Little avatars behaving badly

Times Staff Writer

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 things.

“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 currency stolen.

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 environment.

“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 fake.

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 previous offenses.

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 others.

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 were doing.

“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 not.”

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 to trace.”

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.”




Safety online

How can you keep your child safe in virtual worlds? Here are tips from Common Sense Media, which recently released an Internet Safety Scorecard analyzing top children’s and teens’ social networking sites.

Keep personal information private. That means your child should not reveal his or her name, school, age, phone number or address to anyone on the site.

Don’t divulge passwords to anyone. That means even to your child’s friends. Parents, however, should know their children’s passwords.

Encourage your child to report inappropriate content or behavior in virtual worlds to you and the site administrator.

Make sure your child is on an age-appropriate site. Don’t let your children on sites such as Second Life unless they are old enough to handle adults on their own.

Use privacy controls. Many sites allow users to choose which part of their profiles are public.

Do your research. Some sites have better filters and quicker staff responsiveness than others.


Source: Common Sense Media