Today’s parents might be able to understand Webkinz by remembering the “Beanie Baby” or Cabbage Patch Kids. Beanie Babies and Cabbage Patch Kids were toy dolls that came with official “adoption papers” and, for whatever reason, kids went crazy for them. The same thing is happening with Webkinz.
Webkinz are plush toy “pets” that come with an online twist. The toys come with a code number to type into the Webkinz website. Once the Webkinz owner is logged on, the owner joins a virtual Webkinz world. Kids care for the pet online and earn money to buy things for their pets. There is also a part of this Webkinz world that is social. Kids can participate in online chat with other Webkinz owners. This is an exciting feature for kids but a worrisome feature for some parents.
The typical Webkinz owner is in elementary school. This happens to be a very vulnerable age for children using the web. At this age, most parents don’t let their children out in the real world unsupervised, and they don’t want them unsupervised in the virtual world either.
Chat rooms have become popular online hangouts for pedophiles and dangerous places for children. Because of the dangers involved in online chatting, parents are understandably worried about the safety of their children in the Webkinz online chat room, “KinzChat”.
One thing that might ease a parent’s mind is how this chat room works. In KinzChat there can be no personal information given. Instead of typing in messages, the Webkinz owner selects messages from a field of possibilities. They can post a message about their pet, but not a personal message; everybody chooses from predetermined message parts.
This precaution protects kids from typical chat room come-ons. It also prevents children from giving strangers vital information, like addresses. There are no private rooms so there is no possibility of a private conversation between a child and anybody else. Because the chatting is anonymous, there are no personal connections. This seems like it would make KinzChat chatting perfectly safe. Right?
Maybe not. While KinzChat does protect children from predation on this site, it might prepare them for predation on other sites. By making children comfortable in a chat room environment, this site may inadvertently prime children for public chatrooms before they are ready.
There is already a “next step” available on the Webkinz site: KinzChat PLUS. On KinzChat PLUS, members type in their own messages. There is a “restricted dictionary” that the words in the message must be taken from but it is definitely a step towards bigger, badder chat rooms.
Parents of children who have Webkinz need to monitor online behavior. If a child begins to use the chat rooms (which are called Club Houses in Webkinz world), his parents should take the opportunity to discuss chat room safety. It is important for parents to remember that children can go to other sites once they are online. Just because the kid logs on to Webkinz World is no guarantee that he is going to stay there.
Children should be educated about the dangers of the Internet. They should know that there are predators out there. There should be rules and guidelines for Internet use posted by the computer. Filters and content blockers can be purchased to help monitor Internet use. Until children fully understand the hidden dangers of the Internet, they should not have Internet privacy. This is especially true for elementary school kids. Kids should be monitored and show that they are ready for Internet freedom when they show that they are responsible.
Webkinz allows children to begin to use the Internet in a safe environment. However, children should be monitored to make sure they stay in that safe environment.