Animal Jam screen shot. (Courtesy of the author)

When my 8-year-old asked me if she could join the online game Animal Jam, I wasn’t too worried—it’s a roleplaying world developed by National Geographic Kids and has an educational aspect to it: While kids go exploring, they learn animal facts and watch nature videos. There’s also a chat component to it, which is dicey in a kids’ game, but it sounded like it would be well monitored. Certain words and phrases would be blocked, and you could restrict your child to using only pre-made greetings if you wanted to.

I watched her play for 15 minutes or so, then went off to make dinner. Soon thereafter, there came an excited voice.

“Mom! I think I made my first friend here!”

“Yeah?”

“She keeps making smiley faces at me and she invited me to see her den!”

“Mmmkay . . .”

Her den? Raised an eyebrow a bit, but I again figured, “It’s National Geographic. It’s cartoon animals. What am I worried about?”

Then…

“Uh-oh. I think she might have a crush on me.”

“Why?”

“Well, now she keeps making hearts at me.”

“What are you doing?”

“I did it back because I don’t want to be rude, but . . . OH! She DEFINITELY has a crush on me. She just asked me to make out.”

“To . . . what?!”

My kid was on this game for less than half an hour and a stranger was able to ask her to “make out.” I don’t even know what that means when you’re cartoon seals.

“What should I do, Mom?”

My first instinct was to tell her to log off, whereupon I would lock away the computer until she was old enough to vote. My second was to be quiet and see what she would do on her own, which is the path I took.

What my daughter did was type, “Uh maybe later.”

The seal was persistent. She asked again.

My daughter wrote, “I don’t even know if you’re a boy or girl.”

“Girl, of course!”

“So am I.”

“LIAR LIAR LIAR!!!!!!!!”

Then came the angry cartoon faces. It shocked my daughter as much as it shocked me. What on Earth was going on in this game?

We talked it through: I told her that if anyone ever talked like that to her again, she was to say no and then report and block the player. I was unsure if I’d let her continue playing the game beyond that day, but I figured I’d better set up an account and play alongside her for the time being.

We both quickly got into the groove. It’s a cheerful, interesting setup where the objective is to collect clothing and items to furnish your den, which you can do by buying items in their stores (for “gems”), winning them on adventures, playing a virtual claw machine, or trading other players for them. And at least half the time, all goes well. The game is addictive.

I enjoyed it so much that I began playing it even when my daughter wasn’t there, thinking I could win things for her and delight her with a new rare piece of clothing or a special art easel for her den. I didn’t mean to be an undercover spy. Really, I was just having fun. Except when I wasn’t. Let me tell you about the problem areas:

Unfiltered chats

You can control how freely you want your child to be able to chat, but you can’t control what anyone else can say—which means that while your own child may be restricted to just simple phrases like “Hello,” “Thanks,” and “Goodbye,” there are plenty of kids, teens, and adults on there who can type just about whatever they want and your child will see it.

For instance, numbers. You may set controls so your child can’t type a number, but the other players can, and wind up giving your child a YouTube channel to watch, an Instagram account to visit, or another place to meet online. It’s difficult, but not impossible, to share phone numbers and addresses this way as well. They do this by breaking the information up into more than one chat bubble or using words instead of numbers (for instance, “ate tree” would be “83”). Most commonly, they visit each other’s YouTube accounts—and once they’re off the game and chatting on other social media, they can exchange real-life information.

Mean-spirited interactions

Especially in the beginning, your child won’t know all the unspoken rules and norms of the game and may make some missteps. Mine did.

There’s a room called the “pillow room” where animals often conduct adoptions. This means a cute, innocent-looking animal such as a bunny or seal will ask to be adopted by a paying member—usually someone with a more mature-looking animal such as a wolf or fox. The idea is that the adoptee gets to claim a room in the member’s den and have a “mom” or “dad” in the game. It’s fraught with issues, of course.

