An explosion of social-networking web sites aimed at kids as young as 6 or 7 is forcing parents and educators to teach children important lessons about internet safety and online etiquette at a much earlier age.

This past spring, 10-year-old Adam Young joined other tweens on Club Penguin, playing games, throwing virtual snowballs, and chatting with fellow kids who appear onscreen as plump cartoon penguins. A few weeks later, Adam asked Mom to pay $5 a month for 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.”

Sites such as 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.

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 age 8 and they start wanting to meet other children, so these sites might 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.

Young, a first-grade teacher in Louisville, Ky., 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.

That sentiment was echoed by Tony Bayliss, father of 7-year-old Maisie in England. Club Penguin is the only site Bayliss lets Maisie visit unsupervised; Bayliss also has a cartoon penguin of his own and visits his daughter online while traveling.

“It’s what the future is,” Bayliss said of the online environment. “It’s what she’s going to be using for the rest of her life.”

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 such as 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.

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, 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.

Advocates say the controlled environment of sites such as Webkinz 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, for example.

But the emergence of these sites also means parents–and educators–should start addressing internet safety and online etiquette at an even younger age.

“Kids are using online services at an earlier age, and that means parents [and educators] have to … be mindful of it at an earlier age,” said Peter Grunwald, a researcher who specializes in kids and technology.

Links:

Club Penguin
http://www.clubpenguin.com

Webkinz
http://www.webkinz.com