Online playgrounds disconnect children from real world

It was not too long ago that you were playing with Beanie Babies. You probably remember Teddy the Bear, Bones the Dog, Lizzy the Lizard, Nutty the Squirrel, Manny the Portuguese Man o’ War … OK, Manny was actually a manatee.

You might also remember having parties with your stuffed animals. They would feast on air and sip imaginary tea while you totally monopolized the conversation. You were hesitant to leave the room because you were convinced your toys would start talking among themselves the moment you walked out the door. No, I’m not schizophrenic. You know you did it, too.

Or maybe you were into cars and plastic dinosaurs. Your mom almost had a heart attack when you scratched her coffee table with your Hot Wheels.

But those good days are over. Kids today don’t play like we used to. The toy chest has been replaced by the computer screen.

An article in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram recently drew attention to the growing popularity of “online playgrounds.”

Toys such as Webkinz combine stuffed animals, video games and social networking in a new kind of interactive toy. Each Webkinz animal comes with a code that gives the user access to the Web site and $2,000 worth of KinzCash.

Children must feed and play with their virtual pets to keep them happy. Failure to do so results in a sick pet, which must then be taken to a virtual clinic.

KinzCash is spent in clothes, toys and home furnishings for the pet. When children run out of KinzCash, they can earn more by playing games online, working virtual jobs or buying another Webkinz in the real world.

Does a fake pet merit so much trouble?

An obvious objection against these “online playgrounds” is that they promote consumerist values by making shopping a key part of the game. Children are encouraged to buy and buy some more. Purchase and pleasure become synonymous.

The biggest problem with toys like Webkinz is they keep children glued to the computer when they could be interacting with other children in the real world. The fact that we now have to make the distinction between the real world and the virtual world should be enough cause for concern.

Yes, the Internet is a great resource and a wonderful tool for social networking. However, children have to develop social skills first, and that won’t happen in front of a computer monitor.

Rolling around in the dirt with other kids might be a better start.

Julieta Chiquillo is a sophomore news-editorial journalism major from San Salvador, El Salvador.