You've heard the stories about teens tormenting one another on MySpace and Facebook, but did you know that even so-called "controlled" online communities for young children are showing classic signs of bullying activity?
It's true. And it's depressing.
A recent LA Times article paints a grim picture for those of us who had, perhaps, assumed that our tweens had a few years before we needed to worry about this sort of thing:
Two UCLA researchers who study virtual worlds were startled by the "seemingly innumerable" ways that kids cheat each other. They detailed several in a 2007 paper published in the proceedings of the third international conference of the Digital Games Research Assn.
According to the paper and Whyville staff, Whyville veterans often haze newcomers by demanding rent, even though apartments there are free. Other players have figured out a combination of keyboard commands that allows them to jump into the virtual cars of strangers, which is normally allowed only through invitation. Users have claimed that elections for the Whyville Senate were rigged through stuffing of virtual ballot boxes.
Lest you think this sort of thing is limited to Whyville, rest (un)assured that similar behavior has been documented on Webkinz, Club Penguin, and other virtual worlds promising young ones a "safe," moderated playing environment.
As a parent, my reaction to this sort of story is just about equally split between "Oh no! My babies might have someone be mean to them online!" and "Oh, look... kids are mean to each other, even online. That's fascinating news. As is the revelation that water is wet."
Kids are sneaky. Kids are sometimes mean. And I've yet to meet the kid who wouldn't cheat at a game if she thought she could get away with it. For me, the real question here is whether this is somehow worse because it's happening online or if this is the sort of "news" that isn't really news.
Nevertheless, it's a topic that's got folks talking.
Jackie Marsh at Digital Beginnings weighs in, briefly:
I certainly found some children in my current study reporting on scams they carried out in Habbo Hotel, and I do think that the anonymity of the world meant that children who might not otherwise have done so joined in with the scams. However, there was also supportive/ collaborative behaviour reported by the children, which seems to become sidelined in articles like this.
(Hey, that sounds almost like... real life.)
Kid media expert Izzy Neis doesn't mince words about the aptly-dubbed funsuckers, and how they impact the rest of the group:
Ignore & Block & Reporting functions are becoming 101 for youth in virtual worlds, and that's great. Tattling & mods-o-mordor help police, sure, but how do we help give kids the tools to take care of problems themselves?
"Funsuckers" and Massively puts it, do indeed suck. And, really, there is no pure definition in profiling funsuckers - they are a diverse group. Why? Because you have a diverse group of citizens in a community, each with different tolerance levels. So, of course you're going to have a percentage that are straight up horrible on everyone's scale, but you also have other versions of annoyances & bullies & peer-dangers in the virtual community.
Izzy discusses the challenges inherent in giving kids fun online destinations that are "safe enough" while not being omnipotent or rendering said sites too boring to draw traffic. In the end, though, she points out that kids will be kids -- online and off -- and perhaps our best strategy is to teach our kids the same skills they'll need for real life.
Really, as most virtual worlds operate, it's a combo pack of routes. Kids are going to be kids. There will always be the teacher in the gym at school dances who separates slow-dancers to "make way for the holy spirit" and those same slow-dancers are always going to go right back to suction-hugging (while pathetically swaying from one foot to the next) once the teacher passes by. And there will always be the "fetts" roaming around in their own personal fantasy land, ignorantly annoying the kids around them by breaking established "cool" social norms. And there will always be the bullies who have to push others down feel higher.
The best way to combat human nature is to teach kids how to appreciate others for their differences, then promptly teach them how to ignore-said-differences-if-differences-cross-the-line-of-tolerance.
What really intrigued me as I was surfing around, though, was researcher Sara M. Grimes' thoughts at Gamine Expedition on the subject. Her angle is the rational, theoretical one; rather than the "oh my babies!" slant, she's thinking about the inherent structure of the games within social constructs:
[...] when it comes to kids, I think we really need to be careful about the translation of ideals (and what is more idealized than childhood?) into an overly-restrictive and narrowly-defined (corporate-)regulation of play. For example, are the notions of property (ownership and theft) that appear to be emerging within the regulation of kids' virtual worlds the same as those found within virtual worlds for adults? Are they more strict, more liberal, are they rights-based, or do they have more to do with social expectations around kids and "fair play"? What happens when "cheating" is both defined and regulated by a corporate entity, as opposed to the player community, parents, social norms, etc.? What space is left for kids to experiment with submitting and subverting rule systems if this type of experimentation is systematically removed from their play spaces? Where should the line be drawn, and whose interests should take priority?
When games are rationalized to this degree, is free play really possible?
Later, she adds this gem:
Furthermore, the fear that left to their own devices kids will turn virtual worlds into Lord of the Flies is, I think, much more reflective of the long tradition of seeing children and children's culture as something disruptive and unruly that must be contained and channeled by adults.
I think this is a valid question, particularly when social media is offering more and more ways for our children to interact, out from under our watchful eyes. What's more important -- protecting them from everything, or allowing them the freedom to make mistakes, even mistakes that might cause real distress to themselves or others?
As if we parents needed more to worry about. Sigh.
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