These non-members are often seen begging people, “Adopt me plz! Need mommy!” They will follow members around begging, usually to no avail. There is a lot of rejection in this game.

My daughter saw someone begging to be adopted, so she wrote, “I’ll adopt you.” The player wrote, “EWW no!” and left. This was hurtful enough to make my daughter cry.

You’ll also encounter kids role-playing. On my first day, someone ordered the other “clan members” to eat me, so they ran over to me and wrote, “EATS.” As you can imagine, this was disconcerting.

There are lots of vague insults flung around. I rarely saw outright bullying or name-calling (though because they can’t type the real swear word, you’ll see the word “BEACH” a fair amount), but there are plenty of “whatevers” and small infractions. Interestingly, my daughter and I both quit being cute little animals pretty quickly when we saw that the tougher-looking animals tend to get more respect. I didn’t do this as an experiment—I did it because I didn’t like how it felt when other players were rude to me. And I’m 40.

Social shunning

There are several social aspects to the game—first, you can request that someone become your “buddy.” That person may or may not accept your request. New members are often rejected, as are their trade attempts, because they don’t have any good “stuff” to swap. But the part that might be tough for kids to handle is how often people are simply ignored when they try to make conversation.

I found out that you tend to get more social interaction at the “parties” (there’s always one going on). I even witnessed one genuinely touching episode where someone asked a kid what was wrong, and he said, “I miss my grandma,” and suddenly there were seven or eight other kids chiming in with sympathy and advice. “Me too!” “You’ll see her again in heaven.” It eventually got a bit testy with a kid-sized religious debate, but overall, it was supportive and I felt really good about it.

I was shot back down to earth later when a few members in a maze said they were lost and called out for help, and another member responded, “Quit whining! No one cares!” Remember middle school? This is like that.

The lack of responses to my own attempts at conversation continued until I became a polar bear, one of the latest-and-greatest animals in the Animal Jam world. Which leads me to my next point:

Cool kids

The culture here encourages in-crowd mentality. You’re cool if you have the right (newest, paid membership) animals. You’re cool if you have lots of rare items, especially spiked collars and headdresses. You’re cool if you have beta items (rare items from the earliest days of the game). Then people send you buddy requests all the time and actually answer when you speak. People in the game brag about how “rare” they are—or use false modesty and wait for others to say, “Wow, you’re so rare!”

This microcosm of society shows how kids wind up thinking they need the most expensive, latest fashions and gadgets in real life to get respect and admiration. On the plus side, kids who aren’t cool in school can feel cool here.

Scammers

Every day, I encountered people trying to scam others for free items. Some did it with outright begging: “Today is my birthday! Gift me!”

(Yeah, right. Some people have birthdays every week.)

“OH NO I GOT SCAMMED! HELP!”

People claim every day that they were scammed out of rare items, then beg other members to give them gifts to make up for it. Sometimes it’s true; often, it’s not.

There are actual outright scammers as well—people who say, “Gift me a headdress and I’ll send you back 10 spikes,” or something like that—and then just never deliver and block the gift-giver. Or “send me a rare and you can participate in the giveaway at my den”—then locking them out of the den. If your child uses Animal Jam, remind him or her never to trade outside of the established trading system and never share passwords, even with BFFs.

There are also hackers who actually do crack passwords just to get into popular Animal Jammers’ accounts to steal their stuff.

There are even team cons. In one I witnessed, two members were pretending to trade, with one consistently turning the other one down. Finally, the “failed” trader asked the rest of the room if we thought he was offering enough. It was a ridiculous trade: the “failed” trader had a giant list full of the most valuable items in the game, whereas the item he supposedly wanted was something very minor. “If anyone can get that hat, I’ll trade you everything on my list for it!” Sure enough, people ran over to trade their most valuable items for the worthless hat, then the other trader disappeared.

