Friday, July 11, 2008

Penguins, Monsters, and Stuffies

A few interesting web-based business models are out there now, attracting kids to computers like hummingbirds to sugar water.

Club Penguin. Moshi Monsters. Webkinz. These social networking sites are fun, safe ways for kids to play games on the Internet, interact with other kids online, and they are pretty cute ideas. You can maneuver a a virtual creature around, decorate it's room, make it tell jokes, play games, and take care of it.

Neat, right? At least they are learning to use the computer, instead of sitting in front of the Dinsey Channel all day, right?

A few safety features are in place to ensure that your kids can interact in the virtual world and stay safe.
  • Club Penguin, a free site with membership upgrades, requires you to sign up using a confirmation email in your parents address. Although this can be bypassed by a savvy child using a Gmail account, I don't think most children will have a reason to do this. Also, Club Penguin has a page devoted to internet safety and urges parents to teach their children how to be safe - don't give out personal information, don't share your password, use moderated chat rooms, don't use your real name, etc. Also Club Penguin has something called "Ultimate Safe Chat" which allows children to respond using a preset menu of responses only.
  • Moshi Monsters also requires a parent email address to activate the account, and devotes a parent page to internet safety.
  • Webkinz requires you to purchase a Webkinz stuffed animal, which comes with a code. The code can be used only once to register. I did notice that accounts expire... and I don't know what happens when it does -- are you required to purchase another Webkinz to continue with the site? Webkins says this about their safety:
"In our KinzChat system, the chat is entirely constructed. There is no way for a user to type what they want, nor ask or say anything inappropriate to any other user. We control everything the users are able to say. We have designed our chat menu of choices of sentences and phrases to put safety first. There is no way to exchange any personal information of any sort."

When I started to research for this post, I was expecting to find things that I didn't like, such as ads, uncontrolled chat rooms, sites trying to soak parents for money. I found none of that.
With the exception of the cost to purchase a Webkins ( about twelve dollars, and the kids have a cute stuffed animal to play with), or the optional cost to upgrade the Club Penguin account (about six dollars per month) there is no cost involved. Moshi Monsters is entirely free.

Parents, check your children's accounts. Play the games on their sites ( Webkinz games are fun, and if you don't watch yourself, can be addicting), and manage their time on the sites.
Let them use the sites for down-time and entertainment, but stress that these virtual worlds are just for fun, and shouldn't take up a lot of the time in their lives. Above all, keep them grounded in the real world.