With all the qualms parents have about the Internet, from worrying aboutsexual predators to whether their kids spend too much time online, here'sanother one: It can teach them how to cheat.
At one increasingly popular site where young kids inhabit a fantasy worldof penguins and igloos, some are downloading illicit software to stuff theirvirtual pockets with gold coins instead of earning their way fairly by playinggames.
Across the Internet, blogs, message boards and even video clips onYouTube.com offer preteens tips and tricks on how to steal coins atClubPenguin.com or cheat their way to a higher salary at Whyville.net. Asimple Google search pops up hundreds of places to find such insights.
Over the last three months, cheating has become such a concern at ClubPenguin that on Tuesday the Canadian company approved new guidelines banningthe practice, said Lane Merrifield, co-founder and chief executive.
"If anyone is caught trying to instruct other players or is teaching themhow to cheat on Club Penguin, even on another Web site, blog or forum, we areinstituting a permanent ban of the player who is doing the teaching," he said.
Parents are generally happy with sites like Club Penguin and Whyville,where their kids can play safely online and interact with other youngsters.
But to some educators, the cheating is yet another example of a competitiveculture looking for shortcuts to get ahead. Worse, these cheaters can be asyoung as 8, and by unfairly learning how to obtain the biggest igloo on theblock, it could foreshadow cheating in other aspects of life, they say.
Over the last two decades, cheating in school is "absolutely gettingworse," said Tim Dodd, executive director at the Center for Academic Integrityat Duke University. "We've looked at middle-school behavior and seen studentsbegin the life of a plagiarist. They are downloading pieces from the Internetand using it as their commentary paper for the 5th or 6th grade."
For parents, though, the issue of cheating at sites where their child playsmerrily in a virtual world while meeting new friends from across the globe isnot on their radar.
"She talks to her friends in Spanish" on Club Penguin, said Penny Facchini,a Highland Park mom with an 11-year-old daughter, Renee. "She's got to belearning something."
Renee was up at 6:15 a.m. Wednesday and already on Club Penguin, where shewas arranging the furniture in her igloo.
"To me, it appears to be a safe, wonderful way to spend her free time,"Facchini said.
The world of Club Penguin, which launched in October 2005, is getting verylarge. While the company won't disclose how many members it has, data fromComScore Networks showed it had nearly 4 million unique visitors in January,double what it had in July.
A spokesman from Club Penguin called the 4 million figure "conservative."
Here's how the virtual world operates:
Kids sign up, pay up to $4.95 per month and are assigned a penguin, whichrepresents the child's online image. The penguin waddles around the site andbumps into other penguins they can chat with.
Penguins and igloos are plain at first, but as kids accumulate coins atvarious games, they can purchase nicer clothes or buy furniture, fireplacesand carpet for their igloos. Each month, a new catalog of outfits and iglooupgrades is introduced. An Ice Castle igloo upgrade offered in the Marchcatalog sells for 5,100 coins.
Hence, there is constant competition among the penguins to have the coolestigloo and the latest fashions, and some kids are too impatient to play a gameto earn more coins.
On the Web they can find a sophisticated program called WPE Pro that"sniffs" network connections and can be used for a variety of online games,including those on Club Penguin.
"It's a down-and-dirty network-analysis tool," said Dave Cole, director ofsecurity response for computer security firm Symantec Corp. "As data travelsfrom the computer to the Club Penguin server, it stands in the middle andmodifies that traffic. That's where your cheats come in."
Essentially, the software tricks the server into thinking a penguin hasearned more coins.
Another worry: While the program itself won't harm a computer, Cole said,kids often pick up this "gray area" software at sites known for secretlydownloading spyware to a computer.
No surprise to some
The cheating is no secret to some kids.
When Renee Facchini was asked about cheating, she said, "`Oh, yeah, Mom, Iknow about it,'" Facchini said. "I had no idea. But, thankfully, Renee saidshe would never do it, that `it was like stealing from a bank.'"
Beth Irwin, a mother of three kids who play on Club Penguin, was startledto hear about the cheating on the site.
"My 10-year-old [Abigail] is more competitive, and her main objective is toearn coins and buy furniture and fancier igloos," said the DownstateBelleville resident.
"My girls love to go in and look at all the members' igloos to see whatother people have. But if they learned those igloos were done throughcheating, I think that would be very disappointing for them."
When she asked her two girls about the cheating, they said were unaware itexisted.
"I asked them if they would do it if it was as simple as hitting a fewkeys, and they both said no," Irwin said. "But they admitted it would betempting."
At Whyville, another virtual world for tweens, or kids between 8 and 12years old, members are banished if they are caught cheating, said Jay Goss,chief operating officer.
Banished members would have to ask their parents to create a new accountand explain why they were kicked off the site.
"That can be a pretty impactful way of learning something," Goss said.
Cheating is ingrained in the gaming culture, said Reilly Brennan, aspokesman for Chicago's Midway Games Inc., who called it the main reason forbuying gaming magazines. The magazines are filled with hints, shortcuts andhidden codes to help players get a leg up. Now, "the Internet has become thebiggest hint book ever made," he said.
But the notion that young children are learning to cheat to get ahead oftheir peers is worrisome, said Duke's Dodd.
"There are subtle and not so subtle messages that only getting aheadmatters," he said. "It's the notion of status. We've entered this high-stakesnotion of living."
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