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A Guide to the Virtual World

Barbie Girls Device

Do you remember the Tamagotchi craze of the 90's? How about Beanie Babies mania? Brace yourself for the next wave of children's playthings  -- virtual friends.

It started in 2005, with the introduction of Webkinz  -- plush toys with their own online virtual world online.

Today, kids can choose from a variety of web friends, including buddies from Club Penguin, Jelly Beanies, Barbie Girls, Nicktropolis and others. Today, toy stores have a hard time meeting the overwhelming demand for Webkinz toys. Club Penguin reported in August that it had more than 700,000 paid subscribers.

With all these virtual worlds popping up, your kid is bound to want to join one of them. But which is the best for your child? Are they safe? How much do they cost? Before you buy, check out our guide to web friends.

Next: Webkinz

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Webkinz
Webkinz


"You're so smart, Alex. You need to learn as much as you can." "If I go to school, I'll have to make friends." "Making friends won't hurt you, Alex. You might find some other Webkinz like you at school  -- quiet, interesting, smart  -- there's only one way to find out."

Ages: 6-13

Price: Plush toys cost $12.99 and up, and once purchased, the website is free

Website: webkinz.com

Best for: High-energy, tech-savvy, game loving kids that plan on spending lots of time online

What we love:
* Plenty of activities
* Fun, colorful graphics
* Website changes daily
* Lots of ways to spend your "Kinzcash" (currency you receive by playing games and doing activities)
* Helpful navigational tool: "Today's Activities"
* Zero advertisements

What we don't like:
* Could be overwhelming
* Some of the games might bore older kids
* You need to purchase a Webkinz plush before navigating the Webkinz world

Safeguards: Kids enter the site with the code that comes with their Webkinz pal, so they are anonymous on the site; no personal information is required. Chatting is allowed, but only with pre-written messages from a 900 sentence word bank.

Extras: Won the 2007 Toy Of The Year Award from the Toy Industry Association, the 2006 iParenting Media Award, and the 2006 Canadian Toy Testing Council Children's Choice Award. Also see: Lil'Kinz, the younger and smaller siblings of Webkinz  -- for younger kids.

 

Next: Barbie Girls


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Barbie Girls

Barbie Girls Device

"Hey Girls! Check out all the trendy stores at the mall! Buy hot fashions and accessories for your character-and fab furni for your room!"

Ages: 6+

Price: The website is free, but the coolest features (adopting pets, getting the best fashions) are restricted to those who have a Barbie Girl device ($59.99). For the full Barbie Girl experience, girls can buy separate accessory packs for the devices (with different fashions, accessories, and pets) for $9.99 each.

Website: barbiegirls.com

Best for: Music-loving fashionistas

What we love:
* The Barbie Girl device doubles as an MP3 player
* The device has an array of snap-on, mix-and-match fashions, so girls can customize and accessorize to their hearts' content
* Easy to chat with other users
* With its hip graphics, the website is fun to use  -- and it's free for everyone
* Zero advertisements

What we don't like:
* The device is a bit pricey ($59.99)
* Incredibly girly  -- not for the faint of heart
* The games ("Dazzling Nails", "Give Ken a Hot New Look") aren't very challenging

Safeguards: Chatting is allowed, but certain word and word combinations that might be inappropriate or leak personal information. Adult administrators monitor chat. Girls can lock or open their rooms to other characters, block users, and report inappropriate behavior. The site requires parental permission (via e-mail) for girls to register.

Extras: The website has an estimated 50,000 visitors daily.

 

Next: Jelly Beanies


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Jelly Beanies

Jelly Beanies

"I'm Sammy, I'm brave and helpful  -- the bear you want in your corner when the chips are down. You're my friend, and I'll help you no matter what!"  -- Strawberry Bear Sammy

Ages: 5-10

Price: $13.00

Website: jellybeanies.com

Best for: Younger kids who aren't completely tech savvy and are ready for an introduction to the internet

What we love:
* Cute and cuddly Jelly Beanies come in nine scents and colors  -- strawberry, orange, blue orchid, mint, banana, violet, peppermint chocolate, cinnamon, and vanilla
* Lots of addictive games
* Inexpensive compared to other web friends
* Zero advertisements

What we don't like:
* Not enough activities
* It's difficult to get a chat going
* No currency or shopping
* Not a lot of accessories (users are limited to sunglasses, graduation cap, and other unexciting items)
* You need to buy a Jelly Beanie before you navigate Jelly Beanie world
* The scents are incredibly strong, and may not be enjoyed by everyone

Safeguards: Kids are anonymous on the site and no personal information is required. Chatting is allowed, but certain words are blocked so users can't leak personal information or say anything inappropriate. There are also privacy settings to block messages from individual members, or to block all incoming messages.

