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Jewish World Review
Nov. 23, 2007
/ 13 Kislev, 5768
A world mom hoped to avoid
By Marybeth Hicks
I'm thinking my daughter pulled a fast one on me. Somehow, she created the perfect storm of sympathy and opportunity to get around my house rule against Webkinz.
How do I know I've been had?
In a stunning coincidence if not a profound twist of fate all five guests at Amy's sleepover birthday party last weekend happened to proffer gifts of Webkinz stuffed animals, the cute, furry pals who come complete with a secret code to access the online Webkinz World community.
At www.webkinz.com, children create an identity for their plush toys who virtually "come to life," inhabiting a home that is furnished and decorated by their owners. Children also feed and care for their pets (virtually, of course) in an effort to keep them healthy and happy. There's more, but let's get back to the birthday party.
One after the other, Amy opened her birthday presents with wide-eyed glee. "A Webkinz! I can't believe it." Then, "Another Webkinz! Wow!" Then, "Oh my gosh this is amazing. Another Webkinz." And again. And again.
Incredibly, all five were different no repeats leading me to believe Amy not only "suggested" to her friends that they give her the plush toys, but perhaps she even specified which animal each girl should bring.
OK, that's a little cynical. I'm just saying.
For a ten-year-old to receive Webkinz for her birthday isn't remarkable. Near as I can figure, Amy is the only girl in the Western world who didn't already have one (or more likely, a collection).
What's noteworthy is that I don't or didn't allow Webkinz. I don't want to sound an alarm, but I actually believe Webkinz will turn out to be one of the principal factors in the ultimate dismantling of civilization as we know it.
OK, maybe I do want to sound an alarm.
The whole point of Webkinz is to drive their owners to the internet to develop two lifelong habits of behavior: online social networking and online shopping.
Apparently, it won't do to wait until the next generation reaches middle school to indoctrinate adolescents into the world of internet life. Webkinz reaches down to kindergarten (or younger) to snag new consumers and train them up in the way they should go (to spend money and join chat rooms).
Perhaps you're confused, since I didn't really convey Webkinz World as a dangerous internet site. It may seem safe enough, but it's dangerous precisely because it's insidious.
When a new user signs onto Webkinz and "adopts" her new pet, she automatically gets $2000 in Kinzcash. This is the currency that allows her to shop till she drops for new pet sweaters, designer pet beds and chocolate covered kibble. (I made that last thing up I have no idea if there is chocolate kibble bit I wouldn't be surprised).
The games in Webkinz World all are intended to build your balance of Kinzcash. The site's frequently asked questions even have rules against the corrupt collecting of Kinzcash because sadly, little children must be using their advanced computer skills to beat the Webkinz World bank.
Worse than the shopping jones you can develop as a child, Webkinz World offers a "Clubhouse" where children may use the "acclaimed" KinzChat System to communicate online with friends. KinzChat lets children send pre-constructed messages from chat menus, and in this "safe" zone, children don't need permission to participate. KinzChat Plus is a bit more freewheeling children can send personal messages, though only using words and phrases contained in the Webkinz dictionary (which exludes numbers, proper names and mean words such as "punch.")
With five new Webkinz in her possession, Amy may think she got around my objections to this "multi-media" toy. After all, she accurately predicted I wouldn't be so heartless as to confiscate her birthday gifts. (Even a committed culture warrior draws the line at birthday presents).
But I'm not giving up the fight.
Instead, while we're going along with some limited access to Webkinz World, we're going in with a critical and watchful eye. Amy's going to have to learn some media literacy such as how to discern when she's being manipulated and if playing in Webkinz World ultimately promotes attitudes and behaviors in our daughter we don't like, they'll be a price to pay.
And we don't accept KinzCash.
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JWR contributor Marybeth Hicks, a wife of 20 years and mother of four children, lives in the Midwest. She uses her column to share her perspective on issues and experiences that shape families nationwide.
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© 2007, Marybeth Hicks