Kids' Virtual World Safety Tips
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"
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