The popularity of online gaming worlds for children is soaring, but how safe are children on the internet? Metro visited the British HQ of Club Penguin, one of the most popular virtual worlds, to find out.
Adorning the walls of Club Penguin’s British headquarters are, unsurprisingly, a lot of pictures of penguins. Penguins playing tennis, skydiving, dancing. You name it, the multi-coloured cartoon characters are at it.
However, despite the presence of a table tennis table and a rather inviting pile of ‘Puffle’ bean bags – in case you’re wondering, Puffles are pets you can keep on the Club Penguin massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) – the primary function of the social networking site’s Brighton office is a serious one: ensuring children are safe online.
Following the recent scandal to hit Habbo Hotel, which received a bombardment of criticism after Channel 4 Dispatches revealed it was being used by paedophiles, it has never been more important for sites to reassure parents, teachers and child safety campaigners that their safety mechanisms are up to scratch.
And with an increasing number of children now using sites such as Club Penguin, Moshi Monsters and Habbo Hotel, the task of moderating them takes considerable investment.
It comes as no surprise then that last month Club Penguin, which is owned by Disney, announced it would spend a £3m on supporting campaigns to educate children and parents in Europe, the Middle East and Africa about online safety.
‘Kids want to be online,’ said Lucy Woodward, head of Club Penguin in the UK and Europe. ‘It’s a part of life these days.
‘For parents to be comfortable they should find out more about the sites so they’re not just watching over their kids shoulders 24/7.’
That job, however, falls to the 60 full-time moderators who fill the Brighton office and who monitor every word or phrase that is entered on the site while also making sure that children aren’t being bullied or harassed.
‘All these kinds of sites have technical features, but the human element is very important. Half our staff are moderators,’ said Ms Woodward.
‘Kids move fast and we need to be up to date with trends to update the language filters, but sometimes moderators just go into the game as Penguins themselves to help make sure the kids are having fun.’
On the screen of Simon Pollard, head of UK community support at Club Penguin, the text runs through the chat box fast, while beneath it, penguins waddle around in their online world.
Words that are blocked appear on screen in red and are invisible to the other users. Not surprisingly for a site aimed at eight-year-olds, the chat is comically inane.
‘Everyone say Spiderman!’ and “Let’s all dance!’ flash up on the screen.
One user joins the chat and uses an expletive, which appears in red. The Penguin receives a prompt 24-hour ban. Two more offences and it will be banned for life.
‘Usually they’re just trying their luck to get a swear word through and be provocative, but any effort to manipulate the filter can usually bore the kid pretty quickly,’ said Mr Pollard.
‘There are also phrases that can look harmless but there’s good reason why they’ve been blocked.
‘Sometimes people put stuff through where certain letters in a phrase link together to spell out other words or swear words. Anything that resembles personal information is also automatically blocked.’
Very little personal information is actually required to join the site. All you need is an email address. This is the same for British-born site Moshi Monsters.
While this offers protection from fraud, it also raises the question asked by so many: what if an adult is using the site?
‘Yes, there are grown-ups on Moshi,’ said Michael Acton Smith, AKA Mr Moshi, chief executive of Mindy Candy, which created Moshi Monsters. ‘A lot of parents use the site with their kids.
‘Even if an adult wanted to misuse the site they wouldn’t be able to do anything. Every single click and message is recorded. If someone was saying something unpleasant and it did happen to get through the filters it wouldn’t be long before it was picked up on or reported by other users.
‘We don’t talk down to kids. In the real world we don’t wrap our kids in cotton wool, we educate them, we teach them to look left and right when they cross the road.’
As it becomes clear that the internet is no longer a commodity exclusive to older age groups, it has become increasingly important for children to be taught properly about online safety.
‘If you wound back the clock to ten years ago and asked whose responsibility it is to keep kids safe online, then you may have got many answers,’ said Will Gardner, chief executive of Childnet, a charity that works towards making the internet safer for children.
‘Now it is accepted that everyone has a role to play: teachers, schools, authorities and even the children themselves.
“This is an ever-changing environment. Children of a younger age are not only having access to but having ownership of technology. We need to be getting out there to equip young people with information to safely use online and new technology, to take steps to look after themselves and others and be a good digital citizen.’
Professor Tanya Byron, who was commissioned by the previous government to write the review, Safer Children in a Digital World, argues that children and young people need to be ‘empowered’ to keep themselves safe. She used an analogy of a public swimming pool: although it has guards and gates, ‘we also teach children to swim’.
Mr Gardner said: ‘To build on that analogy, I think what these sites do is create the shallow end – they can take their first steps before they go deeper.’