By Stefanie Olsen
Staff Writer, CNET News.com
April 4, 2006 4:00 AM PST
Don't talk to strangers. Don't run on the ice. Look both ways before crossing the street. For most people, they're lessons learned at an early age.
But in the digital world--where kids juggle talking on a cell phone, instant chatting with friends, doing online homework and games, and blogging on sites like MySpace.com--life's little lessons take on a whole new level of complexity.
Do children need training wheels for the digital world? For a growing number of educational groups and companies with youth-friendly Internet services, the answer is a resounding "yes."
"Kids are the ones who spend more time on the Internet--it's very much an extension of their real world," said Warren Nightingale, a media education specialist at the Media Awareness Network, a children and technology educational nonprofit in Canada. "It's important to get the skills in place so they don't put themselves at risk for unwanted attention or give out personal information."
Though children always seem to have a leg up on parents when it comes to adapting to new technology, experts say few of them have been taught the do's and don'ts online. But parents and educators are more concerned than ever with dangers presented by the Internet, given reports of privacy invasions and predators targeting children through chat rooms and blogs.
Research shows that 94 percent of kids access the Internet from home. Some of them are already well-versed in using the Internet by the time they're in fourth grade, or 8 years old, according to a study from the Media Awareness Network, which is funded largely through government grants, conducted in Canada. Eight years old is a pivotal age for children developmentally because that's the time they seek out social networks and start to get a sense of who they are, Nightingale said.
Industrious Kid, a start-up in Emeryville, Calif., is preparing to launch a so-called safe social network for kids this age later this month. Geared for ages 8 to 13, the community, called Imbee.com, will allow children to blog, share photos and swap instant communications with others in their network, but block general Web traffic and indexing by search engines like Google and Yahoo.
The site will require parents to provide a credit card to verify their identity before kids can sign up and log on. Grandparents, for example, who want to communicate with grandchildren, must also register with a credit card. (The site doesn't charge fees for now.) Parents will be able to approve or simply see their child's blog via e-mail once it's posted, among other controls.
Jeanette Symons, the company's founder and a serial technology entrepreneur, seized on the idea for Industrious Kid last summer when her 8-year-old son wanted to blog online. A self-described tech nerd, Symons became worried that her son's digital tracks at age 8 would come back to haunt him later when applying to college or for jobs.
"They don't grasp that they're sharing what they write with anyone other than their four friends," Symons said during an interview at her company's headquarters. Her solution was to put a home server in her closet, and let her son publish on the home network as opposed to the Net.
Industrious Kids is privately funded with $6 million, thanks in part to Symons' previous ventures in telecom-Internet networking with Zhone Technologies and Ascend Communications, which was sold to Lucent Technologies in 1999 for $24 billion. Symons said Industrious Kids will eventually charge subscription fees for advanced features so that it is financially sustainable.
Other child and technology experts believe the problem also needs an educational approach. After all, you don't put a teenager behind a steering wheel without teaching him or her how to drive first, said Cornelia Brunner, associate director for the Center for Children and Technology, an educational research organization.
Similarly, "we need a very serious program teaching kids how (the Internet) works, how to discern who are you talking to, what are reasonable transactions, how to tell when you're in a dangerous place and not to go there," Brunner said.
For example, she said, children aren't taught in schools the critical thinking skills to discern whether information on the Internet is credible or not. A child might not understand that a Rubens painting is art and pictures of scantily clad Russian women are pornography.
Projects in Canada and Australia are already aiming to teach kids media and critical thinking skills online.
The Media Awareness Network partnered in recent years with Microsoft and Bell Canada to introduce a site called Be Web Aware, a resource for parents and teachers on protecting kids online. The site has tips for kids based on their ages.
The Network also publishes online games for children of various ages to teach them about hazards on the Web, but in a playful way. One game, called Privacy Playground, follows the so-called Cyberpigs on the Internet, helping them learn about online marketing.
Nightingale of the Media Awareness Network said that two of the more important things parents can do for kids is to talk to them about their habits and friends online and set parameters.
"For all the rules they have in the real world, they should have rules for the online world, too," he said.
Send insights or tips on this topic to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Stefanie Olsen covers science and technology for News.com. In this series, she examines the young generation's unique immersion in the Web, cell phones, IM and online communities.
Sit down with children when they're online, and make sure they visit only Web sites that are parent-approved. The American Library Association lists great sites for kids on its Web site.
Use child-friendly search engines or one with parental controls. KidsClick, for example, is a Web search site by librarians.
Establish a family e-mail account.
Talk to children about their online activities and online friends because to them, the Internet is an extension of the real world.
Establish rules for the Internet. Studies from Canada's Media Awareness group have shown that children respond positively to established rules.
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