Online safety

My daughters have been playing on Stardoll for a while. When they first set up their Stardoll accounts a few years ago, they were both asked to provide a parent’s email, and their accounts were set to Kidsafe Mode automatically, on account of their being under 13 years of age. Kidsafe Mode is meant to be an internet safety measure on Stardoll. It prevents young, non-teen children from accessing the socialising functions on the game, so strangers cannot have a conversation with them. If a child wanted her Kidsafe Mode deactivated, her parent would be notified by email that this had happened, and the parent would be given the option of reactivating Kidsafe Zone if the parent didn’t approve of the child’s wish to deactivate Kidsafe. It really did work, as I’d found out for myself, so I was quite happy with the Kidsafe feature.

Eventually, my kids wanted more. Stardoll is structured such that many of it’s attractive features can only accessed IF a child is able to access the socialising functions of the game. Like a forbidden fruit, this was probably one of Stardoll’s biggest draw for those on Kidsafe Mode. It wasn’t very long before my daughters started asking me to deactivate Kidsafe Mode so they could access those parts of the game that were previously unreachable to them. My daughters said they wanted to buy items of fashion only accessible to those not on Kidsafe for their dolls. I didn’t think it was going to do them much harm, so I deactivated Kidsafe Mode for them, but not before I went through with them the importance of not disclosing anything about their real lives to any strangers they chat with.

With Kidsafe Mode deactivated, they now entered into Stardoll “parties” created by other players not in Kidsafe Mode. Players who were adults or older teens. They could now start amassing loads of new cyber friends on their lists, and start reciprocating good feedback so they can have a shot at being the coolest player or one of the popular ones on the game. They could start buying rare items of clothing or fashion accessories that are only available to those who are able to chat on Stardoll – i.e. to the players not in Kidsafe mode. They started getting loads of chat requests from perfect strangers aged anything from I don’t know… 6 years old all the way into their 30s. I watched as my daughters started giggling and laughing at the silly chats that originated in these chat rooms. They looked forward to logging on to Stardoll daily, and they seemed happy, so I just left it at that.

A few months ago, my 11 year old’s account got hacked. She’d naively set up her account password to be “stardoll”, which was a no-brainer for any hacker. Fortunately, it was easy to reset her password via email, so it was not too traumatic and my daughter learned a valuable lesson about the importance of setting good passwords. It also proved to be a little glimpse, for me, into the less-than-innocent facade of a game which I’d often assumed was pretty harmless fun for chilldren.

A few days ago, my 7 year old daughter told me that my 11 year old had told this Stardoll online “friend” of hers her real full name, the city where we live, and revealed my 7 year old’s real name to this stranger, saying it was her real younger sister, who’s 7.  I was not happy about that. It seemed like my 11 year old got too comfortable with an online “friend” and decided that it was okay, in that instance, to break one of our agreed-upon internet rules about not disclosing any real-life information to online strangers. This is an online “friend” she’d only gotten to know in the past month or so, and whom she’s been chatting with almost weekly. The “friend” said she was a 12 year old girl, and in the absence of contrary information, I’d give her “friend” the benefit of doubt for now, but I still wasn’t happy about the fact my daughter revealed so much so soon. I didn’t want to react so quickly, so I decided to wait a bit and see.

Last evening, I was sitting next to my 7 year old for a short while – at most 5 minutes – while she was on Stardoll. I was printing some papers and as the printer was next to her, I just sat next to her while I waited. My eyes wandered to her screen and I’d unwittingly caught a glimpse of an ongoing real-time group chat on Stardoll involving both my daughters and a couple of other Stardoll users. I was frankly quite unprepared for the chat content I was about to witness. Numerous references to penis sizes, sex, mean-spirited bitchy banter, and the names “gay” or “lezz” (short for “lesbian”) bandied around as cheap insults. It was full of OMGs, LOLs, etc. as you would expect from teens in high school. I could accept that there was teen talk. What I really didn’t like was the unpleasant, nasty undertone. People were not very friendly or nice. Some seemed completely clueless (perhaps they too were young like my 7 year old), but it was obvious who the older ones were from the language they used. I didn’t like the homophobic attitude displayed by the person who thought calling my daughter a “lezz” was a good insult. In short, I really did not like what I saw on there, and although my daughters and I are no strangers to internet chats, this was not like any other internet conversations we’ve had in other times.

