Webkinz made my child a computer junkie

It's astonishing but my 6 year old daughter has become fixated by an online world called webkinz and so have her school friends.

My chum Sam Sethi of Vecosys who also has young children has written a number of times about his concerns about the lack of child-safe environments on the internet, finding serious flaws with offerings from weighty brands such as Nick Jnr.

Well, I have to confess Webkinz is impressive, both commercially and from a parenting perspective.

On the former, you get access to the Webkinz world via the purchase of an offline physical toy "pet" and there's a series to collect. I believe they may only be available in the USA presently - my daughter got hers (she has several) courtesy of the American parents of a boy in her class, the family of which have also become great family friends of ours. The formal "adoption" of the pet is done online and this grants you a year's access to Webkinz world. So in a year's time if her addiction continues, I know I will be forced to either get her another or pay for access. So it's effectively a subscription revenue model. More annoying/impressive is that kids are keen to collect the set and want to buy more pets they can adopt, but the pet subscriptions run concurrently rather than sequentially - you try telling your 6 year old to wait 11 months before adding her latest pet to the system

Inside the world, your pet comes alive! And just like a tamagochi, it needs to be fed, amused, bought trinkets/toys and rested. To pay for this, you have to earn webkinz credits/currency called Kinzcash by playing games. And boy, is this a motivational thing - the kids are competing like crazy to "earn" kinzcash. Moreover, they are learning about having to make spending choices and being restricted to things they can afford - no overdrafts or debts offered here.

The games are harmless enough albeit not massively educational. There is a large range of activities/games to choose from and the quality of their construction and the site generally is fairly good. Some of the games are single player, but some involve you playing against others who are also online.

So, I was initially alarmed when at the end of a game she was proudly demonstrating to me, the person she was playing against invited her to become a "friend". I was horrified by how easy it was for her to click" yes" in her innocence and connect with whomever. But then having insisted she decline any future offers, I took a close look at how this social network operated and was more impressed with its' structure.

You can only "chat" to others inside Webkinz using pre-defined words and phrases. Given that most young children haven't mastered spelling and sentence cosntruction, this is seen by them as a helpful feature. More importantly, you can't reveal your identity or age etc because these aren't approved words and numbers aren't permitted. So the opportunities for conversations that would terrify a parent are effectively eliminated.

Bear in mind this is a social network for tweenies and not your street savvy teenager. So the constraints operated are not a major turn-off. Were this simple technique applied by Nick Jnr or the BBC heralded Second Life for kids, I think it would certainly make life for parents and operators alike much less worrying.

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posted by John Wilson @ 11:09 PM Permanent Link newsvine reddit


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