Kids' Web sites growing in popularity

If there's a child in your home, then you may already be familiar with the words Webkinz and Club Penguin. They are part of an exploding cyber world for very young children — changing the very nature of play and how first friendships are formed.

Such an example is 6-year-old Reese Klemm who, well before dawn and an hour before her parents' alarm clock goes off, is up and online.

"She's obsessed, there's no question about it," Reese's mom, Erin Menninger Klemm says.

Obsessed and inside instead of outside, lured by Web sites like Webkinz and Club Penguin, which target children with adult technology — social networking and instant messaging. It's a phenomenon pulling kids from real playgrounds onto virtual ones — trading climbing and swinging for pointing and clicking. Friendships once made waiting in line for the slide are now made online.

"These sites give kids a context to exercise some of these skills that are going to be part of our culture whether or not we like it," says Warren Buckleitner with Children's Technology Review.

Yet it reminds some parents of hours spent at another screen — the television.

"This is a little better, in my opinion, than TV, but only slightly because it still is just inactive play," Erin Menninger Klemm says.

"We're going to have to monitor this very, very closely and not use it as simply a babysitter where we can put them online and play for hour on hour, because children will do that," says Dr. Mark Reinecke, a child psychiatrist at Northwestern University.

Already, 39 percent of children ages 4 to 6 use a computer several times a week. For parents used to managing bumps and bruises at the park, it's a new type of supervision.

"She was 5 when she got this," Klemm says. "I mean, all of a sudden, I have to be diligent about her time on the Internet and what's she's doing. It's nerve-wracking."

Virtual play challenging real play for the hearts and minds of kids.