New Chat Rooms Ramp Up Security for Preteens

NEW YORK – As the Internet spreads to an increasingly younger crowd, a wave of online hangout sites has emerged to keep preteens safe as they surf the Web.

Sites like Club Penguin and Webkinz allow children as young as six years old to communicate with each other online. Members of Club Penguin create their own penguin persona, complete with igloo, and make friends when they add other penguins to their buddy lists.

Parents concerned about online predators can choose between the standard mode, which allows children to type their own messages but blocks inappropriate language, and the “ultimate safe” mode, where children select a prewritten message. The filters even block potential phone numbers. Webkinz allows only prewritten phrases to pass through their system, and E-cards can only be sent to people already on buddy lists.

Advocates say the chat rooms teach children important skills such as communicating and budgeting virtual money. However, others worry that the sites’ virtual stores – which allow users to purchase everything from clothes to trampolines – reinforce a materialistic, consumer culture.

Club Penguin’s U.S. membership tripled last year, and Webkinz’ grew 13 times. Other preteen chat rooms include Millsberry from General Mills and Whyville from Numedeon Inc.

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