All through college, I’d been working full-time for Neopets, Inc. as their Senior Site Monitor. Back then, Neopets had been pretty new, and contrary to what you might believe, was originally created for college kids to have a place to let off some steam.
In those days (before “lawyerbot”, if you’re familiar), we used trial-and-error to figure out how to deal with issues that were highly sensitive. We also had a really great handle on all the other stuff, but first, my job was to keep the site a safe, friendly place for people of all ages. Make no mistake, there were definitely challenges in doing as much.
1. Profanity is fun for kids.
We had a zero-tolerance policy on this, for obvious reasons. If a parent were to find out that their child was spending hours a night on a site filled with free-reign profanity, we’d have had a LOT of trouble.
Here are some things of which you can be certain:
- Children of all ages WILL use profanity on a website. Without their parents around, they feel like the internet becomes a way they can use these “fun” words without repercussion.
- You will find a mix of children, some who would be appalled, others who are older and will use the words to bully or intimidate, and then those who will try to moderate as much as they can, send in reports, and try to protect the little ones.
- You will have adults in your community. Adults who will argue with other adults. Adults who, in the heat of the moment will forget they’re in a “room full of kids” and drop f-bombs and other bad examples on kids.
You can try several things to combat the use of profanity. One thing we did was to use a filter that took any profane word and changed it to the name of a pet, or an in-game item. The f-bombs became “blumaroo” and the b-word became “rainbow negg”, and so on. It still makes me laugh when I remember the day we enabled the filter, because the kids got SO angry! :) You’d see their second post (once their first one was filtered out to be way less effective then they’d hoped) as “Kiko blumarooing moderators! Why do those dumb rainbow neggs have to ruin all our fun?!?” Haha!
Of course, this was quite troublesome when the kids started using different ways of spelling the profane words, so we’d have to constantly update the filters. Let me tell you, one of the things I adore about children is their huge imaginations, but when I started seeing things that are commonplace now, like “@$$” and “$h!t”, I was totally surprised!
The result was having to use a hefty warning system. We filtered out words every time we found a new one for a very long time, but what it wound up becoming was that use of a profane word prevented your post from going through, and if you got around it somehow, you got a warning. Three strikes and you’re out – banned for 24 hours on the first one, a week on the second, and forever on the third. Kids did NOT want to lose the accounts they worked so hard to build, so it wasn’t a matter of just creating a new one – that would mean starting all over and no kid wanted to do that.
2. Grown-ups. The bad kind.
As in offline life, playgrounds and schools are the most dangerous place when it comes to child predators, online becomes very much the same. A site geared toward kids will always attract the bad guys if it has a chat system or other way for accounts to interact.
Before the days of “lawyerbot” (who is the company’s in-house legal team, given an in-game character name), when I would find any account posting a phone number in public or private messages, I would call the number directly myself. I would either reach the child and ask to speak to the “head of household” where I’d very gently explain who I was, ask them if their child played with a certain account name, and let them know what I saw. Parents would be grateful, and would put the phone down to go speak with (or scream at) their child.
Other times, I called and reached an adult immediately. When that happened, I told them that I was doing market research and wanted to know if they had any children living in their home, to avoid them knowing who I was or that they were “caught”. Believe it or not, there were one or two (thankfully) times when the person said “no”. Which means I’d just reached the person who was pretending to be a child and giving out their phone number. I thanked them for their time and then reported the information to the company lawyer. I do remember one instance resulting in a really big to-do, with an arrest and conviction, which made me feel SO good.
Nowadays, the company does things much differently and I’m not aware of their current process with this. I do know that they have made huge jumps in advancing their policies and processes, because before I left the company in 2001, I had been not allowed to make the phone calls any more. I was told to just send the info to the legal team and delete the messages. I’m more than positive that 10 years later, they’re doing things even better.
* Quick aside: I have 101% faith in Neopets as a company that strives for and achieves perfection when it comes to online safety for children. They’re owned by Viacom now, and have been for several years, which also owns Nickelodeon and other family friendly companies. Please make no mistake, if your children are playing Neopets, they are absolutely safe. Neopets has had a 100% positive track record in keeping kids safe on their site.
3. Kids love to reject authority figures.
I got so much in-game “hate mail” and “Mods Suck!” posts it wasn’t funny. I wish I would’ve saved them and send them to these kids (who are by now, adults) and show them how ridiculous they’d been. But the bottom line thing you need to understand is that kids are surrounded by authority figures in their offline lives. Teachers and school aides, parents, grandparents, friends’ parents, police, firemen, you name it! When they get online they crave the feeling of “freedom” and will cry “unfair” left and right when they’re warned or scolded. They’ll act out, have temper tantrums, and tell all their friends.
Then they’ll calm down, and respect the rules so they don’t lose their accounts. :)
4. You need to keep it fun and silly, period.
One of my favorite things about Neopets was the weekly editorial that came out, with admins answering questions the kids asked. Lots of times the questions would be about certain policies, because the kids don’t want to get in trouble. Other times they’d ask really personal questions to get to know the admins better. Those were my favorite.
Everyone who’s ever played the game for even a short while knows that Borovan (one of the co-creators, his username) is addicted to asparagus, because someone asked what his favorite food was. Every year, on Borovan Day (his birthday), he gets bombarded with virtual gifts of asparagus. The kids do it because they think it’s hilarious that a) anyone would love asparagus and b) they can take part in a unified “asparagus bombing”.
Another time, a player asked “How to I make sure my article gets posted in the Neopian Times?” and the editor (the other co-creator) answered, “Cookies would help.”
From then on, nearly every question, article, or post they submitted would say at the end, *hands you cookies*. No matter how many times the editor says, “Okay, enough with the cookies, we’re gaining too much weight!” the kids would keep “sending cookies”. They often would get really silly about it, saying things like *hands you 1/3rd of a cookie so you don’t get too fat* or *hands you sugar-free cookies*. Kids pay attention.
Bottom line is that kids are awesome, fun, silly creatures and as long as you interact with them on a level that allows them to be awesome, fun, and silly, they will be happy and are guaranteed to make you laugh. This makes your job SO easy and fun!
5. Boredom is your worst enemy.
You cannot simply create something and let it run on its own fuel. It’ll die out like a sugar crash. You HAVE to keep things lively on your site, you HAVE to invent new things, new activities, new games all the time. I know that this may sound crazy, but if you’re not coming out with something new at least once a week, the kids will absolutely get bored and will leave. Attention spans in kids is ultimately low, and even if they’re learning something (without knowing they’re learning), if they’re not seeing something new on a regular basis, they’re going to bail.
The truth is, this isn’t cheap. You must have developers working full-time and busting their butts to make the ideas come to fruition. Take notes from things the kids say, come up with a new idea, and execute it within a few days. Lather, rinse, repeat. In order to have a good dev team to make sure this happens, you will have to give them a full-time job. No freelancers. You need people who live, eat, sleep, and breathe your community and nothing else.
Do you own or manage an online community for kids? Feel free to share your thoughts and experiences below.