This past spring, 10-year-old Adam Young joined other tweens on Club Penguin, playing games, throwing virtual snowballs and chatting with fellow kids who appear onscreen as plump cartoon penguins. A few weeks later, Adam asked Mom to pay $5 a month for extra features, such as decorating his online persona's igloo.
Karen Young demanded to learn more about what some have billed as "training wheels" for the MySpace generation. She spent time on the site with Adam and consulted with her sister, the mother of another daily visitor.
"I said, 'Well, what is it? What does it involve?'" Young recalled. "I wanted him to show me what he wanted and what it was about."
Drawing preteens as young as 6 or 7, sites like Club Penguin and Webkinz are forcing parents to decide at what age they are willing to let their children roam about and interact with friends online. They, along with schools, are having to teach earlier lessons on safety, etiquette and balance with offline activities.
"It's kind of like what happened in the real world with Cabbage Patch dolls and Beanie Babies," said Monique Nelson, executive vice president of Web Wise Kids, a nonprofit focused on Internet safety for children. "Their friends are doing it, so like kids who follow like sheep, they go online and go on these sites."
According to comScore Media Metrix, U.S. visitors to Club Penguin nearly tripled over the past year, while Webkinz' grew 13 times.
Peggy Meszaros, a professor of human development at Virginia Tech, said kids' identities begin to blossom by 8 and they start wanting to meet other children, so these sites may become their introduction to social networking. But she said kids that age would get much more "going to the swimming pool and meeting friends face-to-face," making parental oversight of online usage ever-important.
Young, a first-grade teacher in Louisville, Ky., ultimately deemed the environment relatively safe and agreed to pay for a membership. Unlike News Corp.'s MySpace, the anything-goes site frequented by Young's older son, Club Penguin limits what kids can say to one another, reducing the risks of predators and online bullying.
That sentiment was echoed by Tony Bayliss, father of 7-year-old Maisie in England. Club Penguin is the only site Bayliss lets Maisie visit unsupervised; Bayliss also has a cartoon penguin of his own and visits his daughter online while traveling.
"It's what the future is," Bayliss said of the online environment. "It's what she's going to be using for the rest of her life."
Club Penguin was started more than a year ago as "an online playground for kids," said Lane Merrifield, the site's co-founder and chief executive. "How can we take the fun pieces of these more grown-up and adult (social-networking) sites and surround them in a safe environment?"
Kids win gold coins by playing games such as sled racing and, with a paid membership, buy virtual items like furniture and clothing. Kids can attend parties and make friends by adding other penguins to their buddy lists.
The site, from Canada's New Horizon Interactive Ltd., does not try to keep out older users — after all, anyone can lie about age. Rather, it builds in controls meant to curb outside contact and harassment. The company says it has never had a problem with predators.
Parents can choose an "ultimate safe" mode, meaning chat messages sent and received are limited to prewritten phrases, such as "How are you today?"
In the standard mode, kids can type messages like any other chat program, but only the sender sees messages containing foul language and even innocent-sounding words such as "mom" — to prevent someone from asking, "Is your mom home?" Senders would think they are being ignored and not try tricks to bypass filters.
The filters also catch numbers that might form a phone number a kid is trying to share, even if someone tries to replace "1" with "one."
Veterans can apply to become "secret agents," responsible for patrolling the site and reporting bad behavior, and violations can get a kid banned for a day or longer.
Likewise, Webkinz limits chats by permitting only prewritten phrases, and e-cards go only to those already on friends lists.
Kids take quizzes or perform chores to earn "KinzCash" to buy furniture for their virtual room and food for their virtual pet. They must return to the site regularly to keep their pets fed and healthy; otherwise, it's a trip to Dr. Quack for medical care, though the pets themselves never die.
Unlike Club Penguin, though, access to the Canadian-based site from Ganz is restricted to those who buy a Webkinz plush toy at a retail store for about $15, many of which have been selling out because of high demand: Think Beanie Babies with an online component. A code on each toy unlocks the site for a year.
Both sites do require some reading skills, though younger kids can participate with older siblings or parents.
Other popular tween online hangouts include Millsberry, a General Mills Inc. site that promotes good eating but features product placements for its cereals, and Numedeon Inc.'s Whyville, where tweens play games and earn clams.
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