Virtual Worlds: Are They Good or Bad for Children?

Sims-4-Go-To-School

Playing in online worlds is a growing phenomenon and children and young people are being exposed to many online games, social media apps and other community based platforms. Playing online appears to have many positive strength for children, from learning new social and communication skills that can have educational benefits for them in the future.

Lydia Plowman, Professor of Education and Technology at Edinburgh University, has commented children can learn through apps and games and how parents can obtain the benefits of technology. Plowman suggests that one of the key focuses in this learning is allowing children to explore through parental guidance, and part of this process is to allow children to make their own choices and decisions, Plowman refers to this as the ‘learning how to learn’.

What is a virtual world?

As discussed in previously, children and young people are spending a greater amount of time on social media platforms, online games, and online communities. However, for the purpose of this article it is important to have an understanding of what is meant by a ‘virtual world’.

Virtual worlds have a variety of different elements, for example:

  • It is an online computer animated 3D or 2D environment
  • A massively multiplayer online (MMO) experience
  • Interacts with others people in real life
  • Rules and guidance on how people effect the virtual world around them
  • Individual use ‘avatars’ or characters to represent themselves in the virtual world

To put it more simplistically, a virtual world is a platform where individuals can interact with each other, solve problems, explore and communicate with each other.

Here is a short list of virtual worlds you may be familiar with, please be aware there are many more:

  • Habbo Hotel
  • Moshi Monsters
  • Club Penguin
  • ourWorld
  • Fantage
  • Sims

In 2014, there were supposedly over 158 virtual worlds designed for young children, with the top three for primary-age being Club Penguin, Moshi Monsters and Habbo Hotel. It was found in AVG Digital Diaries in 2014, 6-9 years old who were surveyed found 46% spend their time playing an online virtual world.

Even though there are many online virtual worlds and massively multiplayer online games, parents and teachers feel allowing children into these environments can be dangerous, unsafe and damaging. Yet, throughout the course of this article we will be exploring some of the positive and negative aspects of online play.

The Positives

SW5As commented in the above, this new era of technology has allowed us to enter a new dimension of communication and learning, not just for children and young people, but also for adults.

This has been successfully achieved through the use of email, forums and social networks; but yet we can also connect in real time through Facebook messaging, texting and twitter tweets. We have a vase social community online and this can have profound implications for children’s social and emotional development not just online, but also offline.

The use of the immediate communication technology perhaps can support children and young people maintain friendships and family networks more effectively. In addition, parents will be able to gain deeper insight into their children’s lives through the use of this technology, (e.g. Facebook); in order to gain an understanding of their child’s lived experience. Face to face communication between young people and parents can pose challenges from time to time; therefore this technology can bridge the gap and loss in communication.

Dr. Jim Taylor comments digital communications can also enable young people who are shy engage in wider social environments and be able to find others with similar hobbies and interests within an online community, promoting young people to grow and be creative within this online environment. Johnson (2014) even suggested digital communication and online environments improves children and young people’s emotional connection and comments this teaches children to become more empathetic towards people rather than learning the traditional face to face methods.

The Negatives

As discussed previously, there is an array of positives to using online technologies to support children and young people’s social, emotional and educational development in a variety of different ways. However, this does not go without saying within their social communities children are certainly exposed to a wider range of people, material and risks.

The EU Kids online conducted a survey and found that many children have experienced some kind of cyberbullying, trolling and sexting. Furthermore, it was found 12% of 9-16 years olds were exposed to distressing images, (Livingstone et al, 2014, pg.6).

For instance, it has been suggested children who play violent video games and lead to more aggressive behaviour and this can have an impact on social interaction with others. Taylor (2013) however, does comment the research is unclear about the ‘direction of causality’. Meaning, it is inconclusive whether violent video games make children violent, or if naturally more violent children are attract to this genre of game. In addition, research has also suggested children who are exposed to digital networks to become more narcissistic, (Taylor 2013)

Mixed messages  

Throughout the course of this short blog, we have drawn upon some the positives and negatives of virtual worlds and some of the research that underpins this thinking. But what does this all mean? Well, it is clear virtual worlds are offering a rich source of new learning for children and young people that are certainly different from the traditional methods but has brought round positive outcomes for children and young people’s social, emotional, behavioural and educational wellbeing.

