Wright Jean Wright 12 October 2011

    This is frightening! It is also horrible and again frightening that some kids are allowed to become so aquisitive, demanding and ‘screen/computer’ obsessed at such an early age. Having been a working mother myself, I realise peace and quiet is a bonus when you have kids, but where is the encouragement to read, paint, write a story, help me garden/make bread/do housework etc.

    Of course the internet etc. is great; I wish I’d had access to it when studying when I was young and do not wish to be a Luddite, but how about severe limitations on computer time as well as the remedies you have put in place?

    In addition, presumably you have chatted to your kids about your worries and why…. just as we were told not to accept lifts etc. from strangers? Kids generally understand a reason for prohibiting things.

  2. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 13 October 2011

    Did you just publish a novel? If so I got it from the library and read it – and thought it very good – is it your first?

  3. Sarah Britten Sarah Britten 13 October 2011

    This is fascinating – I had no idea. Thank you for an enlightening read, Fiona.

  4. Dan Dan 13 October 2011

    Of course I’d let them talk to strangers on the street.

  5. Fiona Snyckers Fiona Snyckers 13 October 2011

    Lyndall, I have two novels out, both part of the Trinity series. I’m so glad you enjoyed the one you read.

  6. MLH MLH 13 October 2011

    Thank God we didn’t have the money for a computer or a child’s mobile phone when my ‘he’ was young. This all makes parenting that much more death-defying. As it is, he was running up the phone bill by the time he was 15. Didn’t last more than a month because I let rip about all the mobile numbers he was dialling on the landline!
    But it seems to be a desperately sad fact that as we talk less to our children, they communicate more with total strangers. Despite the fact that few seem able to hold a reasonable conversation with an adult, they are parting with extremely personal info elsewhere.
    My son and his friends are all well into their 20s now, but if 2 out of 10 can manage two-minute introduction small-talk with me when they come here for the first time, it’s a lot. How they manage interviews and public speaking, I wonder. And these are boys at university…

  7. M Preston M Preston 14 October 2011

    It will never be possible to totally isolate children from the negative side of the internet, nor would it be desirable to do so. The key is in giving them the knowledge and letting them acquire the judgment to differentiate between safe and unsafe.

  8. Geoff Geoff 16 October 2011

    All valid points Fiona, and very scary scenario for us with kids. In my case I have not banished my kids from any techno access, but embraced it with them, and included a bunch of rules, much like yours. They’re now 13 & 16 and have effectively been on the ‘net and had phones since 10 & 12 with no negative influences, in my opinion. We’re very open about what’s out there, and they both openly discuss any issue they come across. I’m fairly strict about my rules, and they seem to respect that. As parent we need to know about these sickos and be vigilant. Thanks for highlighting this.

  9. Iblis Iblis 19 October 2011

    Just an FYI…it’s toeing the line, not towing it. In other words, standing with your toes against a pre-defined line. ;)

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