Last year, all of a sudden, the phrase Club Penguin entered my house via my 8-year-old twin sons, and they were so completely immersed in recounting to me its endless complexities that there was no way to slow them down and elicit a concise definition. I did grasp that it was on the Internet and that it was “safe”—they kept repeating this to me, as though somehow they’d absorbed (accurately) that it was an essential part of the incantation that gets a mother to allow you to do something online. So one day, with me sitting beside them and feeling as though I were summoning Beelzebub, they logged on and played for a while—their first Internet gaming experience.
What fun they had! Club Penguin is a cute, happy virtual world in which you create an adorable little penguin in whose guise you can travel to all sorts of fun spots and play video games (making pizzas against the clock, playing ice hockey, going inner-tubing), for which you win coins. With the coins you can buy clothes and furniture and cool stuff for your virtual igloo. The boys loved it. Everyone loved it. Club Penguin was the most happening event of the second grade; to be denied it was to be denied not just a pleasure but an essential mode of schoolyard discussion and inclusion, a way of being a second-grader.
But I never let them play again, be-cause something about it scared me: The penguins could chat with each other. True, the chatting is monitored by paid professionals and a citizens’ army of tattlers, children who’ve been members for more than 30 days and who’ve been commissioned as “Secret Agents” to loiter in the public spaces and report on inappropriate chat, including the exchange of telephone numbers and e-mail addresses. But these protocols only highlight the paradox at Club Penguin’s core: It’s certainly the safest way for unsupervised children to talk to potentially malevolent strangers—but why would you want them to do that in the first place?
Shortly after that first visit, once my interfering children had been packed off to school, I made myself a nice cup of coffee and logged on. I chose a pink penguin, and because no versions of my real name were available, I picked one of my mother’s nicknames for me. But—O, hated Internet, and its font of unwanted knowledge—even that turned out to be taken, so I had to be “Tootsabella2.”
For a long while nobody wanted anything to do with me (I cannot adequately describe how much this felt like a real-life snubbing), so I just waddled around, wallflower at the orgy. It was immediately apparent that girls and boys have very different attitudes about what to do in Club Penguin. The girls want to hang out, chat, and send little hearts to people, and the boys want to play video games. It’s this dynamic that makes social- networking sites so much more dangerous for girls than for boys: It’s in girls’ nature to form relationships, to trade intimacies, to console and confide. It’s also in the nature of the Internet to allow emotions to escalate in the blink of an eye; indeed, many of the traits that concern parents of adolescent girls—meanness, aggressive flirting with boys, budding Internet addictions—are clearly being born out there on the icebergs and snowcaps of Club Penguin. It has lowered the point of entry to social-networking sites from middle school to elementary school, opening up young children to a type of interaction that even tweens and teenagers often find overwhelming and hurtful. Did I see anything dangerous happen? I did not. But I saw any number of flame wars, and—more unsettling—even more cases of penguins deep in happy conversation who suddenly vanished from the scene, perhaps off to a private chat in an out-of-the-way igloo, safe from the prying eyes of the Secret Agents.
The next time I logged on, I was at last befriended—or should I say, courted—by a wonderful blue penguin whom I’ll call “Denks.” He treated me the way a girl wants to be treated: He took me to great places, he paid for everything, and he showed me how to do things. We went sledding, we played Mancala, and Denks turned out to be excellent at Connect Four, so we played a lot of that, too.
I realized, during our second or third game, that I was having my very first online relationship. And as I sat there, dropping my blue pieces into the grid (something I’d done countless times in the real world with my own children), I wondered who was playing the game with me. The thought that Denks might actually be a pervy adult wasn’t nearly as unsettling as the thought that he might really be a little boy somewhere, home from school for the day, entertaining himself by logging on to a safe Web site and making friends with someone he thought was a little girl named Tootsabella.