Nevertheless, it is important to highlight the problems and risks that technology and virtual worlds may bring. Parents, educators, social workers and other professionals have to clear understand of how children and young people are engaging in online social environments and how negative implications may emerge from them.

Where do you stand?

Even though this blog has been short, and there is certainly much more research and reading round this topic; I would like to take some reflection time to ask for your thoughts of the role of virtual social environments in the lives of children and young people.

It is certainly natural to not fear and the potential hazards that can be damaging; however is their room for positive learning and development to take place?

Further Reading, including research above.

Angela Barnes And Christine Laird – The Effects of Social Media on Children

The London School of Economics and Political Science – Risks of Safety on the internet

Young Children Consuming More Digital Media.

Protecting Young People Online: Negative Practices Parents, Carers and Professionals Should Know

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Just like there are laws we have to abide and adhere to everyday, it is also a similar set of  rules and code of conduct within online worlds. There are things that you can do and other things which are strictly forbidden. There is much focus nowadays of the dangers children are exposed when playing MMORPGS in virtual worlds, but there is very little information of what your child should not be doing and what we as parents or social workers should be teaching children not to do when playing in these online environments.

Gaming studios do take time to “lay down the law” when it comes to protecting their game, players and the virtual economy. However, this can be compromised by some of the practices, children, young people and adults are taught to use to progress quicker through the game by “stealing” from others or illegally using other methods to “get things done” quicker or to make another person’s online experience an  unpleasant one. Therefore, the purpose of this blog today is to highlight some of those practices, but this is by no means covering all aspects of this problematic topic.

1. Be a Scammer

Scamming is a term used in online communities where players will try to steal other people’s “stuff” or account information in order to transfer their stuff to their account.  The perpetrators of these methods are often using psychological methods, such as deception, trust and betrayal to lure their victims by getting sympathy or persuasion.  In reality, the motive behind scamming players can range from not being able to afford buying or obtaining their own “in-game wealth”, or they do not want to pay for these services altogether. However, an alternative route for scammers will be to exploit flaws in gaming systems, also known as glitches to steal other players stuff.

There are a variety of different methods players can use to scam other players and it is worth for parents and social workers to be aware of a few of these methods, however for the purpose of this article I will not be covering all the methods of scamming as this varies from game to game.

 Password scams

As the title suggests, password scams. These are scams in which a person attempts to steal another person’s password. This is pimagesrobably one of the most common scams because it is the easiest to perform, but could be argued to be the most serious since victims of this type of scam and lose their account forever.

Gaming studios usually, (but not always) attempt to filter people saying their password out aloud. However, it has been known for scammers to trick victims into saying their password backwards by using asterisks (******) to claim their password is being filtered backwards, when it actually is not, they are actual asterisks.  The scammer will then obtain the victim’s password and log into the victim’s account.

Premium items, membership or free stuff scams

We have all heard that nothings free in this world right? Same in an online world I am afraid. Sometimes, scammers will log into the games and start communicating with other players claiming to give them free stuff.  But the aim really is to steal the other players stuff. The most common types:

Gaming scams: Player (A) hosts a game; and player (B) wins and wants to obtain their prize as they have paid to play to game with in-game wealth. Player (A) runs off with their stuff and does not give them a prize.

Casino scams:  Players bet with their own stuff, mostly rare items or high value stuff. After a player wins a game, a dealer will scam them by refusing to pay the winner.

Duplication scams:  Player (A) will claim they can duplicate a person’s wealth by using a software program, (this is not true). Player (B) will give them their stuff in hope they will double or duplicate it. Player (A) runs off with their stuff.

Game of chance scams:  Player (A) will host a game and use an item like a dice or something similar to create a game of chance. Player (B) will bet if they roll a 2-3 they get a prize. If player (B) wins, player (A) will run off with their stuff and not give a prize.

Types of in-game scams will vary from game to game. Therefore, it is important to communicate with your child affectively to gain information about the types of scams they are aware of and additionally for you to do your own research of the common types of scams that specific game is suffering with.

