03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

I Was an Undercover Penguin: A Parent's Eye-View of Kids' Online Worlds

I am, hands down, the most hated mom in virtual Antarctica. Well maybe I'm the only mom in virtual Antarctica. But that's exactly the point, isn't it?

Perhaps I should back up a bit. A year ago, in the middle of a play date with one of his best buddies, my nine-year-old asked me how to spell penguin.

"Penguin?" I asked puzzled. "As in Mr. Popper's Penguins?

"No," my son answered, "As in Club Penguin. Ben wants to show me his igloo and we can't get to the website."

While I'm not a fan of hover-parenting, there was something about the hunger (desperation?) in these kids' eyes that prompted me to linger a little longer.

No sooner had Ben logged onto his Club Penguin account, than my computer screen revealed a polar parallel universe. Scores of penguins waddled about some sort of swanky ski village setting. There was a pizzeria, a coffee shop, and trendy boutiques; ski lifts, snow tube rentals, and an ice hockey rink. A mushroom cloud of speech bubbles hovered overhead as everyone seemed to have something to say.

"That's me," said Ben, pointing to a red bird in a football jersey. "And this," he announced clicking on a small icon in the lower left-hand corner of the screen, "is my igloo."

"Whoa!" my son gasped. Whoa, was right. Ben's igloo was a fully-loaded bachelor pad. There were leather sofas, plasma TV's, a Jacuzzi, and a waterbed. A giant disco ball hung from the ceiling above a bearskin rug on the hardwood floor. That's when I pulled out my Blackberry to do a bit of investigative Googling.

Club Penguin, it turns out, is actually a virtual world for kids -- a new breed of children's website that can best be described as part social networking, part video game, part Saturday morning cartoon. Using animated avatars to represent themselves, kids have their own virtual world homes, cash accounts, and online posses. They attend parties, go shopping, and work odd jobs. Most importantly, they communicate with the millions of other kids/avatars using acronyms, emoticons, and ever-evolving cyberslang. Up from zilch scarcely three years ago, there are currently hundreds of millions of school-age children hanging out in online worlds - with an estimated 30 million on Club Penguin alone (no wonder Disney shelled out $700 million for the CP back in 2007!). Research suggests that the global virtual world population will be into the billions within the year.

Children's virtual worlds sell themselves to parents as safe, convivial places for grade-schoolers to play, learn, and make friends. Still, I couldn't help but wonder -- with kids flocking to them by the bazillions, could they really be so squeaky clean?

Convinced that I couldn't get the full scoop from these websites' Pollyannaish parent guides, I opened a Club Penguin account of my own -- officially kicking off my undercover journey through the uncharted parental terrain of kiddie cybersocial world. In the coming months, I'd travel from Club Penguin to Barbie Girls to Webkinz to Stardoll to wherever else my children and the rest of the U12 cybermasses led me, detailing my eye-opening experiences in Good Housekeeping magazine and on my Undercover Mom blog, carried by Net Family News.

But it wasn't until FOX News did a story on the social caste systems I uncovered in kids' virtual worlds that I began to feel the wrath of the penguins.

I'd been shocked to discover that I couldn't purchase virtual clothing for my avatar without a paid premium membership to the website -- about $60 a year in Club Penguin's case. (This may not seem like such a big deal; but believe me, once you've been forced to streak through a chatroom full of coutured peers, you realize that it is.) Nor was I allowed to upgrade my tiny igloo to a posh polar palace (like Ben's), or buy high-end virtual furniture and electronics, or lots of cute cuddly cyberpets... Perhaps worst of all was my ongoing exclusion from "members-only" parties. Many of these elitist gatherings were hosted by kids, but some were sponsored by the website itself, like the Club Penguin's Members-Only Christmas sleigh ride celebration.

Within hours of FOX's airing of the story, my Undercover Mom inbox was flooded with hate mail. One youngster -- who identified himself as a member of the Club Penguin Mafia (yes, you read that right) -- called me a "psycho soccer mom". Another deemed me a "nosy Club Penguin hating whore". And that was only the tip of the iceberg; there are hundreds of similarly scathing comments on YouTube and kids' Club Penguin blogs.

"Not to worry," my producer at Fox assured me. "It means you've hit something big." And apparently I have. It's been over a month since the segment first aired and the jeers continue to roll in.

Perhaps the irony is that -- despite being labeled something of a penguin pariah -- I don't have it out for Club Penguin. On the contrary, I found it to be a wonderfully fun and whimsical website -- a kid-friendly oasis in a cybercesspool of less savory options for children. Ditto for most of the hundreds of other youth-oriented virtual worlds launched of late.

But therein lies the problem as well. Already hyper-concerned about Internet dangers, millennial parents have been lulled into a false sense of security regarding children's online worlds. They've been comforted too easily by these websites' promises of content filtering and monitors, subsequently allowing their kids to play on them wholly unsupervised for hours on end; essentially relinquishing their parental judgment and authority to a Wizard-of-Oz-like entity. Nevertheless, the reality remains that virtual playgrounds - like real world playgrounds - require consistent parental supervision and guidance to remain safe and positive spaces for kids.

What I tell the parents who attend my workshops on digital parenting is this: For every interface your child has with digital technology find a real world parallel. Would you let your child have a playdate with tons of other kids behind the closed doors of her bedroom? Would you entrust her well-being to a babysitter/monitor who is also watching 30 million other children at the same time? Do you believe that a for-profit commercial website - no matter how well-intended - could possibly hold the same goals for your children as you do?

This undercover penguin, for one, hopes not.

FOX News 11 LA will air another segment in January about all the flirting and romancing I witnessed undercover in kids' virtual worlds. Stay tuned.