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The Surprising World of Tween Online Dating

A few years ago, author and digital parenting expert Sharon Duke Estroff’s son joined Club Penguin, Disney’s online virtual world where kids assume cute penguin personas and play games, chat and visit each other’s igloos. Estroff wanted to see what the site was all about, so she joined, too. What she discovered surprised her.

She says she immediately noticed that at least 50%–70% of penguin avatars were engaged in flirting or dating behavior, swapping lines such as “R u taken?” “Come here all beautiful girls,” “Looking for the ladies” and sharing Eskimo kisses.

Club Penguin is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the secret online dating world of tweens.

While the flirting was tame (the site employs strict controls, filtering and blocking inappropriate chat), she found it unsettling to see any such behavior injected into a children’s game. And she says she found it really creepy that kids had no way of knowing who they were really flirting with.

“It’s one thing if it’s just you and another 8-year-old, but you really don’t know because there are teens on there and weirdos, too,” says Estroff.

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It turns out, however, that Club Penguin is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the secret online dating world of tweens.

In an article on Mashable, mom Rebecca Levey tells about how her daughter spent a Saturday hanging out with a boy in the park who asked her to the prom. The catch? Her daughter is 10, and all of this activity happened on another virtual website for children called Fantage. Levey went on to say she was helping her daughter pick out a prom dress in the online boutique, glad that the real prom was years out in the future, but with some concern that it was all happening too fast for her daughter—even if only in make-believe.

While some may question the appropriateness of 10-year-olds going to virtual proms, Fantage, like Club Penguin, is a heavily monitored site designed for children.

Things get dicier, however, if kids “reach out to other virtual worlds where there may not be as many controls, especially if they’re geared for 13 and older,” says Caroline Knorr, parenting editor for Common Sense Media, a nonprofit advocacy group for children.

For example, Habbo Hotel, a popular teen chat and gaming site for the over-13 set where kids design hotel rooms, invites users to “Flirt, date, fall in love, and maybe meet that special someone... or something!??” Common Sense Media has rated it the site “not for kids” because of its risqué chat rooms like "Sexy Singles Club" and "Love in this Club [beds]." However, if a kid is willing to fake a birthday, any 9- or 10-year-old can join and start playing.

Tweens are comfortable interacting with strangers in a virtual environment.

The looser the controls a site has, the greater chance that kids can get around filters—as well as parents looking over their shoulders, says Hilary DeCesare, co-founder of Everloop, a social network site for children under 13. “There are over 2,000 different ways of text talking, and these are what kids are using in the chat rooms,” she says. “You may not really know what your child is saying.”

For example, you may have figured out that “Code 9” means “parent in the room,” but may be clueless that a certain combination of dashes, colons or parentheses means “let’s meet in real life.”

Of course online dating and flirting doesn’t stop at virtual world sites.

One mom, Monika Lingle of Carlsbad, Calif., was “appalled” when last year she checked her 11-year-old daughter’s Instagram account (Instagram is a photo-swapping app that many tweens use) and saw that some of her daughter’s friends had posted cheesecake shots at the beach with “come hither” looks. “My daughter wasn’t posting them, but there were so many photos I found inappropriate,” she says. She also worried what shots boys might be posting. After some discussion, her daughter shut down her account.

With 7 1/2 million tweens on it, DeCesare says Facebook is another potential issue—despite the fact that you’re technically supposed to be 13 to use it. Her latest concern is Facebook’s new Social Graph function, which allows users to find friends in their town with similar interests. “Basically it allows kids to online date by saying, 'show me all single friends in San Francisco,’” she says. “This is a very scary proposition.”

Christine Weber, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Long Island, N.Y., has concerns about a trend she’s seeing in online conversations where a boy may ask to be superior to a girl and the girl is supposed to act submissive. According to Weber, this can alter a child’s expectations of what a normal romance is, and “as a result, age-appropriate interactions are perceived by kids as boring and uninteresting.”

So what is a parent supposed to do with all this information?

It may help to understand the lure of online dating. As far as virtual worlds go, kids are attracted to it because it’s a “safe way to experiment,” says Vanessa Van Petten of RadicalParenting.com. “If they flirt with someone from school and the crush is not reciprocated, that is embarrassing. In a virtual world, there are not consequences, so to speak. They can walk away from an avatar if things are not going well.”

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In her experience, “Boys use it more to practice flirting, and girls use it as a self-esteem booster—oh, someone is flirting with me; it must mean I’m special.”

Tweens are also “comfortable interacting with strangers in a virtual environment,” says Knorr. “This is very different from how we as parents grew up. We are naturally skeptical of who we meet online.”

Also, the tween years are a natural time of exploring identity, including their awakening sexual identity, she adds. While previous generations used to channel their budding interest in the opposite sex through phone calls and school dances, today’s tweens have the option to do it online. “It’s just another avenue of exploring developmental milestones,” she says.

Experts are in agreement, however, that parental involvement is the key to making sure your tween is participating in a safe online environment. This includes monitoring your child’s computer use, having access to his or her smartphone password, making sure your child is aware of the potential dangers the Internet can hold, and talking freely about any issues or questions your tween has.

And periodically checking in on your kid’s virtual igloo or prom date is a good idea, too.

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