Extras: A status bar indicates your Jelly Beanie's happiness, hunger, boredom, and health, but it's too easy to improve the wellness of your friend. (Is he hungry? Open the fridge door. Does he need some exercise? Go over to the jump rope.)

 

Next: Club Penguin


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Club Penguin

Jelly Beanies

"Waddle Around and Meet New Friends!"

Ages: 8-14

Best for: The social butterfly who loves chatting and making new friends

What we love:
* Cute, fun graphics
* Lots of places in Club Penguin to explore
* Easy to chat (Chatting is not strictly constructed, so kids can say whatever they want, although they can be silenced or banned for inappropriate behavior)
* Lots of ways your penguin can express herself, with chat, emotes (emotion icons) and actions (waving, sitting, walking, throwing a snowball.) You can even make your penguin dance!
* Lots of ways to earn and spend virtual coins
* Zero advertisements

What we don't like:
* No cute, furry stuff animal to cuddle with (your penguin is strictly virtual)

Website: clubpenguin.com

Price: It is free to navigate Club Penguin, but to access the coolest features you have to be a member. Membership is $5.95 monthly, $29.95 for 6 months, or $57.95 for a year.

Safeguards: Users can choose from two levels of safety: Ultimate Safe Chat (which limits what users can say, and only allows them to speak with other "ultimate safe chat" users) or Standard Safe Chat (which allows users more freedom in what they say.) All chat is filtered for inappropriate language. Moderators oversee what's going on and receive player reports of misconduct. An "M" icon on the upper, right-hand portion of the screen reminds participants that a moderator is available to help. Players who engage in inappropriate behavior can be silenced or banned.

Extras: Won the Better Business Bureau Kid's Privacy Seal of Approval and the "Editors Choice" award from Children's Technology Review Magazine.

 

Next: Nicktropolis



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Nicktropolis

Nicktropolis

"Hey! Meet Me at the Krusty Krab!"

Ages: 8-14

Best for: Nick crazed kids who want to chat online with their friends  -- and favorite Nick characters  -- in a virtual world.

What we love:
* It's totally free, no purchase necessary
* Adds a new dimension to the Nick characters
* A safe way for kids to chat
* Bright, fun graphics, true to Nick style

What we don't like:
* Lots of advertising
* So many words and word combinations are blocked that it can be difficult to have a conversation
* There aren't tons of things to do other than chat
* No toy to take with you  -- Nicktropolis is strictly virtual

Website: nicktropolis.com

Price: Free

Safeguards: No personal information is needed to register, so all kids are anonymous. Before kids enter, they agree to a set of ground rules (Rule number five: "Don't make people uncomfortable") which are also sent to parents. Parents control their children's settings, such as security levels and chat buddies. Once on the site, kids can block users, or chat with them using pre-written messages. Nicktropolis is also monitored, so if anything inappropriate happens, it can be reported.

Next: Disney XTreme Digital

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Disney XTreme Digital (DXD)

DXD

"Duet means two people. Mostly me in this case, but whatever."  -- Sharpay, Random High School Musical 2 Quote Generator

Ages: Some pages feature Disney characters and activities targeted at preschoolers, but most of the site is for older kids (ages 8-14)

Price: Free

Website: disney.go.com/dxd

Best for: Older kids that love Disney entertainment of all kinds  -- movies, music, and television  -- and want a place to chat.

What we love:
* Lots of activities
* Includes classic Disney characters like Mickey and Alice in Wonderland
* It's totally free, no purchase necessary
* Encourages kids to network in the virtual world [I "and"] the real world (by making "True Friends"  -- friends that you chat with online that you also know in real life. Both friends must enter a "True Friend Code" for this to happen.)

What we don't like:
* Not as much interaction as some of the other sites  -- much of it is watching Disney shows and movies
* Lots of advertisements

Safeguards: Many kinds of chat make safety in DXD unique. The most basic, Speed Chat, is for kids under 13. The second level, Open Chat, meant for teens with sophisticated online safety knowledge, allows kids to chat using a larger word bank. True Friend Chat is for real life friends. Parents can approve Limited True Friend Chat (True Friends are limited and parental approval is required for each one) or Unlimited True Friend Chat (True Friends are unlimited and do not require parental approval.) For True Friends, kids must exchange True Friend Codes in person and then enter them separately online to confirm that they are friends in real life. All chat is based upon pre-written words and statements.


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