I recently wrote an article titled; Teenagers meet their social network strangers, which looked briefly at the rising number of teens who arrange to meet up with connections their online social group. This is the first time however that online safety issues have shocked me. Perhaps the most alarming revelation was on an E-Safety Conference I attended as part of my teaching career just a few years ago.
Club Penguin. Annoying. Commercial. Merchandising Overkill. Paedophiles. Yes. That’s right. Apparently Club Penguin is known for its e-safety perils as paedophiles and sex offenders use it illicitly in attempt to groom innocent youngsters.
I always thought, having a pre-teen brother-in-law, I was pretty up on trends in technology. I admit I had peeked over his shoulder as he’d played Club Penguin, to tut as I saw the odd (admittedly mild) profanity appear in the ‘chat’ box. However that is as far as I thought it went. A few youngsters, taking the opportunity to test out the odd, newly acquired swear word on their peers. Other than that I had presumed it was a pretty child friendly, safe online environment for children to engage in. According to the seminar I attended though this couldn’t be further from the truth. Online gaming designed for children, such as Club Penguin is the perfect front for paedophiles to approach young children. Posing as other ‘kids’ they will offer in game rewards, such as ‘coins’ to children in order to lure them in. For example, coins can be used to buy furniture, clothes and new igloos for your Club Penguin character. If children don’t have enough coins what could be simpler than accepting an offer from an online ‘friend’ to send over photography in return for a few 100 coins? Once this precedent is set, they gradually increase the stakes.
I don’t want to go into details, the very thought sickens me. I also want to make it clear that I am in no way holding Club Penguin responsible for the people that use their site in this way. Like all online gaming/networking environments, there is potential for children to communicate with other likeminded children around the world. It is intended to be a positive experience and I hope for the majority it is. However there is also potential for great misuse and it is vital that as parents we are aware of this.
Researching anything in this area is always awkward as typing in certain key words can lead to very unpleasant sites. For example after I typed Club Penguin Sex Offender, into Google, a site came up called, “F@$ingclubpenguintrolls” which happily proclaimed, “Welcome to the club of Club Penguin Trolls, where we act like immature people and troll little kids just for the Lulz…” Needless to say, I couldn’t bring myself to follow through on the link, but clearly there are some very disturbed people out there.
The more I thought about the potential for misuse these kind of sites have, the more I wanted to throw out our laptops, iPads etc. I raise my child in a technology free household, however I am not naive. I want my child to have the same experiences his peers will have and more importantly the same opportunities. So I know that in order to allow this and still sleep at night I will (eventually, he is only two) educate my child. Having led assemblies on this subject, I know that children as young as 4 and 5 have access to some of these games, so it is important parents are aware of how they can keep their child safe online.
For me the first rule and perhaps, for some, the most difficult to implement, is to ensure that any online devices are used in a public part of the house. For example no laptops/iPads in the child’s bedroom. I know this seems strict, but being able to keep ‘an eye’ on how your child is using the internet is one of the best ways of ensuring they are safe, particularly at primary age, access should be limited anyway, so there is no reason that these devices shouldn’t only be available in the common access rooms of your house, whether that is the living room or the kitchen. If your child accidentally stumbles across something that is inappropriate it is best that you are there when it happens.
Further to this I want to share the following tips for E-Safety, summarised from the brilliant Thinkuknow website
1) Talk to your child about what they’re up to online.
2) Keep up to date with your child’s development online (are they on SnapChat or Club Penguin?)
3) Set boundaries in the online world just as you would in the real world.
4) Know what connects to the internet and how (are your children Pictochatting via their DS?)
5) Use parental controls.
Please take the time to follow the above link and read these tips and more. E-safety doesn’t mean stopping your children from going online; it just means educating them (and ourselves) on how to do so safely.