Are Kids' Gaming Sites with Chat Really Safe?

6 years ago

When I first started Internetting, no one was really talking about kids and teens and online predators. I probably talked to people I shouldn't have and, quite honestly, I was lucky. Nowadays, the importance of online safety for our kids is well known and (most) parents take an active role in keeping their kids safe. That's why I was so upset when my friend wrote about her daughter's experience with an online game.

It scared me.

As you can read in Dee's post at Life In Our Shoes, her daughter was approached in a chat room within the supposedly safe kids' game of Panfu. She had researched the game before hand and so she was shocked when the following happened:

Being that the website made these claims, and I saw nothing out of the ordinary during her free trial (some of which I played myself), I signed her up for a membership. Big. Mistake. Apparently there are no moderators on the chat. I have screenshots of some very perverse things that were said while my 7 year old (who can read!!!) was playing.

Don't believe her? Well, feast your eyes on this one.

Yikes! And there were others as well. As Dee is a very tech-savvy, involved mom, the fact that this happened to her family is alarming to me. I research everything that my kids do online. I feel like I have enough alerts and stuff set up. But if someone who knows these things can fall victim, that means my family isn't exempt either.

The good news is that shortly after Dee posted her blog, which in her words is in a small section of the Internet, someone from Panfu responded via a comment on her blog. In a good way. He explained that moderators do exist and that they would be investigating the issue. That's reassuring... ish. He promised to get back to her after the meeting, but she has heard nothing. The site talks more about safety now, but she hasn't noticed any great changes since the occurrences earlier this month.

All of this has made me rethink what sites I let my kids join. I'm not the only one who is having trouble feeling at peace with some sites out there for children. Over at We Fly Spitfires, a post about whether or not kids should play MMO-typle games (meaning virtual world-y type games).

If and when I do have children I want them to be able to enjoy video games but I’m having serious doubts about whether or not I’d want them to play MMOs. They seem too focused on achievements and advancements and upgrades and all sorts of other micro-accomplishments and have become obsessed with grabbing hold of the player and never letting them go. I think most adults can deal with that but I’m not so sure it’s a good thing for kids to experience.

Any site with the chat capability should be watched, of course. Over at the IT Security Expert blog, some of the chat differences over at Club Penguin, another popular site for kids, are discussed in a way that makes it easy for parents to understand.

During this confirmation process, the parent is provided with a choice of ‘Ultimate Safe Chat’ and ‘Standard Safe Chat’, with the latter being selected on by default. Ultimate Safe Chat means your child cannot send or receive any typed messages from other players, they can only select from a predefined set menu of greetings to interact with other players in the game world. With Standard Safe Chat, typed message can be sent and received with other in-game players, although these messages are filtered by Disney.

I know some sites, like Webkinz, offer those predefined chat messages in the basic account. From what I know now about these chat issues, I think we'll stick to sites and account levels that restrict typing messages. I just feel that if messages like the ones can get through by replacing the word six for sex, I'm scared about what information can be shared.

One last thing that worries me are the many, many blogs that are dedicated to "cheats for Club Penguin" and "fun things at Panfu" and other variations thereof. Why does it worry me? Most of those blogs are run by adults. That means adults are on these sites. And while many probably got addicted because their kids were playing, I worry about those with not-so-great-intentions.

Do you let your kids chat on these sites? Do you monitor them closely? Would you know if some kid (or adult) was replacing words and approaching your kids online?


Contributing Editor Jenna Hatfield (@FireMom) blogs at Stop, Drop and Blog and The Chronicles of Munchkin Land. She is a freelance writer and photographer.

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