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.

How Do You Assess Online Risks For Youth Without Being Digitally Competent

kids-and-computers

Time to get digitally competent

In an age where information technology is growing rapidly in our everyday personal and professional lives, there is a growing expectation for social workers and other children’s professionals to ensure young people are indeed safe in these environments and identifying risks accordingly. But, how do we assess online risks for youth without being digitally competent ourselves?

There has been a clear indications social workers should be assessing children and young people’s well-being by considering the relationship they have with technology in their home, at school and the wider internal and external social factors that have an influence on this relationship.

But do Social workers know enough about the digital technologies like social media platforms, online games, virtual worlds and MMORPGS to ask the right questions and be able to identify the risks a child or a young person may be exposing themselves to?

A study conducted by Channel 4 News in 2012 found the social networking platform Habbo to be full of pornographic sexual chat, violence and pornographic acts also known as cybersex and concluded there were a lapse in moderation practices within the game.

An additional survey conducted by Mumsnet one of the largest parenting websites found 66% of 8-12 year olds think the top concerns in Habbo hotel were of course:

  • Sexual content
  • Talking to Strangers

However, the fundamental reasons why young people and children continue to play Habbo due to it were “easy” and ironically “safe to play”.

Checking into HabboLogo_Habbo_1

Habbo, formally known as Habbo Hotel is owned by Finnish Company Sulake and is an online community of over 15 million players officially targeted for young people 13 and above, but the service has been claimed to be used by children as young as 9. While playing the virtual world you can create your own cutesy character to express your online identify and chat to other people, friends or strangers in public or private.

Habbo considers itself to be a free to play game, whereby you can explore the site for free, complete quests, chat, and win prizes without having the pay a thing. However, young people are limited to a certain extent because they have to purchase the furniture by using “Habbo Credit” gained by real paying real money to design their own rooms. Players are also limited to specific content like pets, Habbo club, (VIP membership), and builders club that is packaged as premium packages costing either on a pay-as-go basis or monthly fee and this can get quite expensive.

Online Moderation and Safeguarding

Moderation is a method used throughout online communities to monitor activity such as chat, comments, links, images, videos and just about anything that is user generated content (UGC). Depending on the site’s content, volume and audience will vary on the moderation strategy, however, there is usually a mixture of human and computer supported moderation.

Habbo has claimed on their website to have a moderation team of around 225 human moderators, monitoring the program 24/7, 7 days a week to safeguard the young people online throughout different time-zones. The young people can use the “call for help” tool to ignore or report a player if the “Habbo Way” is being broken to let a Moderator know what is happening and take relevant action. But is this enough?

Read more of reporting and blocking in Habbo Hotel.

Case study

Matthew Leonard an example of the potential dangers of Habbo was jailed for seven years in 2012 for a string of online child sex offences by using Habbo Hotel. It was noted he contacted round 80 victims whom some was just as young as ten years of age.

Leonard would lure his victims in by offering them free virtual furniture as discussed in the above. Leonard would then move his discussions to private messaging programmes such as Skype and MSN at the time to record his victims conduct sexual acts. Even thouRandom_room_nightclubgh at the time at the time this was an unnoticed case in the public eye, but it is still certainly worth noting to the danger children and young people may be exposing themselves to.

Kick the Hab-It

So what can Social Workers learn and do to ensure the protection of children when using Habbo? Well, it is certainly not going to surprise many of you Habbo is not going to go away; in fact, it is a growing service and is enjoyed by many children and young people across the globe. In May 2014, Sulake released the Habbo application onto the iPad for the App store worldwide, it has also been noted Habbo is now accessible on iPhone, making Habbo more accessible to children and young people. Therefore, it is important for Social Workers to educate children, young people and especially parents about the strengths and dangers of using Habbo.

Being open and honest

It was noted in several reports that children as young as 9 were checking into Habbo and with the vase growth of technology being developed and Habbo is and will become available on these platforms the problem will continue to grow. Therefore, it is important for parents to communicate with their children and educate them on some of the reasons for and against playing Habbo. However, parents should certainly keep in mind Habbo’s terms of service does states children under 13 cannot play the game.

Read more on Habbo’s Terms Of Service

Learning the “Habbo Way”

If a young person wishes to play Habbo, it is important they are open and honest with you and visa versa. This will allow for a healthy relationship to grow for you to be able to engage them with the rules and expectations of the game. In an unfortunate situation of something going wrong while playing the game and children and young people should be confident to take suitable steps to notify a member of staff on the site and get out of a situation and tell someone they trust in the real world.

Habbo outline rules on their program, and this is called the “Habbo Way”. I would advise for parents, carers and Social Workers to take time to learn the Habbo Way to enable them to educate their children and young people about the rules Habbo put in place to keep them safe and ensure a friendly clean environment.

Read more on the Habbo Way

Call for help

As much as we would like to think we can monitor what our children and young are doing 24/7 we have to put so much trust in them to be mature and use them own anatomy to get out of heated situations. Habbo has claimed to do operate a 24 hour, 7 days a week moderating team to ensure the safety of the young people in paramount. However, educating young people and children to use the “Emergency button”, “Block” and “Reporting” features to notify a member of staff is really important. Again, as I have emphasised within the above, having open and honest communication with young people will enhance these practices further.

Read Habbo Hotel information on reporting and blocking.

Keeping your pixels privateSafety_Page_details

It is a growing probably but keeping your real identities, passwords and other information that is personal should not be disclosed while visiting Habbo. It is important for parents and Social workers to education children while online their personal information should be protected at all times. Even giving online information such as Skype names, or Email addresses could put someone in real danger; due to the fact this information could have phone numbers, photos or school information attached to these IDs.

As commented within the above, Habbo is an online interactive experience and therefore will “chat” to new people and make new e-friends the majority of the time. Again, it is important for parents and social workers to express people who you talk to online should be kept as pixels online. Having this open and honest about if someone is making them feel uncomfortable or scaring them in Habbo it is ok for them to tell someone in real life and to report it to a member of staff on the site.

Read Habbo Hotel information on how to change privacy settings

Checking out

As much as we would like to put our trust and faith that our children are protected while using these kinds of services you can never do too much to ensure your child or young person is given a toolkit in order for them to make safe choices while online. If someone asks for their personal details, do not give them out. If someone is going to give your free virtual gifts for Skype or Email addresses, report them. If someone is asking you to do something on Webcam, block, report and shut down the program for an hour or 2. These simple but effective methods will increase your child’s security when visiting Habbo.

Read more about online safety at Habbo

Further Reading

The European Network of Information Security Agency (ENISA), (2008) Children On Virtual Worlds

UK Council For Child Internet Safety, (UKCCIS) (2010) Good practice guidance for the moderation of interactive services for children

UK Council For Child Internet Safety, (UKCCIS) (2010) UK Home Office Guidance for Providers of Social Networking

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