ConnectSafely’s Virtual World Safety Tips
Good friend of MMS, highly regarded journalist and co-founder of ConnectSafely, Anne Collier, has published some iron clad safety tips for kids and teens in virtual worlds, geared towards parents and educators. Now, I know I know, you think you have read the hype and the scare tips all over the web, but trust me, this is it. Bookmark it, tweet it, blog it, kill a tree and print it.
Virtual worlds are online spaces where kids create avatars (kind of like cartoon characters) through which they communicate, socialize, learn, shop, play games, and generally express themselves. There are hundreds of virtual worlds on the Web aimed at users of all ages. Some aimed at young children have controlled text chat, “profanity filters” to block offensive or sexually related chat, and staff or contractors moderating user behavior – you’ll want to check for these safety features. Parents also need to know that there are worlds kids can find and access which are not designed for them.
As with all kids’ online experiences, the No. 1 safety practice is routine parent-child communication. Keeping it low-key and frequent helps our kids come to us when stuff comes up. The most likely risks in kids’ virtual worlds, just like on school playgrounds, are cyberbullying or peer harassment and social-circle drama – including clubby behavior and kids playing “teenager” and talking about “boyfriends,” “girlfriends,” “breakups,” etc. The latter escalates and gets more sexually charged as they head into middle-school age. Language filters help, but kids can be creative with workarounds (see below). The main thing you need to know is that virtual worlds are user-driven: Positive experiences depend on users’ behavior toward each other and how well the space is supervised. Here are some pointers for safe, constructive in-world experiences.
Get to know their “world”: Ask your kids to show you around, and play in their virtual worlds with them occasionally – not to spy on them but to get to know the territory and find out what they’re enjoying and why. See what their avatars look like and what screen names they’ve chosen to represent themselves. You can talk with them about what kind of message their profiles and avatars send about them – a great early lesson in new media literacy. See who their virtual friends are and what types of activities they like. Are they friends from school? If not, take the opportunity to talk about how people online aren’t always who they seem to be. The No. 1 safety tip in all cases is “Talk with your kids”
Respect for self & others. Like other play places, virtual worlds are good social training grounds, when parents and educators are engaged in appropriate ways (supporting rather than managing them, if the goal is kids’ learning, not just compliance). Teach your child that those are human beings with feelings behind avatars in their favorite worlds – they need to respect others’ virtual property, privacy, and identity as much as in the real world. This is the beginning of digital citizenship, which is protective and empowering for them as they learn to navigate real and virtual social spaces.
Cyberbullying happens: Where there are kids, there are shenanigans. Behaviorally, kids’ virtual worlds can be a lot like school play spaces, so be aware that even with controlled chat and tech and human moderation in place, kids sometimes find ways to be mean. Examples include kids abusing the abuse-reporting system to get peers kicked out by telling on them when they haven’t broken any rules; using a blocking tool to ignore and ostracize someone; and designing alternative spelling and other creative ways around language filters (such as asking someone’s age with “How many dots r u?” and getting back “……….” from a 10-year-old).
Bullies get bullied. Even if you, like so many parents, think your child would never be a bully, make sure he or she knows that it definitely pays not to be. Research shows that kids who engage in aggressive behavior are more than twice as likely to be victimized. So help your kids understand that being kind and civil to others is protective as well as a powerful social skill. Help them see, too, that being a good citizen helps make their favorite virtual worlds nicer places to hang out for everybody.
Passwords need protecting! Start ’em young! Virtual worlds are great places for kids to learn the fundamental rule of password protection. For children as well as adults, a stolen password can turn into anything from embarrassing impersonation and bullying to property theft to identity theft. Children are known to share passwords to gain acceptance or show “true friendship,” forgetting that even friends get mad sometimes or move on to be somebody’s else’s “BFF” (“best friend forever”) instead. It’s a good idea to sit down with your child periodically to help them change their password to something that’s hard for people to guess but easy for both of you to remember.
Virtual consumerism or charity? Almost all kids’ virtual worlds include a shopping feature – so users can outfit their avatars, buy and care for pets, furnish their avatars’ “homes,” etc. See how they earn points or coins (often by playing in-world games) and how much focus is placed on having more stuff than the next avatar. Some worlds have opportunities for real and virtual charitable giving and public service. Some even give parents tools to reward their kids in-world for good grades and doing chores in real life. It might be interesting to see how popular educational features actually are in your child’s favorite VW and whether you can use them to help make civic engagement meaningful to your child (let us know what you think in the ConnectSafely forum!).
Critical thinking is crucial. Virtual worlds are great tools for learning about social influencing. Talk with your kids about the value of mindfulness and independent thought, not just following the crowd, online or offline. Encourage them to be as alert online as offline if people are being extremely nice or promising virtual gifts or cheats in games. Is this attempted manipulation? Is there an ulterior motive? Critical thinking about behavior, too – what they and others say, give, and upload as well as what they read, consume, and download – is protective as well as good for cognitive development. It’s the “filter” between their ears that comes pre-installed, goes everywhere they do, and improves with age!
