By Elianna Lev

VANCOUVER (CP) - There was once a time when all that was needed to create a virtual world for a child was an active imagination.

Now, it takes a click of a mouse. Hundreds of thousands of Canadian children are signing up to online social networking communities where they can chat, play games and create virtual worlds. But unlike sites like Myspace or Friendster, which encourage members to leave personal information on their profiles, social websites for the younger set do the exact opposite.

Webkinz, Club Penguin and Neopets are sites aimed at kids between eight and 14. They allow members to take on a character - usually in the form of an animal or creature - and create a world for them.

For 13-year-old Kalya Ramu, Neopets helped her grasp the ways of the Internet.

"It got me to be more familiar with the computer because in the games you'd use different keys," she said.

Kalya, of Toronto, was first introduced to Neopets by her older sister five years ago and many of her friends became members too.

With 70 million users, Neopets is among the more popular virtual world websites. On it, kids can create and take care of up to four pets. They're given virtual money, in which they can shop for items for their animals, and there are also message boards, games and chats. The site itself is free to use.

Webkinz.com is based on a similar principle where members can adopt a pet. The Woodbridge, Ont.-based site was launched in 2005 alongside a toy counterpart.

Members need to purchase the toy, which costs between $10 and $13, in order to sign on. (The Webkinz line is owned by Ganz, a giftware company.) The plush toys, which vary from jungle animals to domestic pets, have codes. The code can be entered at the website, allowing the user to "adopt" the critter.

Once the animal is adopted, members can create a virtual world for it. The animal is named, given a room and some cash. It is then up to the owner to take care of it, making sure their Webkinz is happy and healthy.

Since it launched 18 months ago, Webkinz.com has accumulated more than one million individual users, mostly from North America, where the toys are sold.

The website also has games and chat options but unlike Neopets, which has a liberal privacy policy, Webkinz does not allow its members to enter any personal information. Instead, they can chat with others using stock sentences from a drop down menu.

Emma Williamson, 11, has 20 Webkinz toys and their online counterparts to care for. She admits that she's more into the virtual aspect of Webkinz than the plush toys.

"I never play with the stuffed animals, I just keep them on the shelf," she said from Toronto.

Webkinz president Howard Ganz started the site because he noticed how children like Emma were spending more time playing online than with toys.

"(He) saw the vision of how kids were flocking to the Internet and just saw the potential to relate the two," said Webkinz spokesperson Susan McVeigh.

Pogs, Tamigotchis and Cabbage Patch Kids were all once wildly popular trends that have since become all but extinct to children. Is it likely these online communities and virtual worlds will suffer the same fate?
Karen Mason, who works for Club Penguin, doesn't think so. The Kelowna, B.C.-based site allows users to enter a virtual world as a penguin character. Users can play for free or get a paid subscription, which allows them to do more.
Mason said endless possibilities on the Internet have captured the imagination of millions of children.
"Kids are going online to Club Penguin and when they get there they're playing games, some of which are based on old, traditional board games that you can still play face to face with a real person," she said.
Kalya hasn't logged in to check on her Neopets for about a year and has since moved on to Myspace where the target audience is teenagers and young adults.
Emma was also once a member of Neopets but is no longer interested because she forgot her password and found it boring.
She hasn't tired of Webkinz yet, and spends on average about half an hour a day on the site.
"Every year you have to renew your account by getting a new Webkinz," she said. "Every time you get a new Webkinz it renews your account to that date. The last time I got one was probably about two weeks ago."

Copyright 2006 Canadian Press