Last night my six-year-old son signs in to MoshiMonsters, the popular online children’s game, which now has over 50 million users worldwide. He is very excited because he got a monthly membership for Christmas so he can now do more with his pet Monster. So while I get dinner started he clicks through to his friends’ tree, the space where children post messages to each other, and lets out a shriek of delight. A pink monster in America called KittyKat wants to be his ‘friend’. “I’m going to send her a message,” he yells and excitedly begins typing.
One of the bits of advice in Is Your Child Safe Online? is: play an active role in the online life of your under-12s and get to know their online friends just as you would their real world friends. My son has 15 friends – friends he has never met – from as far afield as America, Canada and Germany. KittyKat already has 170! Sticking to my own advice I stop stirring the bolognaise sauce and saunter over to check out this latest addition to his friends’ tree, pondering what it means to ‘get to know their online friends’ when there is potential for so many. This train of thought is suddenly interrupted when I see what my son has typed on his new best friend’s wall. “hi im [his name] from [our suburb] and I luv u. Cum into my hose [he means house].”
“No no no,” I say. “You can’t say that.”
“Well I just did,” he replies, with a perplexed look.
“But I’ve told you before that you mustn’t tell anybody online your real name (another piece of advice in my book) and you can’t go round telling people you don’t know that you love them. And also you must ask me how to spell things properly. They might think you are a ….”
I manage to stop myself saying the “P” word because I realise that I probably don’t want to get into a conversation about paedophilia or stop him playing when I know there is nothing sinister about this exchange and I don’t want to make his Monster really really blue!
One of the challenges parents face is that it is really difficult to stop young children from communicating spontaneously – and why would you want to? So with increasing numbers of young children playing online games which involve communication with real people, it is really important for parents to be involved. This means researching the games their children want to play so they understand exactly what is possible – how the site is monitored, is there an active parent forum, the educational value and so on. So for example on MoshiMonsters live chat is not possible – communication happens on the friends’ tree – whereas on Club Penguin (another popular game) it is. However, on Club Penguin it is possible to choose a pre-scripted chat function – though be warned many children will quickly work out how to undo this!
Finally, parents shouldn’t overreact and should be realistic about the behaviour of their little angels – another blog to follow on this soon. Just as children can be naughty, mean and devious at home, in the classroom and playground, so too can they be online. But if a site is properly monitored – by both technology and humans – then anything suspicious or offensive should be brought to the attention of parents fairly smartly. If it isn’t then quite possibly the child shouldn’t be on this site at all.