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MySpace for the kid crowd

"Turn OFF the computer, we're late for soccer," I called upstairs for the third time yesterday.   It's been like that in our house lately.  When the computer is on, my children lose their hearing.  What a reversal from times when parents used to fight to get their kids to stop playing baseball and come in for dinner or homework. Now, it can be a struggle to get them outside to play.

It was right after the New Year that I started hearing my children talk about Web sites I'd never heard of: Webkinz and Club Penguin. Now, all five of them -- ages four to eleven -- make a beeline for the computer.  Over the weekend, my daughter had an online play date with her best friend who lives just across the street.  Her sisters played checkers against each other from opposite ends of the house.  Their brother was buying a virtual big screen TV to decorate his Webkinz bedroom, and a frustrated 4-year-old was begging for a turn at the keyboard.

This is the new world of online social networking, one aimed squarely at the playground crowd. While many of the sites attracting elementary school children get high marks for safety, they are engaging to a point experts call "sticky" -- with games and friends just a point and click away, it's hard to log off.  For this mom, the computer screen feels a lot like another one in our home, so the Internet is now treated like television -- access is regulated and restricted.

Make no mistake, interactive Web sites are part of our children's future and they can be good teachers, but educators say a virtual airplane will never stir creativity like a die-cast model on a runway fashioned from a plank of hardwood floor.

We'll take a closer look at these social networking sites, as well as their risks and rewards, tonight on Nightly News.