I’ll give an example. My daughters are sometimes avid-Minecrafters, and Minecraft is an interactive game involving real-time chat conversations. I’ve seen them at times in the past, play Minecraft for hours on several different Minecraft servers (both homeschool ones and public ones). Never once have I seen chats on Minecraft as sexually-oriented as the conversation I’ve witnessed on Stardoll – and according to my 7 year old, that is typical on Stardoll (!)  I am comfortable with my daughters chatting on Minecraft servers, but after what I’ve seen yesterday evening, I’m no longer comfortable with my daughters chatting on Stardoll. It’s not because I am afraid of my children learning about sex, reproduction, and homosexuality. My kids are already somewhat aware of these things because they love animals and they’ve learnt a lot about how animals reproduce, their life cycles, etc.  Some of our friends are gay and we would never teach homophobic attitudes to our children. What I didn’t like was the general unpleasant, mean tone underlying the group conversation I witnessed, and the constant sexual references. This sort of conversation didn’t feel right on an online chat where there are potentially kids involved (as Stardoll markets itself as a children and teen website), and this would certainly not be a normal conversation in daily life where kids are involved.

This morning, I had a little chat with my daughters after breakfast about this. They explained how things worked in Stardoll. How these chats worked. It was clear to me that Stardoll appealed to them. They thought it was fun dressing up their dolls in the latest fashions, allowing them to express their creativity.They had spent some of their pocket money paying for subscriptions towards Stardoll membership – you could play for free but if you paid for membership, you could purchase rare online fashion items that wouldn’t otherwise be available to non-paying members. It  was like an exclusive club for those who paid. And they have painstakingly worked up the levels in Stardoll from all the “socialising” they do (read : participate in group chats similar to the one I’ve witnessed) and earned accolades, special statuses and items from doing so. It was like a labour of love for them. They didn’t want to let it go.

Whilst I understood the attraction Stardoll has for my daughters, I wasn’t entirely sure that the chat environment in Stardoll was educational nor a positive element that any of my daughters would benefit from. Sure, teens talk about sex, boys, girls, and there’s no sheltering them from that. My daughters attend various activities where they come into contact with teens, so yes, it’s not like they don’t already know what teens talk about. I’m just not comfortable with the fact that these people my daughters encounter on Stardoll chats are complete strangers and often, at least twice their age or more (as can be seen on their profile info – their ages are displayed), and that these strangers are not acting pleasantly online and are talking about sex, genitalia and sexual orientation on a pretty frequent basis. At least in real life, teens don’t always talk about those things. Not the ones we know anyway. I’m not sure why on Stardoll those people feel the need to talk about sexual things so often. It’s not normal, not reflective of life, and I have a very sneaking suspicion that Stardoll has real potential to be a “paedo’s playground”.

So this morning, after discussion, I told my daughter I’d like them to reactivate the Kidsafe Zone on their Stardoll accounts again. They were a little disappointed, as that meant they can no longer buy some of the rare, extra-special fashion items only available to Stardoll members without Kidsafe zones activated, and I am really sorry I had to disappoint them. I was going through this issue all night, and I’ve decided it was for their own good.

