virtual worlds, child avatars need protecting -- from
Los Angeles Times
July 2, 2008
On the playground,
kids pilfer lunch money and push each other around. But
in the cyber clubhouses they're filling by the millions,
kids rig elections, sell fake products and scam each
other out of every virtual-worldly possession.
Sophia Stebbins recently joined one such online
community, Webkinz, which lets its young members create
avatars, play games and hang out. The 9-year-old from
Irvine worked in a virtual hamburger shop, earned
virtual cash and bought a virtual bed, couch and TV for
her virtual house.
Then one day, she logged in to her account to discover
that all of her gear and money were gone. She suspects
that another kid swiped her password and sold her
"I was a little scared," she said. "Sometimes now, I
hesitate to go online."
An estimated 12 million children and teens will visit
virtual worlds this year, according to research firm
EMarketer Inc. So it's no wonder that such sites have
become big business.
In the last two years, Walt Disney Co. acquired Club
Penguin in a deal worth as much as $700 million, and
media giant Viacom Inc. bought Neopets for $160 million.
The sites get the parental stamp of approval by closely
monitoring their users and trying to keep out grown-ups
with bad intentions. They offer children a place to play
online without fear of being approached by pedophiles
and other preying adults.
But it's turned out to be hard work protecting the kids
from one another.
To keep these worlds from turning into a virtual "Lord
of the Flies," websites are monitoring every word
children type, limiting them to only preapproved
dialogue and patrolling the websites with employees
undercover as kids. Some also are giving kids the
equivalent of a 911 call, so they can holler for help.
"When you're at school, there's mostly good people, but
there are a few people who try to bully and scam you and
do nasty things," said Hazel Dixon, a 16-year-old from
Reading, England. "It's the same in Whyville."
When she was 11, Hazel trusted the wrong person in the
virtual world with her password (he promised her an
avatar makeover) and had every dime of her in-game
Most sites emphasize that children should never give
anyone their passwords. But many fall victim to a common
scam: They're told that their avatars will look better
or that their account will be stocked with virtual
currency. Instead, their accounts are usually wiped out.
Jen Sun, president of Numedeon Inc., the Pasadena
company that created and runs Whyville, said there is an
upside when kids get scammed this way -- they learn a
lesson about being careful on the Web in a safe
"It's a learning experience for the victim not to be so
gullible, not to be motivated by greed, because the
scammers use greed against you," she said.
Two UCLA researchers who study virtual worlds were
startled by the "seemingly innumerable" ways that kids
cheat each other. They detailed several in a 2007 paper
published in the proceedings of the third international
conference of the Digital Games Research Assn.
According to the paper and Whyville staff, Whyville
veterans often haze newcomers by demanding rent, even
though apartments there are free. Other players have
figured out a combination of keyboard commands that
allows them to jump into the virtual cars of strangers,
which is normally allowed only through invitation. Users
have claimed that elections for the Whyville Senate were
rigged through stuffing of virtual ballot boxes.
Some players took advantage of an outbreak of Whypox --
a virtual plague that causes avatars to sneeze and break
out in boils -- by selling cures that turned out to be
UCLA doctoral student Deborah Fields, who wrote the
paper with professor Yasmin Kafai, said players were
much more willing to engage in behavior that they
wouldn't in the real world.
"I don't think they feel monitored," she said. "It's way
less monitoring than they probably have in school from
just the presence of a teacher."
Like adults, many kids feel that behaving badly online
has fewer repercussions than behaving badly in real
life, where face-to-face interaction drives home the
consequences. Just as they can jump off a virtual
building and not feel a thing, they can steal from each
other with no consequences.
Virtual worlds are trying to change that. Webkinz and
Club Penguin allow users to type only lines that are
selected by the site's monitors.
Others, such as Whyville, screen chats through a filter
that flags when kids swear, type their real names or
exchange e-mail addresses, phone numbers or other
personal information. Kids who violate the rules lose
their privileges on the site or even are banned, and
Whyville keeps a "rap sheet" on users to see who has had
About 10 accounts are banned each day, according to
Timothy Lee, who supervises the group of employees whose
job it is to monitor the filter and answer "911" reports
-- filed by children to report the bad behavior of
On a recent afternoon, three of the employees sat in a
carpeted attic in Pasadena monitoring children on the
site. One sorted through the 911 reports, absolving one
kid who called another a "wiener head" and banishing
another who implied he wanted to have cybersex.
Another monitor sorted through the conversations,
stripping chat or internal e-mail privileges from
various users, including one who tried to get through
the filter and ask another avatar where he went to
school by typing "SKOOL." There were some tough calls:
Is writing "Go kill UR mama" a punishable offense? How
about "hello female dog"?
Some cases are more straightforward. Daniel Kunka, a
student at Cal State L.A., was hired by Whyville to
float around the site watching for suspicious behavior
or banned words and meting out punishment. When a girl
uttered the "b" word, Kunka rendered her unable to chat
for three days.
Other sites have set up stings to catch cheaters, posing
as children or watching players who know information
that could be acquired only by cheating. Some of the
monitoring borders on pesky. Kids sometimes roll their
eyes at moderators and continue whatever it was they
"When in doubt, we err on the side of the user," said
Debbi Colgin, head of community and customer services at
Habbo, a virtual world that monitors its chats 24 hours
a day. "We would rather educate them and warn them than
In November, Dutch police arrested a teen who stole
passwords and furniture from Habbo users, and they
questioned five others. The case is pending.
Eric Ey, a 14-year-old from Anaheim, doesn't think
Whyville could monitor more than it already does,
because kids will always find a way to get around the
rules. Also, he said, it's often difficult to find out
who is cheating online.
"You go to a playground and push some kid, you've got a
teacher coming after you," he said. "Online, it's hard
It's no comfort for parents. Joanna Stebbins, mother of
Sophia, put parental controls on the family's computers,
blocking Internet chat rooms and adult-occupied virtual
worlds such as Second Life to protect her daughter from
adults she didn't know.
But Stebbins didn't think to be concerned about virtual
worlds for kids.
"I had assumed that as long as I blocked her from chat
rooms, she wouldn't have anything bad happen," she said.
"But she really was so upset."