tap into the Web
Online sites offer interactive chat, games and shopping
opportunities to preteens
By Tricia Bishop
April 5 2007
For a stuffed bulldog, Calvin has it pretty good. He
lives a full, if virtual, life online and has a pad
decked out to his tastes, which currently run sort of
froggy style, says owner and decorator Jake Reynolds, a
9-year-old from Forest Hill.
Six months ago, the third-grader got sucked into
Calvin's world and hasn't left it since. He can't. Once
Jake used the secret code that came with his
store-bought bulldog to create an online version at
Webkinz.com, he committed to feeding and shopping for
the pup regularly while interacting with other kids and
their virtual pets on the Internet.
"You have to play it mostly every two days or every day,
because if you don't, then their health meter goes all
the way down and they'll get sick," Jake says
matter-of-factly. "I do it just about every day because
I just really, really like it."
Webkinz.com is one of a growing number of
social-networking sites aimed at the teen set, many of
whom have watched older siblings interact online at
places such as MySpace.com and want some of the action
for themselves. And businesses are more than happy to
grab the attention of the newest generation of
Such "tweens," children roughly ages 6 to 12, spend as
much as $40 billion per year - up from $6 billion in
1989 - and help their parents decide how to spend
another $200 billion annually, according to a survey by
PreteenPlanet.com. That makes them an attractive
demographic, particularly in the online world where,
until recently, they had been largely ignored.
"This is an underserved audience," said Anastasia
Goodstein, who last month published a book on children
and the Internet called Totally Wired: What Teens and
Tweens are Really Doing Online. "I think you'll continue
to see new companies pop up in this space."
Creators of such sites say they're teaching kids
computer, financial and social skills while providing a
safe, monitored environment in the wilds of the Web. But
critics say they're just teaching consumerism, with a
materialistic focus on shopping, even though the
products and the funny money used to buy them exist only
A Webkinz primer, for example, points out that "Everyone
enjoys a little retail therapy."
That site, which local retailers say took off during the
past few months, is a two-year-old venture from Canadian
toymaker Ganz. It enables kids to mix and mingle with
other kids, play games, make movies, read a daily
newspaper and spend a mint in earned "KinzCash."
It has thousands of children like Jake and his siblings
- 5-year-old Sarah and 8-year-old Nicholas - hooked with
its double threat of a cuddly stuffed animal (available
from specialty retailers) and an accompanying code,
which lets children create animated versions of their
plush pets on the Internet and furnish their virtual
"It teaches them responsibility because they can earn
money through jobs [online]," says Jake's mother, Kim
Reynolds, whose kids use their allowances to buy the
Webkinz critters or get them as holiday gifts.
As with the Beanie Babies craze one decade ago, the $8-
to-$13 Webkinz are selling faster than Ganz can make
them, with shipments around the Baltimore region on back
order (one eBay auction is offering three "retired"
Webkinz at $500 a pop). But unlike Beanie Babies, their
allure is less about the product than the Internet
connection they offer, along with other sites.
Among the most popular sites today is Clubpenguin.com,
which was launched in October 2005 by Canada's New
Horizon Interactive. There, animated penguins waddle in
and out of igloos, controlled by kids who say the best
part is playing with their peers.
At Whyville.net, virtual citizens fly hot-air balloons -
ostensibly to learn vector math - chat and test-drive a
Toyota every now and again. Last month, at Nickelodeon's
Nicktropolis.com, kids could participate in an online
after-party timed to coincide with the network's Kids'
Choice Awards show.
"It's fun, you can talk to your friends on the
Internet," said Ellicott City fifth-grader Grant Stadler.
He just signed up for Club Penguin early last week, at
the urging of his buddies, and he's already hooked,
spending his afternoons virtual-sledding with his
friends or playing an online version of Connect Four
with his self-created animated penguin.
The sites generally make their money in one of three
ways: Webkinz sells its plush animals, backpacks and
purses. Why- ville.net brings in cash from sponsors such
as Toyota and Scion. Club Penguin is free for basic
play, but a $6 monthly subscription is required for the
bells and whistles.
None of the companies will say what they're earning,
though all have said their revenues rise each year.
"Chatting and gaming are the two most popular things
online," said Club Penguin spokeswoman Karen Mason. The
site was viewed by 3.2 million people in February,
according to Nielsen//NetRatings.
Mason defends the commercial aspects of Clubpenguin.com
by pointing out that the site doesn't allow marketing
even though it promotes shopping - a reality in today's
world, she says.
"We live in a commercial society," Mason said. "I think
really we're providing a safe environment for them to
practice safe money-management skills."
Eight-year-old Whyville.net, on the other hand, allows
marketing. Its sponsors include NASA and Toyota, which
has sold more than 5,000 virtual cars to kids on the Web
site and offers pretend credit for those who haven't
earned enough online cash. Though the transactions
aren't real, marketing analysts say they could translate
to sales later when the kids reach driving age.
"All of us are blasted with dumb marketing, but we don't
do dumb marketing," said Jim Bower, the founder and
chief executive of Whyville's California parent company,
He's also a professor of computational biology at the
University of Texas, San Antonio, and says his site is
more about education than anything else. It teaches kids
about nutrition, gives them science lessons and throws
in a little math for good measure.
Parents are still leery of the social nature of most
virtual worlds, however. The preteen-focused sites take
extra precautions to keep kids safe, by limiting the
kinds of messages they can send, encouraging
self-policing, and monitoring interactions. In June,
Club Penguin plans to launch a timer component that will
let parents restrict time on the site, because some
children are known to spend hours playing at the
"Parents are actually happy to allow their kids to go to
social sites sponsored by well-known companies," said
Emily Riley, an analyst with Jupiter Media Research.
"They know this is a trusted media outlet."
Ganz makes more than 40 Webkinz and about 25 smaller
versions called Lil' Kinz. Each comes with a year of
online access, though that can be renewed when kids buy
another toy - if they can find them.
Rick Sharpe, who owns several area Hallmark shops with
his sister, said he has $95,000 worth of Webkinz on
order but receives only a dozen or so at a time to sell
in his stores.
"In a way, it's a nightmare," Sharpe said. "It used to
be Beanie Babies, now it's Webkinz. You're always
running to the phone" with people calling to see if the
animals are in stock.
Sharpe's three girls - 9-year-old Katie, 6-year-old Lucy
and 18-month-old Julia - are hooked on the Webkinz
world. Sitting before the family computer in Severna
Park last week, they pressed their faces toward the
screen and the older two ticked off a list of which
Webkinz they want next.
Back in Harford County, Jake Reynolds already has four
other Webkinz besides Calvin (a lion, a tiger, a golden
retriever and a polar bear). He expects to get a black
bear for Easter and is hoping for a Webkinz windfall -
maybe even the panda bear - for his June birthday. But
"The really cool Webkinz like the black lab are
impossible to get," Jake explains. "They just came out
with a Dalmatian, and it's already sold out in every
Ganz spokeswoman Susan McVeigh said the company was
"scrambling" to get inventory levels back on track after
having been "caught with a much, much greater than
"We just saw the opportunity to incorporate the
traditional plush pet component with something that kids
like to do so you talk to a new generation of fans,"
McVeigh said. "You've got to appeal to kids where they
are, and this is where they are."
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