For a stuffed bulldog, Calvin has it pretty good. He lives a full, if virtual, life online and has a pad decked out to his tastes, which currently run sort of froggy style, says owner and decorator Jake Reynolds, a 9-year-old from Forest Hill.
Six months ago, the third-grader got sucked into Calvin's world and hasn't left it since. He can't. Once Jake used the secret code that came with his store-bought bulldog to create an online version at Webkinz.com, he committed to feeding and shopping for the pup regularly while interacting with other kids and their virtual pets on the Internet.
"You have to play it mostly every two days or every day, because if you don't, then their health meter goes all the way down and they'll get sick," Jake says matter-of-factly. "I do it just about every day because I just really, really like it."
Webkinz.com is one of a growing number of social-networking sites aimed at the teen set, many of whom have watched older siblings interact online at places such as MySpace.com and want some of the action for themselves. And businesses are more than happy to grab the attention of the newest generation of networkers.
Such "tweens," children roughly ages 6 to 12, spend as much as $40 billion per year - up from $6 billion in 1989 - and help their parents decide how to spend another $200 billion annually, according to a survey by PreteenPlanet.com. That makes them an attractive demographic, particularly in the online world where, until recently, they had been largely ignored.
"This is an underserved audience," said Anastasia Goodstein, who last month published a book on children and the Internet called Totally Wired: What Teens and Tweens are Really Doing Online. "I think you'll continue to see new companies pop up in this space."
Creators of such sites say they're teaching kids computer, financial and social skills while providing a safe, monitored environment in the wilds of the Web. But critics say they're just teaching consumerism, with a materialistic focus on shopping, even though the products and the funny money used to buy them exist only online.
A Webkinz primer, for example, points out that "Everyone enjoys a little retail therapy."
That site, which local retailers say took off during the past few months, is a two-year-old venture from Canadian toymaker Ganz. It enables kids to mix and mingle with other kids, play games, make movies, read a daily newspaper and spend a mint in earned "KinzCash."
It has thousands of children like Jake and his siblings - 5-year-old Sarah and 8-year-old Nicholas - hooked with its double threat of a cuddly stuffed animal (available from specialty retailers) and an accompanying code, which lets children create animated versions of their plush pets on the Internet and furnish their virtual homes.
"It teaches them responsibility because they can earn money through jobs [online]," says Jake's mother, Kim Reynolds, whose kids use their allowances to buy the Webkinz critters or get them as holiday gifts.
As with the Beanie Babies craze one decade ago, the $8- to-$13 Webkinz are selling faster than Ganz can make them, with shipments around the Baltimore region on back order (one eBay auction is offering three "retired" Webkinz at $500 a pop). But unlike Beanie Babies, their allure is less about the product than the Internet connection they offer, along with other sites.
Among the most popular sites today is Clubpenguin.com, which was launched in October 2005 by Canada's New Horizon Interactive. There, animated penguins waddle in and out of igloos, controlled by kids who say the best part is playing with their peers.
At Whyville.net, virtual citizens fly hot-air balloons - ostensibly to learn vector math - chat and test-drive a Toyota every now and again. Last month, at Nickelodeon's Nicktropolis.com, kids could participate in an online after-party timed to coincide with the network's Kids' Choice Awards show.
"It's fun, you can talk to your friends on the Internet," said Ellicott City fifth-grader Grant Stadler.
He just signed up for Club Penguin early last week, at the urging of his buddies, and he's already hooked, spending his afternoons virtual-sledding with his friends or playing an online version of Connect Four with his self-created animated penguin.
The sites generally make their money in one of three ways: Webkinz sells its plush animals, backpacks and purses. Why- ville.net brings in cash from sponsors such as Toyota and Scion. Club Penguin is free for basic play, but a $6 monthly subscription is required for the bells and whistles.
None of the companies will say what they're earning, though all have said their revenues rise each year.
"Chatting and gaming are the two most popular things online," said Club Penguin spokeswoman Karen Mason. The site was viewed by 3.2 million people in February, according to Nielsen--NetRatings.
Mason defends the commercial aspects of Clubpenguin.com by pointing out that the site doesn't allow marketing even though it promotes shopping - a reality in today's world, she says.
"We live in a commercial society," Mason said. "I think really we're providing a safe environment for them to practice safe money-management skills."
Eight-year-old Whyville.net, on the other hand, allows marketing. Its sponsors include NASA and Toyota, which has sold more than 5,000 virtual cars to kids on the Web site and offers pretend credit for those who haven't earned enough online cash. Though the transactions aren't real, marketing analysts say they could translate to sales later when the kids reach driving age.
"All of us are blasted with dumb marketing, but we don't do dumb marketing," said Jim Bower, the founder and chief executive of Whyville's California parent company, Numedeon.
He's also a professor of computational biology at the University of Texas, San Antonio, and says his site is more about education than anything else. It teaches kids about nutrition, gives them science lessons and throws in a little math for good measure.
Parents are still leery of the social nature of most virtual worlds, however. The preteen-focused sites take extra precautions to keep kids safe, by limiting the kinds of messages they can send, encouraging self-policing, and monitoring interactions. In June, Club Penguin plans to launch a timer component that will let parents restrict time on the site, because some children are known to spend hours playing at the computer.
"Parents are actually happy to allow their kids to go to social sites sponsored by well-known companies," said Emily Riley, an analyst with Jupiter Media Research. "They know this is a trusted media outlet."
Ganz makes more than 40 Webkinz and about 25 smaller versions called Lil' Kinz. Each comes with a year of online access, though that can be renewed when kids buy another toy - if they can find them.
Rick Sharpe, who owns several area Hallmark shops with his sister, said he has $95,000 worth of Webkinz on order but receives only a dozen or so at a time to sell in his stores.
"In a way, it's a nightmare," Sharpe said. "It used to be Beanie Babies, now it's Webkinz. You're always running to the phone" with people calling to see if the animals are in stock.
Sharpe's three girls - 9-year-old Katie, 6-year-old Lucy and 18-month-old Julia - are hooked on the Webkinz world. Sitting before the family computer in Severna Park last week, they pressed their faces toward the screen and the older two ticked off a list of which Webkinz they want next.
Back in Harford County, Jake Reynolds already has four other Webkinz besides Calvin (a lion, a tiger, a golden retriever and a polar bear). He expects to get a black bear for Easter and is hoping for a Webkinz windfall - maybe even the panda bear - for his June birthday. But he's realistic.
"The really cool Webkinz like the black lab are impossible to get," Jake explains. "They just came out with a Dalmatian, and it's already sold out in every store."
Ganz spokeswoman Susan McVeigh said the company was "scrambling" to get inventory levels back on track after having been "caught with a much, much greater than anticipated" demand.
"We just saw the opportunity to incorporate the traditional plush pet component with something that kids like to do so you talk to a new generation of fans," McVeigh said. "You've got to appeal to kids where they are, and this is where they are."