Tomorrow marks the 1 year anniversary of the publication of one of my most popular posts to date: “Using Social Media to Sell Products to Kids…Interesting but Potentially Dangerous.” In that post, I talk at length about how toy manufacturer Ganz is using the internet and social networking principles to market and promote its very popular Webkinz toys to 6-11 year old children. I expressed concern that the FTC and Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) aren’t enough to protect kids:
Companies are marketing to children, soliciting information from them on-line, and asking them to read legal agreements, which are beyond their level of comprehension. It is difficult for parents to watch out for their kids in situations like this. If a kid thinks it is okay to input their information onto, say, the Webkinz’s site without parental permission, what is to say that same child won’t think it is just as okay to give that information to a stranger via another website? Nothing, unless their parents are involved.
In response to that article, I’ve gotten dozens of emails and a handful of comments from parents, internet professionals, teachers, and others, all of whom agreed with the concerns I raised. I was also pinged by a nationally syndicated TV morning show who was thinking of doing a story on the topic. And despite all of this ‘concern’, in February of last year, The Toy Industry Association awarded Webkinz the “Specialty Toy of the Year 2007,” and Webkinz and Lil’Kinz (another Ganz toy) are still hugely popular (and now collectible). In fact, as recently as January 8, 2008, a retired Webkinz “Cheeky Dog” sold on eBay for $735!
Today, I received a “comment” on my original post from a divorced dad of four who expressed concern that his ex-wife is using Webkinz to “babysit” their eight year old. “Hank,” who works with computers and the internet for a living, defines his eight year old as a “Webkinz Addict.” His son has lost interest in “normal” kid activities (Boy Scouts, Little League, etc.) in favor of playing entirely with his 55 Webkinz toys, a trend which is “encouraged” by his mother:
This past Christmas, [my ex-wife] “promoted” that all should buy a specific Webkin to assure no duplicates! In gross dollars, the child received over $700 worth of Webkins, less than $40 worth of other toys and less than $50 worth of clothing!
How does Hank know how much his eight year old’s other presents cost? It sounds like Hank was the only family member that bought his son something besides Webkinz for Christmas. I encourage you to read Hank’s comment in its entirety. It’s both frightening and sad. It also re-emphasizes the importance of good parenting and the need for every parent to understand the potential dangers of the internet and toys that encourage their young kids to use it.
Hank’s comment also re-emphasized my believe that the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) doesn’t do enough to protect young kids whose parents don’t know how to protect them from the internet. It’s easy enough to point the finger at parents to say that they’re at fault for exposing their kids to the net, but it’s also not entirely fair. Most parents don’t understand the dangers of the internet as well as they should, and the landscape is constantly evolving, which makes it hard for them to ‘keep up’. Most parents think that the ‘danger’ is in their kids stumbling across porn or sexual predators on-line, but internet marketing should be a concern as well, especially since children under 13 are extremely vulnerable to suggestion.
The Webkinz website describes the toys as:
lovable plush pets that each come with a unique Secret Code. With it, you enter Webkinz World where you care for your virtual pet, answer trivia, earn KinzCash, and play the best kids games on the net!
Parents must see the Webkinz marketing copy and think they’re getting their kids a great educational toy. And yet, after listening to the explanatory ‘tour’ on the Webkinz site, I can’t help but think that that the Webkinz proposition encourages an unhealthy level of consumerism and the kind of compulsive behavior exhibited in gambling and/or shopping addiction.
Kids are encouraged to make “Kinz Cash” by playing games in an ‘arcade’ and entering ‘contests’. They can use this cash to ‘decorate’ their Webkinz’s virtual room. If they don’t take care of their Webkinz by going back to the site ton a daily basis, the “health” of the Webkinz will deteriorate. Kids are encouraged to ‘chat’ with their real-life friends’ Webkinz on the forum and to buy more Webkinz so that they can have more fun on the site (“Collect them all!” says the tour). Given what a time suck the Webkinz site appears to be, I can’t imagine any parent having enough hours in a day to supervise their child 100% of the time on the site and still have the child complete all of the tasks/ things that there are to do on Webkinz. More likely, parents are, as Hank describes it, using Webkinz’s website as a babysitter, while they do other things around the house, assuming that the site is an ‘educational’ tool and perfectly harmless to their child’s well being.
Looking at the list of symptoms for “Pathological Gambling” as defined by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) in conjunction with listening to the ‘sales pitch’ on the Webkinz site, I can’t help but think that would be easy for a child to develop a Webkinz addiction like the one Hank described. The APA says that having 5 or more of the following symptoms constitutes having a gambling problem:
- Preoccupation with gambling-related thoughts, plans or activities;
- Needing to gamble with increased sums to produce the desired excitement;
- Restlessness or irritability when attempting to cut down or stop gambling;
- Gambling to escape from problems or relieve an undesired mood such as helplessness, guilt, anxiety or depression;
- After losing money gambling, often returning to try to win it back (chasing losses);
- Lying to conceal gambling activities or consequences;
- Committing illegal acts to finance gambling;
- Jeopardizing or losing a significant relationship, job, educational or career opportunity because of gambling;
- Relying on a “bailout” (money from others to relieve a desperate gambling-related financial situation);
- Having made repeated unsuccessful attempts to control, cut back or stop gambling.
By supplying a unique cocktail of arcade games, necessary dependency on the site (your Webkinz will suffer if you don’t take care of it daily by visiting the website), and ways to earn and spend cash, I wonder if the Webkinz site and product philosophy have the potential to encourage a child (like Hank’s son) to rack up 5 or more of the above symptoms (or variations of them). I don’t have the same concern for 13 year old + focused social sites like Facebook and MySpace because:
- A user’s online experience doesn’t deteriorate if s/he doesn’t check into the site on a daily basis.
- Users aren’t required to earn money in a fake currency to purchase things on the site (though apps like AceBucks give users the option of earning/spending fake currency).
- The point of these sites isn’t to play games (though users can do that). It’s to stay in touch with friends.
- These sites are “free” and supported by advertising, which I’d hope 13+ year olds have at least some cognitive ability to filter.
(Though, there are other potential hazards for 13-18 year olds on some social networking sites.)
Thinking about WebKinz reminds me of the Joe Camel debate of the early 90s* Just because something looks like it should be for kids, doesn’t mean that it’s good for kids. In the constantly evolving world of social media and online marketing, it’s tough for the average parent to tell the difference. There’s a fine line between teaching kids about the internet in a safe way, coddling them/ being over-protective, and exposing them to things online that could be harmful. I’d love to hear what a child psychologist with a strong knowledge of web 2.0 thinks about Webkinz.
*According to Wikipedia: “Joe Camel was a controversial cartoon camel that primarily appeared in advertisements for Camel, but also appeared on “Camel Cash” and a number of origami Pop-up print ads. Joe Camel came under scrutiny as some considered use of the character to be advertising directed at children.”