Remember the Tamagotchi craze? Or Beanie Babies? Put them together and you've got Webkinz, the latest toy phenomenon that's sweeping the country and worrying some parents whose preschoolers are spending hours online.
Each stuffed animal Webkin toy comes with a secret code on its tag that allows children to log on to the Webkinz Web site to adopt the animal. Once logged in, a child is welcomed to the extensive online Webkinz world, where they can play games to earn "Kinzcash," a kind of online currency used to purchase food, clothes and toys for their animal's online home.
In addition, Webkinz recently announced that it would offer a new component to the Web site. "Clubhouse" will be a way for kids to chat with each other. The company says it has put in many safeguards on language and security to protect their young users.
"You can play with them on the computer, or you can play with them as stuffed animals," 9-year-old fan Zoey Denenberg said. "So it's sort of like you get two things."
The multitasking toy has gained a popularity reaching epic proportions with children as young as preschoolers. Retailers have trouble keeping them on the shelves. When a long overdue shipment finally arrived at The House in Millburn, N.J., the store sold out in two hours.
"Webkinz are a big craze right now in the youth market," said Adrienne Citrin of the Toy Industry Association. "They merge together online gaming communities, plush toys that kids love to nurture and interaction on the Internet."
Not everyone, however, is caught up in the craze. In Boston, Wessagussett Primary School recently banned the stuffed animals from the premises. And some parents feel conflicted about the newest toy obsession.
"It's one more thing to distract them from going outside or reading a book," Jody Boches said.
Mother Irene Heifetz said her children sit at the computer from the moment they get home from school until she threatens them with restricted computer access if they don't go do their homework.
Webkinz aren't the only high-tech option drawing kids to the computer. Many Web sites, like PBS.com and Nickjr.com, now target the preschool set. And several software programs exist that aim to lure kids to the computer before they have even mastered their ABCs.
So what's the best strategy for parents of Webkinz-crazed kids? "Good Morning America's" parenting contributor Ann Pleshette Murphy offered several suggestions:
First, balance the time your children spend in front of a screen -- whether for gaming or TV viewing or chatting with friends -- with play that engages all of their senses. This is especially important among young children, who need opportunities to use their imaginations in open-ended play.
Encourage them to use blocks or a shoe box and doll furniture to create an offline world for Webkinz pets. Make sure he or she is getting lots of active playtime, too. Sitting in a chair and staring at a screen isn't going to do much for a child's growing body.
As challenging as it may be, set reasonable limits on screen time -- approximately an hour per day total for young kids. Explain why you want your child to turn off the computer and play something else; or better yet, join your child in some kind of activity that requires creativity, some physical exercise or turn-taking.
Finally, the social aspect of sites like this also needs to be monitored. Pastimes like instant messaging and logging onto social networks are better left to tweens and teens. Social networking among younger children should take place on the playground.
The bottom line: Too much time in front of a screen takes away from activities that young children need to grow and develop their minds and bodies. So don't be afraid to say, "OK, that's enough for today. We'll check on your Webkinz tomorrow."