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Friday, June 26, 2009

Undercover Mom in, Part 2: Talking numbers

By Sharon Duke Estroff

This week’s post continues detailing my investigation of Barbie Girls, and the crown jewels and skeletons in the closet that I uncovered there.

Crown jewel: Number-blocking filters
Part of the appeal of children's virtual worlds like exists in their conversational filters, one of the most notable functions of which is weeding out mention of any specific numbers in both written and numeric form (i.e. “7” or “seven”). The driving wisdom, here, is that without numbers, kids cannot reveal personal information such as age, address, and phone number - which could put them at risk of being targeted by an online predator. From a parental perspective, I found this feature both comforting and welcome. Not only does it place a significant barrier between Internet ne’er-do-wells and our children, it also helps to teach kids the difference between safe and unsafe online chat.

Skeleton in the Closet: Kids' own workarounds

But just how effective are these filters? Strictly speaking they get the job done. Every time I tried typing a number in Barbie Girls, a series of nonsensical symbols (i.e. #*#*) would appear in its place. But digital natives can be very clever and creative when it comes to working around Web site safety features. In one virtual world I visited, I witnessed kids asking one another “How many dots are you?” then tapping out the appropriate response with a sequence of periods. On Barbie Girls, a common tactic is using homonyms and rhyming words in place of numbers. I managed to snap a couple of screenshots demonstrating this technique in action during an open party in another Barbie Girls swanky studio apartment. In the first screenshot, PRINCESSCAALAZ is saying “Get it?” “The Number” “Won and Too” (meaning "12"). “Yes,” replies the avatar sitting next to her. Then, in the second screenshot, PRINCESSCAALAZ is stating that she is “the number before,” or 11. At this point, SALOOMY, the girl with the brown legwarmers, announces that she is “mine,” otherwise known as "nine."

Bottom Line: Indeed,’s conversational filters make it exceedingly difficult for kids to spill their essential 411 on the website. Parents should be aware, however, that it is not impossible for children to reveal their essential FOR WON WON on this or any other Web site. As in the real world, children’s virtual-world activity requires ongoing parental supervision and involvement.

More Barbie Girls to come next week! For an index of the complete Undercover Mom series to date, please click here.

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