Read more on how to Avoid Scams

2. Be a Phisher

A Phisher or Phishing is when a hacker tried to fool a player into giving away their account information and similarly to scammers will steal or cause havoc with your account. However, Phishers will use forms-fake websites, bogus emails and threatening in-game chat to obtain their victim’s information.

Fake websites

One way player’s Phish information is through the use of fake websites, but they look official.  It is important for parents and social workers to communicate effectively to gain insight of what sites children and young people are visiting in relation to the game and making sure they are official. If they are visiting websites that are not official you should be sceptical because logging into a fake website with your personal account information could jeopardise your account security and run the risk of losing your stuff.

Want to find out if a specific address is a fake website. Check PhishTank, where many commonly reported phishing sites are listed.

Emails

Like a hacker can use a fake website, they can also use fake email addresses making it look like they are from official gaming studios. Phishing, or phantom emails will be used to lure victims into fake promotions that give you something for free in-game if you log into their website to “claim” the thing.  The Phisher may even threaten to account suspension or closure if they do not log-in to “confirm” a person’s account information, even though this is untrue.phish

It is important to for parents and social workers to be aware their children and young people are not responding or sharing Phishing websites or emails to lure in new victims. Even if the email or website looks “real” they should still be potential hackers.

In terms of emails, they may look real but they may have come from somewhere else. To be absolutely sure, check the email’s headers  to see where they actually came from.

Threatening in-game behaviour

Some phishers will go to the extreme to gain your personal information to steal your account and your in-game stuff. Another tactic one may use to obtain information is to impersonate or claim to be a staff member of the company the game is made by. This again is a phishing attempt because no staff member would EVER ask you to produce your personal information within the game itself.

Parents and social workers should be communicating with children and young people this does happen and should be educating them to “click and report” players who try to trick them in this way.

These are all very serious issues, and children and young people should be educated on these matters when entering an online environment.  In addition, it is equally important for children and young people to not carry out the above as it can make other people distressed, uncomfortable and not giving them a pleasant experience in an online open environment.

3. Be an Internet Troller

One of the most unpleasant experiences of the online world, apart from getting your personal accounts or identity stolen is internet trolls. In short, internet trolls or just “troll” is someone who goes out of their way to try and upset people by posting inflammatory, extraneous or off-topic messages within an online community to provoke someone else into an emotional response which usually turns into bullying or an aggressive argument.

In 2012/13 the ChildLine review found that over 4,500 young people talked to ChildLine about online bullying and found children and young people who are affected by this often:

  • Do not tell anyone because they feel ashamed or guilty
  • May not know who to tell
  • May not realise they are being abuse

Additionally, a MacAfee survey conducted the number of children who are victims of cyberbullying doubles in a least a year. This was based on a poll of 11 to 17 year olds undertaken by the American global computer security software company and found that 35% of children and young people have experienced cyberbullying – compared with 16% the previous year. Furthermore, 4 in 10 said they have seen others being bullied online. That statistic doubled the 22% recorded the previous year.

Case studies

There have been many cases where internet trolls have damaged and made the lives of victims fearful due to internet trolling and cyberbullying on online spaces. But even more saddening some children have committed suicide due to being trolled and cyberbullied over the internet.  Just to note of few:

Ryan Patrick Halligan 1989 -2003

Amanda Michelle Todd 1996-2012

Megan Taylor Meier 1992-2006

These are only few of the many cases to date of children and young people who have taken their own lives due to the cyberbullying and trolling over the internet. It is important for parents and social workers to communicate open and honestly with their children the importance of telling someone if they are being trolled or cyberbullied on the internet, but even more importantly not retaliating and bullying others back.

Large social networking sites, virtual worlds and MMORPGS more often than not do have their own reporting system to notify a member of staff someone is breaking the rules. I would advise all parents and social workers to educate themselves with the online communities their young people and children are visiting and find out the report functions that are available on that specific site.

4. Be a Gold Farmer

Gold farming is a termed used in massively multiplayer online games to acquire in-game wealth at a rapid rate in exchange for other players to buy it for real-world money. Many gaming studios to date ban these kind of practices from their game because this creates an unbalanced economic in the game, also known as economic inequality, this is usually highlighted in their EULA (End-user license agreement), or terms of service.

