Club Penguin is the only one site 7-year-old Maisie in England can visit unsupervised – there they play games, throw virtual snowballs and chat with other preteens who appear onscreen as plump cartoon penguins.
"It's what the future is," her father Tony Bayliss said of the online environment. "It's what she's going to be using for the rest of her life." Bayliss also has a cartoon penguin of his own and visits his daughter online while traveling.
This past spring, 10-year-old Adam Young in Louisville, Kentucky, asked his mother to pay $5 (EUR3.65) a month for Club Penguin's extra features, such as decorating his online persona's igloo.
Karen Young demanded to learn more about what some have billed as "training wheels" for the next MySpace generation. She spent time on the site with Adam and consulted with her sister, the mother of another daily visitor.
"I said, `Well, what is it? What does it involve?"' Young recalled. "I wanted him to show me what he wanted and what it was about."
Young, a first-grade teacher, ultimately deemed the environment relatively safe and agreed to pay for a membership. Unlike News Corp.'s MySpace, the anything-goes site frequented by Young's older son, Club Penguin limits what kids can say to one another, reducing the risks of predators and online bullying.
Drawing preteens as young as 6 or 7, sites like Club Penguin and Webkinz are forcing parents to decide at what age they are willing to let their children roam about and interact with friends online. They, along with schools, are having to teach earlier lessons on online safety, etiquette and balance with offline activities.
"It's kind of like what happened in the real world with Cabbage Patch dolls and Beanie Babies," said Monique Nelson, executive vice president of Web Wise Kids, a nonprofit focused on Internet safety for children. "Their friends are doing it, so like kids who follow like sheep, they go online and go on these sites."
According to comScore Media Metrix, U.S. visitors to Club Penguin nearly tripled over the past year, while Webkinz' grew 13 times.
Peggy Meszaros, a professor of human development at Virginia Tech, said kids' identities begin to blossom by 8 and they start wanting to meet other children, so these sites may become their introduction to social networking. But she said kids that age would get much more "going to the swimming pool and meeting friends face to face," making parental oversight of online usage ever-important.
Club Penguin was started more than a year ago as "an online playground for kids," said Lane Merrifield, the site's co-founder and chief executive. "How can we take the fun pieces of these more grown-up and adult (social-networking) sites and surround them in a safe environment?"
Kids win gold coins by playing games such as sled racing and, with a paid membership, buy virtual items like furniture and clothing. Kids can attend parties and make friends by adding other penguins to their buddy lists.
The site, from Canada's New Horizon Interactive Ltd., does not try to keep out older users - after all, anyone can lie about age. Rather, it builds in controls meant to curb outside contact and harassment. The company says it has never had a problem with predators.
Parents can choose an "ultimate safe" mode, meaning chat messages sent and received are limited to prewritten phrases, such as "How are you today?"
In the standard mode, kids can type messages like any other chat program, but only the sender sees messages containing foul language and even innocent-sounding words such as "mom" - to prevent someone from asking, "Is your mom home?" Senders would think they are being ignored and not try tricks to bypass filters.
The filters also catch numbers that might form a phone number a kid is trying to share, even if someone tries to replace "1" with "one."
Veterans can apply to become "secret agents," responsible for patrolling the site and reporting bad behavior, and violations can get a kid banned for a day or longer.
Likewise, Webkinz limits chats by permitting only prewritten phrases, and e-cards go only to those already on friends lists.
Kids take quizzes or perform chores to earn "KinzCash" to buy furniture for their virtual room and food for their virtual pet. They must return to the site regularly to keep their pets fed and healthy; otherwise, it's a trip to Dr. Quack for medical care, though the pets themselves never die.
Unlike Club Penguin, though, access to the Canadian-based site from Ganz is restricted to those who buy a Webkinz plush toy at a retail store for about $15 (EUR11), many of which have been selling out because of high demand. Think Beanie Babies with an online component. A code on each toy unlocks the site for a year.
Both sites do require some reading skills, though younger kids can participate with older siblings or parents.
Although these social-networking precursors for preteens tend to incorporate more safety measures than MySpace, Facebook and other sites geared toward teenagers and adults, experts warn that parents cannot simply sign their kids on and leave them there, especially during the summer months when kids have more time to spend online.
"We want them to develop and grow physically, spiritually and emotionally," Meszaros said. "If they are on the computer three or four hours a day, that's time they could be doing other things. Parents need to be monitoring."
Step one is to decide whether kids should be there at all.
Jane Healy, author of "Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children's Minds - for Better and Worse," said kids may feel they are "going to be a hopeless social failure" if they can't participate.
Advocates say the controlled environment can teach kids important lessons about typing, communicating, caring for pets and budgeting - they must learn to work and save for the trampoline they want for their virtual room.
But Healy said these sites also teach kids to be "a good consuming member of the consuming culture (and) to need stuff to be considered successful or good."
She urges caution in opening the door to "powerful forces out there trying to intrude into your family life and personal relations with your child." Not only do these sites introduce commercialism, she said, but they also can take kids away from offline environments where they can learn to pick up body language and facial expressions.
Software tools are available to help parents control Internet activities, including use of these sites. Monitoring software can record a kid's chat conversations and whereabouts - secretly if the parent wishes. Other tools, some available for free, aim to block pornography or limit when or how long a child can be online.
Parents should at least keep computers in an open room and surf the Web side-by-side with their kids now and then. A discussion on time limits is important because rules are far easier to impose from the beginning, and Club Penguin will soon introduce a feature for parents to set such limits on the site.
Parents should also start addressing safety and online etiquette.
"They can't be there every time they go online .... so it's even more important to spend more time up front teaching them how to be safe and smart," said Susan Sachs, chief operating officer with the nonprofit Common Sense Media.
It helps that many parents are now using the Internet not just for work but also for recreation, information sharing and other social interaction.
"When kids start to use technology, (parents) can be much more part of the process, as opposed to, `Gee, this is all new and strange to me. I don't want you using it,"' said Peter Grunwald, a researcher who specializes in kids and technology.
Nonetheless, Grunwald said, "kids are using online services at an earlier age, and that means parents do have to exercise their role as parents and be mindful of it at an earlier age than, say, seven, eight or nine years ago."
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