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A Welsh online safety campaigner is warning that popular Facebook social games encourage bad habits among young users.

Charles Conway, an associate member of the UK Council for Child Internet Safety, says games like Pet Society use virtual cash to reward players interacting with strangers. He says out that in a game designed for the younger Facebook user, basing rewards on “visits” to strangers is a recipe for online “grooming” by strangers.

While Facebook’s rules demand parental permission for any member under age 13, there’s no effective way to enforce such a constraint, Conway told The Register.

“Children mature at different rates,” he explained, “and where a ‘streetwise’ 13-year-old may be able to identify a ‘weirdo’ on Facebook at a glance, another may think a potential abuser is just being friendly.”

Perhaps refreshingly, however, Conway agreed that at least in the home, parental education and supervision are likely to be the most effective defense against online predators.

However, he told The Register that game designers should also consider whether the rewards they offer in child-targeted games are right for the audience. While it’s impossible to interact on Facebook without encountering people you don’t already know, the depth of that interaction in a game environment can be constrained.

For example, game developers could ensure that “connections made [to strangers] are limited to the game environment, and do not create connections on Facebook as a whole”.

Facebook could also play its part, he said. “By choosing to allow developers to access their API and publish those games … Facebook has a responsibility to ensure that users are not exposed to danger from predators by being encouraged and rewarded to connect with strangers, simply to progress in the game environment.”

Facebook's own troubles continue to hog headlines. While calls for privacy probes are escalating in Europe, Australia's privacy commissioner Timothy Pilgrim has accepted the company's assurance that it has revised its cookie use, and suspended his investigation for now. ®

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