C-c-c-click on clubpenguin
IN THE midst of last week's calls to step up child safety on the internet, thousands of children were logging on and hanging out on clubpenguin.com.
According to its 'Parents of Penguins' guide, the website is "a kid-friendly virtual world where children can play games, have fun and interact with each other".
This social networking website is offering children the chance to "waddle around and meet new friends".
So how does it work?
Each player chooses a penguin, names it and gives it an identity. Members can chat, play games, send messages and dance with their little happy feet.
It's basically Bebo for children aged between eight and 14.
"We wanted it to be a situation like they're on the playground, like they are interacting with each other, and not just an isolating experience," says Lane Merrifield, one of the site's co-founder.
"This is a safe and moderated way for kids to be able to hang out with their friends at school, and then to hang out online in different ways when they're at home."
The Canadian-based website was set up in October 2005 by three dads who "wanted to create a place on the internet where they'd be comfortable letting their own children visit".
The popular website boasts "the perfect solution for parents seeking the ultimate in online safety".
Spokeswoman Karen Mason told the Sunday Independent: "Everything about Club Penguin is set up to protect its users, and there are various safeguards in place. Parents can choose the level of chat their children can participate in. One form allows children to choose from a pre-set menu of conversation options.
"The other allows users to type in their own messages. Every message goes through a sophisticated filter system that blocks inappropriate words."
Sex and drugs are off the preset menu but so are telephone numbers and any references to home and school.
"The filter won't allow users to communicate a phone number or other things that could identify them or help someone locate them. It is even set up to catch conversation threads that might be used by someone who was trying to elicit personal information. For example, if I try to type in the words 'mother', 'home' or 'school' in any way, they will not go through the system. While these words seem harmless on their own, they could be used in a conversation to get information about a user. 'Is your mother home?', 'Where do you go to school?'"
As a result, those words, and others like them are not considered appropriate for Club Penguin. Rogue penguins who break the rules can be silenced or banned.
But despite the strict privacy policies and the parental guidance, how can one be certain that their Penguin counterparts are in fact kids?
"Club Penguin is designed for children but we can't guarantee that every person who visits the site is a child," Karen said. "We have a large team of moderators who work to keep Club Penguin safe for everyone. A large number are parents, particularly moms."
The website is solely funded by subscriptions purchased on credit cards.
FOR parents of young children, the sinister world of social networking is a frightening reality. Last week, Bebo's chief security officer, Irishwoman Dr Rachel O'Connell, called for a Government-supplied email address for every child, as a way of verifying their age.
Unlike Club Penguin, where playing in a winter wonderland and furnishing your igloo is the name of the game, other child websites appear more sinister.
Imbee.com and tweenland.com require that a parent's credit card and email address be provided to ensure adult approval.
But on imbee.com, a Californian-based site, there is only a token effort to create a parent-friendly site. Anyone can sign up under any name, as any age. All you have to do is give a parent's email address.
As an Imbian, you have the opportunity to sign up to social groups and discuss 'life', 'boys' and 'being lonely'.
Faced with a future where computers are child's play and virtual pals have replaced imaginary friends, it's no surprise that parents seem happy to simply let their kids "waddle on".