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Kids are exploring dating in virtual worlds, but everyone is keen to stop them. Fortunately, all of it — the park, the boy, the prom — was merely virtual.

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The date took place in Fantageshort for "fantastic age," a virtual world made for kids that lets users chat, attend parties, host fashion shows, play mini-games, and even go to school. Virtual worlds like Fantage are fun, innocent, bright-colored versions of the massively-multiplayer online games that teenagers and adults play.

They also unintentionally function as online dating sites for the elementary and middle school set. Online dating for middle schoolers is pretty primitive. Kids pair off by asking "say if u want me" and break up just as abruptly — like, five minutes later — by dropping a quick "brb" and then disappearing to another server. Boyfriends and girlfriends can do little besides chat, go to the virtual pizza parlor, play games against each other, and send heart emoticons back and forth.

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Fantage is one of many free and paid virtual worlds that have attracted Collin Wisniewski, a year-old who lives in New York, was a very active Club Penguin user when he was He and his friends liked it for the games, but he remembers there was quite a bit of flirting going on. This kind of kiddie flirtation is pretty harmless, but most sites prohibit any type of dating.

Club Penguin does not consider dating to be age-appropriate for its seven-toyear-old audience, and Fantage goes so far as to replace the words "boyfriend" and "girlfriend" with "friend" in chat. There are two reasons for the prohibition. The first is that some parents are uncomfortable with the idea of their young children engaging in any type of sexual role playing, no matter how innocent.

The second is that these sites do attract pedophiles.

Come into my igloo: online dating as an 8-year-old

Estroff has dived into popular virtual communities including Club Penguin, Poptropica, and Star Dolluncovering things like cyberbullying, classism, and over-aggressive advertising. But of all the things that parents might disapprove of, she found the crude dating life to be the most unsettling.

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The worst was Barbie Girlswhich "was really, really filled with it, and it seemed like there were a lot of creepy characters there," she told The Verge. The worst thing we discovered on our own was probably this hardcore Animal Jam wolf sex tape. Hence the ongoing censorship war between the kids and the sites' moderators.

Kids can be pretty creative when it comes to "dictionary dancing" to get around word filters. This is how "valentine" becomes "val," then "vuv," then "buv," as each new term gets banned, a rapid maneuvering reminiscent of Chinese netizens circumventing the Great Firewall.

For moderators, it's a balancing act.

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If the site gets too draconian — for example, by banning the "heart" emoticon — users will rebel. If the site gets too lenient, parents will forbid their kids from playing. Most sites use a combination of semantic processing, user reporting, and human moderators in order to catch flirtation and sexual overtures, as well as things like cyber bullying and self-abuse.

But the key is to spot the real threats The system has a lot of false positives, so it takes a few alerts to bump up a user to the level where a moderator will be asked to intercede.

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It used to be that a site needed a moderator for every 2, concurrent users, Maude said, but with technology, that can be reduced to one moderator for every 12, users. Crisp Thinking also uses blacklists and whitelists of forbidden and permissible words, a practice employed by almost all virtual worlds aimed at young users. Whitelisting helps keep things safe and also ensures sites are in compliance with the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, which prohibits sites from collecting personal information either purposefully or by accident.

However, whitelisting has limited power. Crisp Thinking focuses on the really dangerous scenarios in which kids are exchanging personally identifiable information, arranging a place to meet, or being " groomed " by a predator, he said.

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Questions like "when do your mom and dad get home," are typically at the top of the list of red flags. Crisp Thinking even gets "grooming scripts" from the UK police in order to stay up on pedophile slang. Club Penguin is one of the most popular kiddie worlds with around million registered users and an average age between 11 and 12, according to KZero.

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Bought by Disney inClub Penguin does its moderation in-house. Its system uses dating sites for 9 year olds lists, word filters, and the other known tricks, but it goes a bit further. Moderators also immerse themselves in the game, going undercover to monitor slang trends and look for new phrases. We're able to get a very good sense of what's going on in the environment and in the audience. Poitras said Club Penguin has "hundreds" of moderators worldwide, which he believes is one of the largest if not the largest moderation staff out of comparable sites.

Ultimately, stopping predators from grooming children is much more important than preventing kids from pretend dating. Subscribe to get the best Verge-approved tech deals of the week. Cookie banner We use cookies and other tracking technologies to improve your browsing experience on our site, show personalized content and targetedanalyze site traffic, and understand where our audiences come from.

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