Virtual World Safety Tips for Parents of Teens
Virtual worlds are online spaces where people create avatars (graphical representations of themselves) through which they communicate, socialize, learn, shop, play games, and generally express themselves. There are hundreds of virtual worlds on the Web aimed at users of all ages. Most aimed at youth have safety features, such as language filtering that restricts explicit, mean, or profane language. Some virtual worlds have people monitoring user behavior, while others leave it up to users to police themselves and their community.
So the No. 1 safety tip for virtual worlds, as for anything else, is good parent-child communication. Low-key, routine discussion about online experiences, just as with offline ones, makes it easier for them to talk with you when things come up. The most likely risks for teens in virtual worlds, just like in school halls and elsewhere, are cyberbullying or harassment and sexually suggestive communication among peers. Language filters help, but kids often have workarounds. Examples are alternative text understood by peers and various mean behaviors, such as ostracizing, ignoring, or reporting on peers with untruthful abuse reports; stalking others’ avatars; and using people’s passwords against them. Here are some pointers for safe, constructive in-world experiences.
Virtual worlds are user-driven. Positive experiences in virtual worlds largely depend on participants’ behavior toward each other and how well the space is supervised. As with social network sites, most of the content in these worlds is the communications of their users and therefore more likely policed (or reacted to) than controlled. Parents need to know that 1) there are worlds that youth can find and access which are not designed for minors and do little to block them, and 2) some teen and adult worlds have communications tools in addition to instant messaging, in-world email, and text chat, including voice and video chat features. The latter can be risky for children and teens to use. Talk with your teens about the virtual worlds they use – ask them to show you around. See what their avatars look like and what screen names they’ve chosen to represent themselves. What do their profiles and the appearance of their avatars say about them? Try to hold back snap judgments (long-term guidance usually works better than control if the goal is learning rather than short-term compliance – see this). Are their virtual-world profiles linked to social-network ones, and how much do those linked-up profiles together reveal about them – too much? Are their in-world friends mostly friends they know in real life? If not, do they know that they can’t really know who people are online unless they know them offline?
Virtual play, real reputations. By now all teens have heard that things they say in live game chat, type into VW chat windows, post in profiles, and text on phones can be captured and shared elsewhere. They know a comment can come back to haunt them, but research shows they don’t always think about how – over time – texts and posts can collectively turn into a reputation that can be hard to turn around. Help your teens keep in mind that, in cyberspace, they have pretty permanent, searchable paper trails that they, other players, and VW companies contribute to, consciously or unconsciously (e.g., companies often keep chat logs to track problem behavior).
Passwords are private! Research shows that kids tend to share their passwords with each other, so it’s important teens understand how harmful that can be – that friends can sometimes be mean or stop being friends and can use passwords to impersonate and embarrass or hurt them. They may roll their eyeballs, but awareness of potential consequences might help them stop and think.
Check out site safety tools. Some virtual worlds for teens have a safety page for parents which explains their safety features. These might include a language filter, human moderators, abuse reporting, monitoring tools, etc. Whether or not there’s a parents’ page, consider going over safety features and terms of service with your teens – at least in the worlds they tell you they’re using. Make sure they know where and how to report abuse in those worlds and, if provided for, how to block offending users.
Use those safety features. Encourage your children to represent their ages accurately when registering in virtual worlds – that’s a key safety feature. Encourage them to use the safety and privacy features and to talk with you if something comes up in-world. Help them see that it helps the whole community when they report bullying or other inappropriate communication when it happens. It also helps the virtual world providers, who tend to rely heavily on user reports if they don’t employ moderators for community policing. Ideally they’re using worlds provided by responsible corporate citizens.
Watch for behavior changes. Just as in real-world spaces, stuff can happen in virtual ones, and kids can have strong emotional reactions. If your teens become upset or distant, aren’t sleeping well, or are struggling academically, talk with them in a nonconfrontational way and see if spending less time socializing online would help (cutting off online time altogether can worsen problems, though, so calibrate “parental controls” carefully). Because virtual worlds can be pretty compelling, you may find the need to talk about and demonstrate the value of balance in our lives. If you’re concerned a child is in danger, consider monitoring in-world activity as well as talking with the child. Some virtual worlds offer chat logs and other monitoring tools.
Virtual shopping and consumerism. Most virtual worlds allow users to shop for their avatars and furnish their virtual spaces. This is a great opportunity for kids to learn a little financial literacy and critical thinking about consumerism and marketing as well as charity. Some worlds include philanthropic and other features that teach civic engagement.
Critical thinking essential. Virtual worlds are great tools for learning about social influencing. Encourage your teens to be as alert online as offline if people are being extremely nice or offering excessive virtual gifts. Is this attempted manipulation? Is there an ulterior motive? Critical thinking about what they and others say, give, and upload as well as what they read, consume, and download is protective as well as empowering. It’s the filter that goes everywhere they do and improves with age!
Citizenship is protective too. Because research shows that aggressive behavior more than doubles the aggressor’s risk of victimization, civil behavior and digital citizenship can go a long way toward keeping in-world experiences positive and enriching. We can encourage our children to be stakeholders in their own well-being online and to help make their virtual world a better place for everyone involved.
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