Whitelist Chat as a Strategy to Protect Children Online

The ability to interact with other players is one of the most compelling aspects of online multiplayer games. However, in games for young children, there are obvious privacy and safety concerns in allowing unrestricted chatting. The state of the art solution, implemented in practically every online community for kids is “whitelist” chat (on some websites, combined with live monitoring). Whitelist chat means that only real dictionary words are allowed (bonus: helps spelling!) and certain real words (e.g., names of place and numbers) are excluded from this list. As an enthusiast of children’s online communities, I’ve been fascinated by the many ways that children have found to get around these restriction. In this blog post, I will use the children’s online game Petpet Park as an example, though honestly it could be one of any number of communities (Roblox, Club Penguin, etc.).

In Petpet Park, children play a creature who does quests around town, plays mini games, buys clothes and toys, and decorates their own little corner of the world. The website combines a strict set of whitelist restrictions and live monitoring to ensure safe chat. However, kids always find a way!

Petpet Park

A screenshot from Petpet Park. Children create creatures that can do quests, play games, and chat with each other.

petpet park taboo

Creative combination of real words and referring to cultural landmarks as a way of conveying real locations — a taboo topic on children’s websites.

Consider the public chat to the right (username removed for privacy). This person has found a creative way of combining real words (“train i dad” = Trinidad) and references to cultural landmarks (“cowboys” = USA, “place with that arch” = St. Louis) to discuss places of residence (a taboo topic on a children’s website). I want to be clear that I am not criticizing Petpet Park. In fact, I was impressed that this discussion was almost immediately shut down by a live monitor (booting the over-sharing child off the server), but this behavior is quite common and the damage could be done before a monitor steps in. Here are some common ways that I’ve seen children getting around the rules:

  • Typing a single letter on each chat line to spell out a forbidden word. (Not possible on all websites — Petpet Park does not allow this, for example)
  • Using the letter “i” to convey numbers. (e.g., “I am i i i i i i i years old”)
  • Spelling out a non-whitelisted word using first letters of allowed words. (e.g., “Read only first letters. My name is Like Amazing Nutty Almonds.”)
  • Using the meanings of allowed words to convey forbidden information. (e.g., “I go to the school that’s named after the guy that flew the kite.”)

The point that I want to make is that no online community is going to be 100% safe. In particular, the state of the art whitelist strategy is only effective when augmented with live monitoring (and even then, it may be too little too late). Safe chat is not a replacement for parental engagement and keeping open lines of communication about online rules. The other thing to remember is that no online filter will ever be able to enforce empathy and kind interaction online or be able to protect the child from being excluded or hurt by others. Both conversations should be an important part of raising digital citizens.

Availabowls and Other Uses of Bowl-and-Pebble Systems

I’ve always been kind of obsessed with interacting with abstract digital ideas using simple physical metaphors. One of my recent projects in this space has recently gotten some press coverage from Fast Company, so I thought that I’d share and offer a bit more detail.

A bowl with physical "pebbles" can be a more intuitive way of managing complex settings.

A bowl with physical “pebbles” can be a more intuitive way of managing complex settings.

The issue is that there are lot of complex settings with many facets that are a pain to manage by using checkboxes in a settings panel. I use privacy as an example in a system I call “Availabowls.” Currently, the granularity allowed for specifying availability is often a bit all-or-none, but there may be a lot of nuances in how you want to manage access to self. For example:

  • I may want to be seen as available to some people/groups and not others
  • I may want to be contactable via some technologies and not others
  • I may want to specify a level of busyness between “available” and “not available” and let the sender decide if they’re issue is important enough to disrupt me

It would be a nightmare to manage each of these settings in a control panel every time I come home. Literally, I have nightmares where I’m swarmed by radio boxes and checkbox panels! Instead, I imagine that a physical token can be used to represent a specific setting. For example, pebbles represent one unit of “busyness,” small blocks represent people or groups of people, plastic tokens represent communication media. Now, to set my privacy settings, I just have to transfer objects between a green bowl (on) and a red bowl (off) when I get home. There’s more about all this in the Fast Company article.

But really, I imagine that a physical pebble-and-bowl system of this sort could be useful for other complex settings. For example, pebbles may represent separate elements of my security system, making it easy to dis/arm everything but also easy to just leave specific elements disarmed (e.g., the back door while I’m having a family BBQ). Or they may represent different eco-friendly subroutines in the house such as ones that turn off lights in un-used rooms, control the house temperature, outdoor sprinklers, etc., again allowing me to only pick the things that I really want to have on right now.

Advantages? I think this is easier to deal with than checkbox panels. It’s easier to have a pebble-and-bowl system “live” where you would most likely be making these changes (e.g., by the front door) than a computer or a tablet. It doesn’t feel like a computer, so it won’t freak out grandma. It’s glanceable or even potentially eyes-free if each pebble has a unique shape.

Disadvantages? There’s only one physical pebble-and-bowl object and I see no elegant way to be able to sync states with this object if you wanted to make changes to your settings remotely or if you wanted to have multiples of these in a big house.

Is this something that appeals to others? Or am I unique in my checkbox-panel-phobia?