Iím not even a week into my undercover expedition and Iím already racking up penguin pals like Pokemon cards. No wonder Club Penguin's signature tagline is "Waddle around and make new friends"! That said, not all the birds Iíve met in this hopping virtual world are amicable types. Hereís what happened when I (ChillyLily) approached a group of cheery looking penguins dancing outside the lighthouse:
Me: Hi I am ChillyLily and I am KEWL
Dancing Penguin 1: R not
Me: Hannah Montana Rules
Dancing Penguin 2: Weirdo
Dancing Penguin 3: We r going to a members only party
Me: Can I come?
Dancing Penguin 1: Ewww no!
Dancing Penguin 2: (angry face emoticon)
Me: (sad face emoticon)
Dancing Penguin 3: Go away or I M reporting U
Report me? As in clicking the monitor badge icon on my player card to tell the CP powers that be that I am behaving inappropriately (which wasnít true at all)? Couldnít Dancing Penguin 3 just click on the ghost icon and ignore me for a while (meaning none of the messages I send will show up in bubbles on her screen until she decides to reinstate me to her inner circle)? If I get reported, the monitors could silence me. Or worse yet, they could ban me from Club Penguin altogether! And then what good would I be as an undercover penguin? In the name of damage control, I took the hint and slunk away.
Mom Break: Like so many aspects of childrenís virtual worlds, I found Club Penguinís buzzing social scene to be a mixed bag of fun, fascination, and concern.
Iíll start in the Pro column. When we were growing up, kids ran around the neighborhood with their friends until stars filled the sky. But today not so much. (Why? Because oodles of extracurriculars, mounds of homework, a generally anxiety-ridden parental population, and the advent of the formal playdate have rendered such informal socialization among children ancient practice, but thatís a whole different parenting post.) Consequently, many contemporary kids experience unprecedented feelings of isolation, loneliness, and stress. Virtual social networking, when done safely and in moderation, can provide children with a comforting sense of companionship and community Ė and not just in the digital realm. Many kids I chatted with in my real world focus sessions reported meeting up with their school friends on Club Penguin at night and on weekends. Social networking at a young age (in secure and kid-oriented environments) helps build critical digital literacy in children while giving parents an opportunity to teach their kids appropriate online behavior and safety rules early in the game.
And now for the Cons. Despite the fact that Club Penguin, like many other sites, works overtime to keep the chat civil, believe me, social cruelty is rampant. A virtual playground is, after all, still a playground with all the classic bullying and power plays. But unlike a real-world playground, there are no parents or teachers around to set the mean kids straight. And, in my mind at least, the website monitors donít count. (Would you trust a babysitter to watch your kids if she was also responsible for watching millions of other kids at the same time? I think not.) In my first five days on Club Penguin, I was called "weirdo" three times, "nerd" four, and hit with numerous mean face emoticons. I was excluded from eight private igloo parties, told to go away six times, and pummeled with more snowballs than I can count. And as for my encounter with those snobby dancing penguins, well, it felt like junior high all over again. Sure the CP filters prevented them from saying anything blatantly inappropriate, but the penguins' cattiness and cruelty come through like a bullhorn.
Sharon Duke Estroff is an award-winning educator and author of "Can I Have a Cell Phone for Hanukkah? (Random House, 2007). Her parenting articles appear in over 100 publications including Scholastic Parent and Child, Parents, Good Housekeeping, and Woman's Day. She is a parenting blogger for Huffington Post. Sharon is the creator of CHALLENGE ISLAND enrichment classes, camps, and birthday parties which provide imagination-fueled learning adventures to children while fostering their critical and creative thinking skills.