Parents fume over Scientology ads on kids' Internet game

Scientology advertisement on kids' game Webkinz invites children to "get to know yourself. Get to know life. Visit our website"

Israel Hayom/December 2, 2013

By Yehuda Shlezinger

Advertisements for the Church of Scientology appearing on popular online game Webkinz has parents across the country up in arms, claiming such banner ads amount to "brainwashing."

The computer game -- which can be accessed through a code that comes with a doll sold in toy stores nationwide -- has steadily gained ground in Israel. On the website, gamers can raise children that look like the purchased doll, providing them with meals, bathing and playing games with them.

The game is most popular among children between the ages of four and 10, boys and girls alike and, like almost all online games, provides space for advertisers. But as the game's popularity grew, several parents began reporting ads they deemed inappropriate for their children, namely promotions for the Church of Scientology.

"Get to know yourself. Get to know life. Visit our website. The Israeli Center of Scientology," the advertisement read.

Tzvika, a parent who first encountered the pop-ups while his 11-year-old daughter was playing Webkinz, was furious over the discovery.

"This is very serious. They are brainwashing children; it's surreal and inconceivable. This game is supposed to be safe for kids. Everyone is saying the internet is dangerous, so you think to yourself, a children's game must be clean, and then you see all kinds of ads like this," said Tzvika.

The Scientology center says it runs a "philosophical, spiritual, theoretical and practical" organization. Its staff offer various methods for treating diseases, enhancing physical capabilities and developing spiritual awareness. It may sound innocuous, but organizational activities have given rise to a number of controversies both in Israel and abroad throughout the last several years.

Several testimonies from members of the sect in Israel and other countries, for example, seem to indicate that the church uses methods based on fraud and brainwashing. Central complaints against Scientology include claims that the organization practices illegal hypnosis, and exploits and harasses its followers.

In the 1980s, the Knesset formed a special committee to oversee courses run by the Scientology center in Israel, in the end declaring that the organization was very dangerous. Still, the Church of Scientology may have millions of adherents throughout the world, concentrated especially in the United States, and including several notable celebrities such as actor Tom Cruise.

Sefi Fischler, the spokesman for the Scientology center in Israel, said the church did not actively pursue advertising space on children's websites.

"We are working with Google, and we have no control over which specific sites show the ad, just the general category. I should say the option for gaming websites was not among the chosen site-categories we picked for the ad. Additionally, minors are not allowed to partake in our services unless they can provide written permission from their parents."

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