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Stealth marketing concerns over kids online sites


By Thuy Vu

CBS5, kpix tv

November 30, 2007


Meet the Tobin family of Los Gatos. Sheridan is 10. Brendan is 8. Ryan is 4. All too young for MySpace and Facebook, but they have their own online playground-- Club Penguin.

In this virtual world, you can rescue stranded penguins, dress them, decorate your igloo, even take them surfing. The site sells memberships for about $60 a year. Both Brendan and Sheridan subscribe. Ryan has a cheaper trial membership, and he's only 4 years old.

"Yeah, it's scary, but it is Silicon Valley," said their mom, Trish Tobin.

"If you get started, it's pretty hard to want to stop," said Sheridan.

The site doesn't have ads, but it does sell its own line of merchandise.

"They don't understand the whole time they're sitting there playing with the penguins, they're being encouraged to think about this brand and potentially buy these Club Penguin plush toys," said Richard Freed, a child psychologist with the national group Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.

Freed is concerned about the growing number of social networking sites for children on the web.

Webkinz, for example, offers a virtual world for your pet, but first, you have to buy the real toy for $16.50. On Whyville, you can customize your own Toyota car. And the Toyota logo is never far away.

But Club Penguin is making the biggest splash because Disney recently bought it and it has the most users, more than 12 million.

"They are from companies whose primary business is to make money from parents, from children," said Freed.

Tobin says she's somewhat concerned her children will want the merchandise promoted on the sites. "I hope not, but you know, we'll watch it."

The sites say they help teach children about the real world by taking care of virtual pets and paying virtual money for things. Club Penguin said "by playing games and collecting virtual coins in order to purchase furniture for their igloo, children... are learning the basics of money management and the value of making smart consumer choices."

But at least one kids networking site, Oakland-based Imbee, is now backing away from commercial partnerships like the one it has with Build-a-Bear. It's focusing instead on educational programs like National Geographic.

"What we've found is what the parents love and what the kids really love are the ones that bring the content they're looking for," said Imbee Founder Jeanette Symons.

Still, child advocates warn too much exposure to the web, in any form, could be harmful. "Kids who spend more time in front of a screen tend to have more weight problems," Freed said. "They tend to not do as well in school."

For the Tobin family, moderation is key. Computer time is limited to two hours on the weekends and making sure the kids have plenty of time not in a virtual playground, but on a real one.

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