Why should I be teaching my child not to gold farm on an online game?duke0ic

It is a very good question. But the bottom line is for most gaming studios are that you are cheating the game and taking liberties on people’s good fortune. In addition to this these practices create an unsafe online environment as most gold farming websites and personnel are through third party sites and this increases the likelihood of being scammed, or having personal information stole from you. Furthermore, it has been known gaming companies have made Lawsuits against individuals and small businesses for these kinds of practices.

Cases of interest

Zynga Inc. v. Playerauctions.com

Zynga, the developers of FarmVille, sued to stop online sales of its in-game currency. However, this case never went to trial.

Bot busting

Jagex, the developers of a very famous game RuneScape, have taken legal actions against several gold farmers and bot programmers. They called this “programme bot busting” within their game for a short time and were open and honest to their players they would take legal action against certain players who disregarded their terms, conditions and agreements.

Blizzard Entertainment v. Peons4Hire

Finally, Blizzard Entertainment, the developers of the well-known online game World of Warcraft won their case against In Game Dollar, who was trading under the account name of Peons4Hire. The court ordered for a permanent injunction to be put into place in order to shut down all of Game Dollar’s entire World of Warcraft operation.

Just like a person is bound by the law not to commit fraud in the real-world, but there are also laws put in place to protect the virtual world too and these are also enshrined in real acts of parliament. Gold farming can wreak other player’s experience of the game as other players are cheating and creating an unbalanced, unfair system. In addition to this, they are also creating a dangerous, toxic environment for children and young people as gold farmers usually target players to buy into their product for a much cheaper price, yet, as established in the above this is risky and dangerous of compromising our personal information.

5. Be a Botter

Botting, (Internet Bot) also known as Maroing is the use of third-party software that can be used to create an unfair advantage in MMORPGs. The terms often used within online games to describe players who use these programs are: macroer, autoer, botter or bot. However, the majority of gaming companies tend to take proactive approach to stop players using these types of software my detecting their accounts and banning them or in much worse case scenarios taking legal action as we established in the above.

Macro software can perform a variety of tasks to break game rules, such as Gold farming as we established in the above, but they can also perform a variety of other tasks for example:

  • Autotyping: To repeat a specific message to advertise real world trading websites
  • Autoclickers: To click in the game area where the player desires to “level up” quicker from
  • Autobuyer: Buy large amounts of virtual items from in-game shops and can be sold on to create a profit elsewhere in-game.

Macro program risks

Again this poses the question, why is this a problem? As established in the above we are already identified gaming companies are taking legal action against players who use these types of programs, but in terms of account safety there are further problems. Many of the websites who host undetectable macro programming for a game may not just progress you further through a game, get you banned or get potential civil lawsuit on your hands, but between all of that this can also lead to keyloggers and other malicious software programs to get into your computer and steal your other personal information.

 What are keyloggers?

These third party software programs are usually copies of expensive programs they are usually cracked and contain other types of software that can infect your computer. One of these is known as a keylogger and this kind of software records everything that you type on your keyboard and transfers this data back to a hacker for them to use at their own will. This type of malicious software is part of the Trojan horse family and there are many others methods aside from keylogging in which a person can steal someone’s information. It is worth reading up on thBote following timeline of computer Viruses, Trojans and Worms

Final reflections

Now, I know there a lot of information to take in, and yes it is mind boggling. But, this is only scratching the surface of what children and young people can be exposed to online, but even worse carrying out some of the practices to make other people’s online experience a fearful one. As I have said in the above and previous blogs, it is important for parents and social workers to have a working knowledge of the risks and dangers of the virtual world, but additionally some of the cyber threats what are also out there. If this is not really an area you are knowledgeable or is completely new to you the further reading section may offer some new wisdom and knowledge.

Further reading

Little book of scams

Current Analysis and Future Research Agenda on “Gold Farming”: Real-World Production in Developing Countries for the Virtual Economies of Online Games

Trolls just want to have fun

Threatsaurus – The A-Z of Computer and data security threats

Computer malicious software – Further reading

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