This afternoon, my daughters began creating new Stardoll accounts. They seem to have taken on board what I’ve mentioned about online safety, realising their Stardoll names (which were their real first names) were perhaps compromising on online security. To my surprise, Stardoll now did not ask my kids for their parents’ emails. That meant that parents now are no longer notified if Kidsafe Mode on their childrens’ accounts were deactivated. In fact, we easily created new Stardoll accounts using their real birthdates (and therefore making it very clear they are under 13), and found the new accounts were straight away given deactivated Kidsafe Mode statuses, which meant that any child, no matter how young, could now register for Stardoll accounts and have unrestricted access to all of Stardoll’s chat functions (and be potentially exposed to all those unpleasant sexualised chat conversations). So now, parents of children using Stardoll can be blissfully unaware of what their kids and their online Stardoll “friends” get up to, since Stardoll no longer notifies parents about kids gaining unlimited access to chats. Stardoll doesn’t even ask for parent emails now. They mention in their FAQs that “If you have a verified parent email connected to the account, you will be notified if the member turns on or off Kidsafe.” Well that’s not true. In fact now I cannot find a single section on the entire Stardoll website where parents can link their emails to their child’s account.

I’ve sent an email to Stardoll letting them know what I thought. And this is what they wrote back to me :

“Thanks for getting in touch with us.

We are sorry to learn that you and your child have had a bad experience at Stardoll.

The majority of our users are well-behaved and respectful, members who love be on the site, dressing up dolls, looking at new dolls and communicating with each other in a kind and appropriate manner.  However, as you have noticed, there are some who have other interests.

We try to delete all profiles with inappropriate content. We want you to know that we are constantly working on improving the safety of Stardoll.com. We automatically
moderate the site 24/7, we have special staff moderating the site during the peak daytime hours and we consistently remind our users not to give out any personal addresses or information.

We have also developed a more efficient and sensitive bad word filter. We listen to the feedback from our users and parents.

The site is divided in two branches; one that will be open for all members and one for children under the age of 13. The branch for minors does not have the community features – where the users can write content on their own or read content written by other users (chat, parties, clubs, friends, careers…).

In order for minors to access the community version we will ask for a signed parental consent (that is sent to us by fax or scanned and sent via mail). We know this makes a big difference in continuing to improve the safety and appropriateness of the site.”

Well just to be clear, I have not received any consent forms or anything like that in the email after attempting to create new Stardoll accounts for my kids today. In fact, I was NOT asked to provide an email at all in the entire process of registering. Yet on Stardoll’s FAQs, it clearly states they do ask new registrations to confirm email addresses. Well how strange… I sent them a reply telling them this is not a good development. That now they no longer ask for a parent’s email. And not to mention, they don’t even send out those consent forms they talked about. They replied to me with a very short “let us know your kids’ account names and we will activate Kidsafe Mode for them”. But I didn’t need their help. Me and my kids already know how to activate/deactivate Kidsafe mode from their account settings. My concern was that it was so easy to do activate and deactivate Kidsafe mode by the children who have these accounts, that it invalidates the point of Kidsafe. A security feature like Kidsafe operates on the basis that kids do not know as much as adults do, and that’s why there is a safety feature for adults to stop their children from engaging with strangers online – some of whom may use their knowledge to trick children into doing things that will ultimately harm the children themselves. But by making Kidsafe easy to activate/deactivate on the part of the child, it defeats the purpose of allowing the parents/carers of a child a say in how much they want their children to be exposed to, and so it’s no longer keeping “kids safe”.

It appears that Stardoll does not operate in the way their FAQs say they do. There are numerous inconsistencies. I’ve just Googled up what other parents say about it, and it’s not good. All I can say is that in the beginning, when my kids first started playing this, Stardoll operated in accordance with their FAQs. Back then, email addresses were required when registering for Stardoll accounts. Under-13s required a parent’s email and consent to be allowed an account and to be allowed to participate in chats. It has all changed, and not for the better.  How much easier it is now for people to abuse this system – does this explain why there are so many sexualised messages on the chat rooms? If Stardoll does not change how they operate, then I can only conclude, at the end of the day, that the company is only interested in pocketing membership fees. I have no faith in this company at present.

 

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