Kids' Virtual World Safety Tips (page 2)
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).
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