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:
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.
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?