Should you let your kids on Club Penguin?

By Sharon Duke Estroff for Good Housekeeping

Aimed at ages 6 to 14, Club Penguin is one of the most popular kids' sites, but it's hardly the only one. These new virtual worlds are part social networking, part online game, part Saturday-morning cartoon - and they're everywhere, generally selling themselves to parents as safe places for kids to play, learn, and make friends.

But I wanted to find out exactly what my 8-year-old son would be experiencing in this icy paradise. So I opened my own account at Club Penguin (I call it CP) and created my avatar, ChilyLily437, a bright-eyed, hot-pink go-getter with her own digital igloo and cyber hangouts - and even the potential to buy an online wardrobe. Via this character, I virtually sunbathed, snow tubed, and even picked up my daily cup of joe at CP's answer to Starbucks. And by typing in cartoonlike speech bubbles, I mingled with waddling hordes of other penguins.

During my two-week mission, I found four serious surprises - both good and bad. Here's the most disturbing: In cyberspace, kids grow up even faster.

At any given moment on Club Penguin, someone is saying "Cute girlz" or "I like boyz" or "Will u be my girlfriend?" - which is exactly what a penguin whom I'll call Kingpizmo asked me one night in his igloo. By the time we got to his crib, we'd already swapped heart emoticons and mwah mwahs (kisses). We played a few rounds of "spin the fish" (a popular CP "kissing" game) before he popped the question, and I (trying not to think about how appalled Kingpizmo would be if he knew he'd just asked a married mother of four to go steady) accepted.

Of all my virtual-world surprises, I found CP's sexual undercurrent by far the most shocking. One expert was less surprised. "Flirting and dating are major parts of kids' virtual-world activity," says Yasmin Kafai, Ed.D, professor of learning sciences in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, who has been researching tweens in virtual worlds. "The anonymity and lack of parental supervision make them favorite spaces for even tweens to act out sexual themes they see in the media and at the playground, even before they're ready in real life."

But such cyber dating can actually hinder their ability to develop off-line relationships, says Marshall P. Duke, Ph.D., clinical psychologist at Emory University. "In the real world, people communicate in many ways - body language, facial expressions, gestures, and tone of voice. Not so in virtual worlds. But kids may think they understand relationships based on online experiences, and that can be damaging."

Keep reading for 3 more things you should know before letting your kids out into the cyber snow.

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Reprinted with permission of Hearst Communications, Inc.