How Facebook rewards kids for “talking to strangers”
“Stranger Danger” is one of the first lessons children are taught. At home and at school, the message that if they are approached by anybody they don’t know offering sweets, a lift home or the opportunity to go back to their house to meet cute little puppies or kittens, our kids should run to the nearest available safe adult and ‘tell’ is drummed into them from almost the moment they learn to speak.
Now that almost every household in the UK has access to an “always on” Internet connection, we repeat this message to our children, substituting playgrounds and school gates for chatrooms and discussion forums. Strangers are bad, and our children shouldn’t talk to them. Parents take care to ensure that their home computers are in a public area of the house, so they can see what their kids are doing when they’re online and help them to safely experience the world of knowledge and opportunity that the world wide web has opened up for them.
When you look over your child’s shoulder and see them interacting with an online “virtual pet”, farming crops to sell in virtual markets or creating their own city with shopping malls, office blocks and restaurants on Facebook it all looks innocent, cute and harmless and after all, they’re playing video games, where’s the risk?
But is it harmless?
Speaking to a group of foster carers and social workers in North Wales on Thursday, online safety expert Charles Conway used the popular game “Pet Society” as an example of how children are being encouraged to interact with complete strangers in exchange for “virtual cash” and other rewards.
“When you start playing the game, you adopt a cute little animal character, choose a name for it and find a house for it to live in” explained Charles. “Then, in order to progress in the game, you have to earn “virtual coins” to buy clothes, furniture, toys for your character to play with, soap, washing powder, food and other accessories. One of the ways to earn this “virtual cash” is to visit other pets in their homes, and every time one of your Facebook friends joins the game, their pet “moves in” next door to yours, so your pets can visit each other, exchange gifts and messages and interact even while their “owners” are not logged into the site. Each time your pet visits one of it’s neighbours, plays a game with them or leaves them a gift, you earn more coins to spend in the “virtual shops”.
One carer asked “But how does that put any kids at risk? They’re only playing the game with people they already know, aren’t they?”
To demonstrate the risk, Charles took his pet “BunnyPig” to a social area of the game, the “Pet Society Cafe”, where other pets were sitting round drinking coffee and socialising. A large poster on the wall encouraged him to “CLICK ON A PET TO VISIT THEIR HOUSE” and Charles selected one at random, a purple cat in a fetching stetson and cowboy boots.
“By visiting this pet, I’m earning coins to spend in the game” he explained. “I can also earn extra points by leaving the pet a small gift, such as a frisbee, football or other toy, enclosing a note at the same time. Again, this seems like harmless fun as long as the pet I’m visiting belongs to one of my “real life” friends, but in this instance, it doesn’t. This pet belongs to a complete stranger, and by clicking on an icon on the screen I can visit that person’s Facebook profile, see their profile picture and “add” them as a friend, bringing their pet into my pet’s ‘village’ so I can visit them again and earn more coins. Unfortunately, by adding this person as a friend, we don’t only become connected in “Pet Society”, but on Facebook as a whole, so this person can then send me private messages, see when I’m online for chat sessions and view everything on my profile including photographs of me, my family and my friends. Bearing in mind how attractive this games are to kids, the risk of inappropriate contact becomes very obvious. It also starts to explain how parents can find that instead of the 50 or 60 close friends that they know in ‘real life’, their child has a Facebook friend list that numbers in the hundreds or even thousands”
“We’re busy telling our kids you MUST NOT talk to strangers online and you MUST only connect with people you know in real life” he went on. “Despite this, by allowing games such as Pet Society, FarmVille, CityVille and Mafia Wars to gather massive numbers of players on their website, Facebook is creating a false sense of security. Whilst parents see their children playing in what looks like a child friendly environment, these children are actually being rewarded for adding strangers as ‘friends’, allowing them access to their own friend list, their personally identifiable information (such as their home town and where they go to school) and everything that they share online. Paedophiles deliberately target online spaces which are popular with kids and this type of game is an ideal opportunity for them to find targets for grooming. When you consider that 25% of 8-12 year olds admit to using Facebook in contravention of the ‘over 13’ age-limit, the risk becomes even more evident.”
In conclusion, Charles said “Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg once said ‘If Facebook were a country, it would be the 6th largest country in the world’. Based on current figures, it would now be the 3rd largest country, with a population of over 500 million people. The Government of such a country would have a responsibility to keep it’s citizens safe from the worst elements of society, and it’s time Facebook took that responsibility on board and realised the dangers inherent in exposing our children to the risk of becoming socially ‘connected’ to murderers, rapists and paedophiles, instead of rewarding them for doing so.”