Forsaking their Beanie Babies and Barbies, kids are logging on to child-friendly sites like Webkinz World — virtual communities populated by pixilated pets and cartoon-like characters who they create, name, feed, and clothe in the latest fashions.
Virtual world communities are different from regular online computer games because kids sign on and actually create their own characters, dress and house them, and buy them clothes, toys, and other accoutrements (both with virtual currency and the real stuff). They can play games with these characters, as well as with those created by their real friends who may be playing at the same time on their own computers. By winning games or doing "chores" (like feeding their pets), kids earn points to buy even more stuff.
The high cost of free play
Although most virtual world communities are free to play, there's often a catch. Many promote their own products. Still others are linked to advertisers who recognize a good thing when they see it. What's more, unwitting parents may find themselves besieged with pleas to pay a monthly fee or even spend real money for virtual toys.
Webkinz works a bit differently. You purchase a stuffed cat, dog, monkey, or other animal (costing about $10) at a brick-and-mortar store; it comes with a secret code that offers access to the site — for one year only. Want to continue? Buy another stuffed animal.
Here today, gone tomorrow?
Still, many parents remain unruffled by the online fervor. "It's a fad," says Robin Rosen, an engineer and mother of two in Atlanta, whose daughter loves Webkinz. "Lena would be glued to the TV if we didn't set limits. Now, she's addicted to Webkinz — and in a few months, it will probably be something else." Besides, she notes, since kids are bombarded with advertising everywhere they look, "this is just one more thing we have to stay on top of — and we do."
Most experts agree that these sites aren't inherently bad. And though parents find it hard to wrap their brain around spending real cash for virtual toys, for kids it all makes perfect sense. Here's what you need to know to stay current:
Instill good online habits early on. These sites are most likely the first encounter kids have with the digital world. You've heard it before: computer use should always be previewed and closely supervised by a parent. Keeping the computer in a shared space, not a child's room, allows you to monitor what she's doing.
Set limits and stick to them. In general, experts advise no more than one hour of screen-time per day — be it video games, TV, DVDs, or the computer — unless children need the computer for schoolwork.
Use the frenzy to teach time management. Just as you often lose two hours online when you sit down to return one email, kids get drawn into cyberspace too. This is a perfect opportunity to show her how to set priorities, make decisions, and schedule time wisely. Does she want to watch Animal Planet or play a video game? Then that means no Webkinz today.
Talk about dollar sense. Use virtual cash to discuss real-world saving and spending. Explain your own values, the importance of saving, how you can't always buy what you want, and why you too have felt envious when someone else has more stuff then you do.
Make her media-savvy. To make your child more aware, ask her if playing the game makes her want to buy more toys. Point out product placement when you see it.
Discuss the pitfalls of online chats. These are safe, employing powerful filters that limit the kinds of messages users can send to each other, as well as personal information they can give out. Kids are encouraged to report any bad behavior and those who don't comply do get cut off. Still, feelings may get hurt.