Scammers are typically suspended from the game for just a few days when they’re caught, but almost all of them have back-up accounts—so they just play on their back-ups for a few days and often go right back to scamming. It takes a lot to get permanently banned.

There’s a good amount of peer pressure involved with some of these scams. I even had someone “innocently” ask me for my password so we could swap characters for a while (and, naturally, so he could clean out my inventory). Another person asked to “borrow” a valued item of mine for a role play, promising she’d give it back afterwards.

Let me reiterate that this is extremely common. Your child will encounter scam attempts every day. Many of them fall for it and wind up in tears. Here’s a great example of a mom discussing what happened to her daughter.

Sexual behavior

By far, this was the most disturbing to me. The little seal asking my daughter to make out was mild in comparison to what I saw a few weeks later.

At one of the dance parties, as kids arrived, they were greeted by two pandas . . . mating. There are different actions you can perform as each animal, and these two figured out how to simulate sex in a shockingly realistic way—one rolled back and forth on the floor while the other jumped up and down on top. It was obvious to the kids who knew what sex was.

The one positive was the fast and furious response: “You pandas need to leave!” “That’s disgusting. Report them!” “Get them out of here.” “Hide them.” Numerous kids did report and block them, but this went on for several minutes. I have no idea if they were kicked out of the game eventually, but I was glad my daughter wasn’t playing at the time.

A few of the more innocent kids didn’t understand why the others were so upset. “Are they fighting?”

“No, they’re doing IT,” another helpfully responded.

“I bet they’re grownups,” one added.

Perish the thought.

“My mom told me I shouldn’t play this anymore,” another chimed in. I totally understood.

Possibility of pedophiles

The likelihood of pedophiles playing this game is high. There really aren’t any barriers to their joining, and there are several enticing aspects—they get to choose a cartoon avatar instead of being expected to show their real face or name, and they can invite children to their “den” under the guise of role-playing. Because there is already a good deal of sexual behavior among kids in the game, it doesn’t even raise suspicion when someone writes, “If you’re a boy and are game, go to my den.”

So after all that, am I still letting my daughter play? Yes, but only when I’m in the room, and only because I know her maturity level and that we can use some of this to have open talks about things I didn’t even think about discussing with her earlier. It’s given me a window into kid culture that I didn’t have before . . . not an altogether good or bad one, but a less naive one.

For their part, the Animal Jam staff is aware of these issues and candid about how hard they’re working to stay on top of it all.

“It’s ever-evolving, which is what makes it so difficult to deal with,” says Vice President of Marketing Natalie Shahmiri. “A minority of kids are constantly trying to find ways around the systems we set up. We have in-game monitors who are in there and kids aren’t aware they’re monitors, and we work with chat filtration companies to ban kids for saying certain phrases and try to keep up with the new slang. It’s undoubtedly a massive battle for us and any other virtual world.”

The staff not only watches the game itself, but also the blogs and YouTube videos about it. They have created programming to defeat some of the scamming and sexual actions, but it continues in new forms. Shahmiri says the majority of their budget goes toward community development and monitoring, not marketing, because they take online safety seriously.

Common Sense Media’s Senior Editor of Digital Learning, Chrissy Elgersma, believes that’s true.

“Any game with an open chat feature or user-generated content is risky unless there is careful moderation,” Elgersma said. “That said, Animal Jam actually is pretty careful about the types of communication it blocks; it’s just that kids figure out ways around whatever system is in place. Parents need to be extra careful with any app or game that features open chat or communication between users because no system is perfect.”

Despite that, I hope National Geographic will put more active surveillance into place; with staffers watching the dialogue and actions before it gets to the point of being reported, and dealing with offenders in a much more serious and better explained manner. In the meantime, parents have to make the decision with the understanding that the current monitoring is lacking and that this is a mixed group of kids from elementary school through adult, with all that entails.

And watch out for those seductive seals.

Jenna Glatzer is a freelance writer and book author. She tweets @GhostwriterJG.

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