Webkinz bullies: Protect your child

Mar 10, 2009 at 9:32 a.m. ET

Webkinz are a popular online virtual pet for many kids, but they can also lead to online bullying. Don't believe it? Read on to see how it happens -- and how you can protect your kids.

Sad Child on ComputerThe gift of choice for the early elementary school set these days is often Webkinz -- stuffed animals that come with a tag with a unique Secret Code printed on it that allows access to the Webkinz World website.

On the site, your child's Secret Code lets her own a virtual version of her pet. Of course, the pet needs a home, furniture, and all kinds of accessories, which your child buys with KinzCash. She can earn this money by playing games on the site.

If your child hasn't yet entered Webkinz World, count your blessings, but be aware: it's only a matter of time.

Granted, Webkinz World is a fairly safe environment. Your child will not be hounded by sexual predators or give out critical information like your home address -- chat features are limited to pre-formatted statements. Even games are restricted -- generally kids can only access them during hours they wouldn't normally be in school, and the number of times they can play is limited. So how does cyberbullying happen?

It happens like this

Your child's friend comes over to play. Five minutes or five hours into the playdate, the two sit down to play Webkinz on the computer. "What's your password?" says the friend. "Let's log in. I can win you some money." They play, happily, exclaiming aloud every so often, but nothing makes your mom radar go crazy.

A few days later, the kids have a fight. And the next time your child logs into her account, she discovers that the rooms she has carefully built and furnished for her beloved pets are gone, taken by the friend who had the password and got mad.

It can't happen here… right?

"Well," you're thinking, feeling smug, "Well, I never let my kids play on the computer when friends are over." Or, "My kids would never give out their passwords."

Really? Never? You've never had a playdate that stretches on for hours and hours while the parents are stuck in traffic, at the ER, or just plain away? You've never had that moment when you cannot serve one more snack, break up one more fight, or listen to one more second of whining? Never? More power to you.

Your kids would never share their passwords? Really? Never? When you log into Webkinz World, you can change your password. Some kids get a real kick out of this, particularly when friends are over. "Let's change your password to my name!" Because they're best friends, of course, so it makes perfect sense. Or they want matching passwords. Or they want to choose each other's passwords. Or they just don't think about what it means to give away their passwords, because they're children. And so it begins.

Is it really such a big deal? So some virtual stuff got stolen. Big deal. If your child actually has Webkinz, you know exactly what a big deal it is, and your heart is pounding at the very thought. Kids can spend hours creating the perfect world for their pets. The idea that someone can come in and destroy it is terrifying -- and not a great sign of things to come.

How to keep your kid safe

The best thing you can do for your kids is to give them the knowledge they need to empower themselves. Teach them the importance of having a password and why they should never share it with a friend.

Make a habit of changing your child's password after playdates. Wave goodbye, close, the door, and take two minutes to log in together and make the change. Teach your child about strong passwords and work together to make one that the two of you can remember.

You can't protect your kid from everything in the world, but you can give her the tools she needs to keep herself safe online.

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