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Dear Dr. Lanny: My 7-year-old son got a Webkinz animal for his birthday and now he spends an hour a day, maybe two on weekends, in Webkinz World—decorating his virtual beagle’s room or playing games online. He also watches an hour a day of television. All the kids in my son’s class are into Webkinz or Club Penguin, or both, and I don’t want him left out. At the same time, I worry that he might be spending too much time sitting in front of a screen. (By the way, he’s not fat and seems to get plenty of exercise.) What do you think?

child on webkinz
© Sergei Telegin | Dreamstime.com

A: Webkinz, should anyone without young children or grandchildren be reading this column, are stuffed animal pets. These pets come with a code number that allows access to the Webkinz Web site where the pets live, play and thrive—if you take proper care of them. Virtual money (Kinzcash) can be earned and spent in the care and feeding of your pet. Real money can also be spent for accessories from clothing to school essentialz (the company’s spelling, not mine).

Not so long ago the only “screen time” was spent in front of the television. In well less than a generation, screens now encompass television, computers, video gaming devices, portable DVD players and nearly ubiquitous cell phones.

Each new device seems more mesmerizing than the last. When I go to the hospital around 7 in the morning to visit mothers and their newborn babies, it is as common as not to find them watching cartoons, and unable to turn off the television when I come into the room. Clearly very bright people are spending huge sums of money to make television hypnotic.

In 2001 the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommended that children younger than 2 years old watch no television. Those beyond 2 should limit their total media time to no more than two hours per day of “quality programming.” A Kaiser Foundation study around the same time found children spending 6.5 hours per day on various types of media. A more recent Nielsen study suggests the average person watches 4.5 hours per day. Exact numbers for all types of screen entertainment, particularly by age, are hard to come by, but clearly they represent a significant portion of the waking day.

Although television and computers can offer the entire world to viewers, they remain a physically passive pursuit. Even interactive video games are a sad attempt at physical exercise. Obesity, which is rampant in our country, cannot be blamed solely on entertainment media, but there is no question that watching TV or playing with your Webkinz pet is not a cardiovascular workout. These same activities are also a lot closer to the refrigerator and food shelves than are the basketball court, soccer field or playground.

It is safe to say that the AAP recommendations are not widely known or followed in our country. Although I have been addressing the question of activity vs. sedentary behavior, the question of the “quality” of what children see is equally important. Interestingly, a grandmother down my block suggested that Webkinz was replacing rather than adding to television time. A non-scientific poll of a few of my kid patients called into question this grandma’s conclusion. If Grandma is correct, it must be said that Webkinz, as well as the similar Club Penguin, are essentially advertising- and violence-free. These are no small advantages.

Even if limitation to two hours per day of media time is beyond your reach, it is a goal to aim for. Physical activity helps your cardiovascular system, your ability to sleep, and your ability to dissipate the stresses of a tough day in second or sixth grade. It also helps your digestion and your time in the bathroom. Neither Webkinz nor MySpace can make any of those claims. Please remember that physical activity does not necessarily mean competitive sports. If it makes your heart go fast, and it is fun, that’s what you are looking for.

Although there are some positives to limited Webkinz time, I must comment on the commercial nature of this game/virtual environment. Another of my consultants, a mother of three girls, told me that Webkinz gave good lessons on money management. That is a positive. But one of her daughters told me of a friend with 72 Webkinz—at $15 to $20 a pet! A 10-year-old male patient, aware of but not into Webkinz, told me of kids he knows, each with some 15 Webkinz pets. Only one Webkinz animal is needed to access all the site has to offer.

The Webkinz introductory Web page states that there is “no end to the pets you can add to your family. Collect them all.” I’m sorry, but I do not believe that unlimited acquisition is a message or a value that we should be teaching our children.

In summary, I would say that no specific amount of media time fits all. Superb programming can be found on television, and Webkinz is a reasonable non-violent activity, but one that carries a potentially excessive acquisition message.

Watch what your children watch. Maximize healthy activity. Reconsider a TV, and a computer and a video gaming device in their room. Encourage reading, writing, playing with friends, and give them the chance to play a musical instrument.

Dr. Alan Freshman, father of two grown boys, practices at Syracuse Pediatrics. Consult your own physician before making
decisions about your family’s health care. Send e-mail to him at editorial@familytimes.biz.

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