I thought it was time to check how savvy my children are about staying safe online.
They don’t really use the computer to talk to their friends yet, but they do play on Club Penguin, which has moderated chat rooms and is probably a good introduction to the 21st century world of digital connections.
For months after Ben had started chattering about this great new game he’d found, I didn’t even realise there were other, real people involved.
I was vaguely aware that there were a lot of strangely dressed little penguins scuttling about on-screen with brightly coloured, hairy bobbles following behind them.
But that was as far as it went.
Then one day Hannah mentioned that all the penguins in the room she was in suddenly disappeared when the moderator turned up to tell someone off.
I discovered that there were, in fact, other children operating other penguins, and that they could all select pre-determined messages to send to each other.
Things like “Hi” and “Wanna be friends?”
I discovered that Hannah has 80 buddies – far more than I have on Facebook.
She has some advice for me –
“I just go around asking people, Do you want to be my buddy? Do you want to be my buddy? And they do.”
Simple, when you’re 8.
So today, after Ben tells me he and some school friends have arranged to meet up on-line at 6.30pm in a pre-determined cafe on a particular Club Penguin server, I casually say –
“You do know not to give out your real name and address and phone number on line don’t you?”
“Why?” asks Hannah.
“Don’t they talk to you about things like that at school?”
“No,” says Ben.
“Well, when you’re on-line the people you’re talking to might not really be who they say they are. They might be…” I struggle to find a way to describe the terrifying possibilities they don’t yet know exist… “bad people, bullies.”
“Well I don’t see how they can bully me if they’re not even in the same room as me,” says sensible Hannah.
On one of my many trips in and out of the room containing the computer, I find Ben typing a message.
“What’s that about?” I ask.
“It’s a question for Aunt Arctic,” he replies.
He’s trying to get a letter published in the Club Penguin Times, and has drafted something along the lines of –
“Dear Aunt Arctic, I’m really worried that my friend keeps giving out his name and password. I’ve told him not to, but he says not to fuss. I’m really worried and I don’t know what to do.”
When I show concern that one of his friends is doing this, he says,
“I’m not really worried, I just thought it would be a good way of getting a question printed in the paper.”
When they’re in bed, and Hannah has reassured me that she hasn’t met any burglars online, I can’t resist sneaking onto the site to have a look around.
It’s late, and Town seems to have been taken over by eco-warriers and disco-divas, all inviting each other to parties in their igloos and to “Turn green if you support Earth”.
I’m masquerading as Ben (who foolishly told me his name and password) and am trying my best not to lose him any cash. This means I can’t accept invitations to play games with anyone, as my ineptitude would surely mean losing some of the coins he has amassed in previous contests.
My constant refusals may give him a reputation for rudeness, but at least he will be able to buy food for his puffles (the brightly-coloured hairy bobbles that follow the penguins about) tomorrow after school.
I end up inadvertently interacting with someone, by inviting them for a coffee.
I follow them inside the cafe, but once there I can’t recognise which penguin I’ve invited.
I spend a few minutes whirling around, wondering who I’m supposed to be sitting next to.
When I notice a penguin sitting on its own, its face to the wall with a sulky-faced emoticon hovering overhead, I waddle across to face the music.
But as I haven’t yet found a way to say anything other than the pre-set “Hi” “Howdy” and “Hey There” options, I’m a bit stuck for conversation.
So my new friend gets bored and wanders away.
Time I did the same, before Ben is ostracised by all right-thinking penguins.