The Webkinz Debate Continues As Child Racks up 55 Webkinz & a Suspected Addiction.

January 22, 2008 by Lisa Oshima | Social Media

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.”

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  • Lisa,

    Thank you for the “heads up” on the microscope, but it goes much further! The ex wife in question… discussions I have had with a psychologist are defining a high probablility of Munchhauser's Syndrome!

    More complex, in that she has a “relationship of sorts” with a woman from another “disfunctional marriage” going through a divorce at the same time. She has a son of the same age, in the same classroom. “play dates” are set up where the two boys (8) sleep together. When home, both boys sleep with their mothers….

    Both are “Webkin's Addicts” to an extreme. The other father has simply given up and buys his son a new Webkin every time he sees him. That child is in the 3rd grade and FAILING!

    Webkins have become a part of the manipulative process in both cases. I have tried “diversion” with art supplies (my son is quite talented and enjoyed such activities until our separation in August) but the art supplies were taken away along with model kits, crafts etc.

    A recent “interview” with my son and a behavior psychologist (without the ex's knowledge) revealed that my son's ability to concentrate on anything but Webkins is a lost cause! Everything is Webkins! Every store you walk past, (we all went to lunch together) he 'hijacked us 4 times in a one block distance because he needed to see if the stores sold Webkins and if there were any that he did not have yet!

    None of the stores had them. He actually walked up to a cashier and asked, “Why don't you sell Webkins? You know, there are a lot of kids like me that need them.”

    The psychologist was impressed with the child's academic skills. My son is quite brilliant and has had exceptional grades in school. But, “trouble is on it's way” as the psychologist stated. “His mind has been hijacked. His whole world is about Webkins. He is obsessed with the Webkin's funny money system!”

    This was confirmed with a “parent – teacher conference” and then an additional conference with the school's principal who also agreed, “Kids are bringing them to school. They are a distraction. Normal interaction of playing and competing is all about Webkins!”

    Bring back the dinosaurs! Cars, trucks, dolls and baby carriages! Bikes are great! Let's play ball! Who wants to go fishing?

    Are we ready to remove swings, slides and monkey bars from our parks? Who will use them?

    With over 50% of new marriages failing in today's environment, children with lives disrrupted by disfunctional marriages, “crushes” like Beanie Babies, Webkins and such are taking children and making them prone to symptomatic hoarding and other forms of fixations that detract from the normal processes of learning and interacting.

    When kids played “house” and girls played with dolls, there were some basic principles of family values practiced at the younger ages. What is going on?

    Call me…

    “Father Knows best!”

    Hank

  • I have been getting reports from my kids that the webkinz themselves are smoking on the site. It happens quickly, and I wonder if the cigarette companies have figured out a way to slyly advertise to our children? Has anyone any knowledge of this? Thanks

  • [this is good]

    Warning! Smoking? That would be my least concern from my standpoint. I've been “away” because of my persistence in another direction.

    My son's “obsession” with Webkins continued to the extreme of “depression” when I forced curtailment of the aquisition of Webkins on my end, but found that the ex-wife continued to promote the activity.

    When on visitation with me, Webkin site interactivity was denied. Here's what I found out:

    At home, while away with me, the mother would continue to log in to his Webkin site to “maintain activity!”

    She gave his Webkins more attention when he was away, than the attention she would give him when he was home! After all, Webkins were his “babysitter” when he was with her!

    My son sees a psychologist on every visit with me. This has helped me to continue with “diversion.” Other activities are being introduced that are constructive. This past week, we got involved with “normal father/son activities” and I would suggest this to any father who is appauled at his son's desire to play with “dolls called Webkins!”

    We started a “joint project” of building a “Revell” brand car. We chose a 1966 Pontiac GTO. Interactive discussion about the car and engine parts as we started assembly took place. I was able to talk about my teen years in that I owned one of these and was constantly “seen under the hood” as I “built my real car and maintained it.”

    I never became a mechanic. I was however one of the kids in High School with a “classy car” that was the envy of many.

    His eyes lit up as he began to visualize himself growing up and doing the same. We've discussed the possibility of filling empty driveway space with a car that he could work on as he grows up, and have ready when he gets his license.

    Remember, Webkins are dolls. Boys do not play with dolls. I wonder what kind of boys the Ganz family may have raised that they created such a marketing stradegy of “dolls for boys?”

    Would love to hear “their twist…” LOL

    PS: Another observation. Two psychologists in a row, after reviewing my son's case and interviews with him have a common conclusion. Munchausen Syndrome.

    My son's danger has now been totally defined. A legal battle is under way. Don't take this statement too lightly. Research Munchausen. Let it send a chill throught your entire body! And if not sure, don't hesitate! Persue the issues with all that you have.

    You will save your child! Remember, a parent that creates an obession with a child as a joint venture, has an agenda. If you, the other parent sees something wrong with it, your first instinct is probably correct. Follow up!

    Don't kid yourself, as I have found, the battle is long and hard. Sadly, most attempts of the concerned parent fail! The systems in place fail us every day as we read about children harmed by a parent. We are centuries behind in our legal system, while the field of clinical psychology has advanced well enough to define it.

  • I wonder if you have ever played on the Webkinz site for any length of time. My son has about 12 webkinz that he plays with occassionally. He makes it on to the site about once every two weeks. Do his Webkinz suffer because he does not visite daily? no. You said that the site will promote gambling, but I wonder if you are becoming just another crazed person who fears what the media has the power to do. Of course parents should monitor their children's internet usage, but going after webkinz? Come on! My son wll play for about an hour. Do I seit next to him and watch everything that he does? No! What parent has time to do that. I certainly stay in the same room with him, but I can guarantee that he is not becoming addicted to gambling simply because he gets money for playing the games. It is a stupid and ludicrous suggestion. He simply enjoys playing webkinx. Next thing you know people will be going after Legos and saying that they encourage consumerism because the site had a link for shopping… Give it a rest. Let kids be kids.

  • LA

    [this is good]
    To be fair, anything can be taken too far. There were things before this, and there will be things afterwards. I personally have never seen smoking on the webkinz site. I know this because I have seen the site while babysitting different children. And although they can be very transfixed on it, I've never found it particulairly difficult to get them away from it with the right kind of alternative like mini-sticks or dancing.

  • [This is good.]

  • Hmm– I haven't heard of that happening before. I doubt that they'd be legally allowed to do that, given the advertising laws in the US.

  • With all due respect, you missed the point. I didn’t say that Webkinz would turn kids into gambling addicts. Playing slots in Vegas doesn’t “turn” adults into gambling addicts, though plenty of people do form an addiction to gambling. I questioned whether or not Webkinz’s site content and product philosophy encourage gambling-like behavior in kids. There’s a reason why the law doesn’t allow children to play at casinos.

  • With all due respect, you missed the point. I didn't say that Webkinz would turn kids into gambling addicts. Playing slots in Vegas doesn't “turn” adults into gambling addicts, though plenty of people do form an addiction to gambling. I questioned whether or not Webkinz's site content and product philosophy encourage gambling-like behavior in kids. There's a reason why the law doesn't allow children to play at casinos.






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