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'Digital kids": Web's latest offerings

Before we get to the fun stuff, we'd like to send our best wishes to the good people at, which closed its doors last week. The news saddened us, because we thought highly both of the service - a fun, safe, media-rich online experience for the littlest online kids - and of the people we met at parent company Passport New Media.

Passport CEO Brian Pass emailed us Monday, "I've been spending most of my time this weekend and today replying to the hundreds of wonderful emails I've received from our customers. I think the strangest part of this point in business history is the disconnect between the consumer and the financial markets. Many of us have products that customers want but can't find the funding to bring it to them, notwithstanding the demand."

And the body of evidence that investors are not interested in consumers kept growing this week. Here's just a sampler of reports and analyses:

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Kid sites: Not singing the blues

Meanwhile, here's some light in the midst of this week's dot-com gloom: some interesting new Web services for kids. We had a lot of fun checking them out and writing up our thoughts. Now it's your turn. Put these sites to the toughest testers - your kids - and email us what you see on their faces. Such taskmasters we are! ;-) Our reason: Very little solid, public-sector (non-corporate) research has been done on how sites like these affect kids - whether the ones meant to be educational truly are. So what we parents and teachers learn from each other can only help.

  1. Living Letters: Notable, delightful, experimental

    You and your kids have to experience this Web site and its technology to believe it. But watch out, together you might want to become citizens of Letter Land, never to leave. This interactive playground is like nothing we've seen on the Web yet, and it's utterly delightful. Iris and Otto (the "I" and "O") are your hosts and playmates in Letter Land. They will soon be joined by "U," "A," and "E" (not their real names). Otto, "the round mound of sound," is an opera singer. He's a little slow but very lovable. Iris, a pronoun as well as a letter, a fashion-conscious one to boot, is the fastest letter in the alphabet, believing that most of her peers are like "super-crunchy peanut butter sliding uphill."

    The technology that lets you play with Iris and Otto is designed for a "28.8 modem and a Christmas '97 Pentium computer or better," Oliver Strimpel told us at Digital Kids, when he demo'd Letter Land for us (Mr. Strimpel is business development director at Zoesis Studios, the company behind the letters). "It's a Web page," he explained, "that invokes [or activates, maybe] native computer code. The code lives on the server and is sent to your system, or streamed, while you're doing the activity." So it should work for you, as well as for us, blessed with a DSL connection (do tell us if it does and what you think of the site). Obviously this is not your typical dot-com children's Web site, subject to the current moment's scary laws of Net economics. It's part of a longer-term, or at least more open-ended, experiment in interactive entertainment that might supersede TV. The New York Times goes into more detail on that part of the Letter Land experience, which writer John Markoff says fuses entertainment, education, and artificial intelligence.

  2. Zillions: Fun, meaty educational service

    Before launching this fall, put itself to the ultimate test: It subjected itself to its own kid-testers! The site actually published what its kid-testers said about various sections and what tweaks resulted. Now that is impressive.

    If you're not familiar with Zillions the magazine (which Consumer Reports stopped publishing partly because of "the migration of kids to the Net"), you may not know about the Z-Team: 100 kids 8-14 all over the United States who are chosen by Consumer Reports through an annual essay contest it holds (here's the Z-Team page).

    The underlying question is: If you were a kid, who would you go to as the ultimate authority on a toy? Zillions is Consumer Reports's answer to that question. In addition to kid product tests and ratings, the site includes a weekly Money Q&A (kids' questions about money, answered by kids), kids' polls, "Fad Alert!" (kids report in with fads in their locales, US-wide), site-user product ratings, and "Daze of our Lives" (a comic-strip serial with a choice of endings kids can vote on). There's an educational element to all this, of course - from bar graphs to percentages to analytical thinking.

  3. Very commercial, different & intriguing

    It's part e-playground, part children's museum with a product to buy at every activity station, part test lab for future interactive-TV cartoon characters (that last just a guess). - founded by the youngest-ever member of the Toy Manufacturers of America's board of directors, one-time law student and "former child actor and stand-up comic" Larry Schwarz - calls itself an online entertainment network for kids.

    It's all based on Mr. Schwarz's very creative toy/characters, such as Sy Klops (with the removable rubber eyeball), Benny Blanket (security blanket and toy literally rolled into one), Harry Hairball (the cat with a fish, a mouse, and hairballs in his stomach), and Puppet4 (a whole puppet show on one hand). You could view this site as one heck of a fun, slightly subliminal shopping mall for kids - because every character's page links to its toy version and a shopping cart. Problem is, it's fun for grownups too. We loved the "Monster in My Closet" movie in which Monster helps the kid by making sure all's clear in the closet. Our conclusion: Just this once, why not abandon all parental earnestness and have the fun-nest armchair shopping trip you've ever had with your child? It's aeons beyond that old, dog-eared Sear's Wishbook we used to pore over! And maybe we've stumbled on a Web site that's figured out how to beat the dot-com doldrums, stay solvent, and give smiles to everybody's inner child.

  4. Clifford and Caillou: Educational fun from PBS Kids

    Have the little guys in your house or classroom already noticed that Clifford and Caillou have arrived on their TV screens? If they can't get enough of these cartoon friends in that passive sort of format, they can interact with them on the Web. Clifford and Caillou have companion Web pages at, launched simultaneously with their TV shows last month.

    True to what PBS Kids learned in focus groups with very small surfers (and their parents), these pages have very little to no text, so three- and four-year-olds can play here comfortably. Please see "Littlest Web surfers", our interview last August with PBS Kids manager Michelle Miller about their research. Activities include learning how to share with doggie friend Cleo, meeting Birdwell Island residents with T-Bone's help, exploring a day in the life of Caillou, making music on a "magic keyboard," a counting game, and printing out storybook pages to color.

  5. KIDS Report: Educational service by kids, for kids

    "KIDS" stands for "Kids Identifying and Discovering Sites," which signals right up front that this is an educational service for kids at both the publishing and consumer ends of the equation. It's a biweekly collection of reviews of Web sites written by students for students and teachers. The project is designed to do three important things: help students develop research and evaluation skills, integrate the Internet into the curriculum, and create something truly useful to students and teachers worldwide. Each issue is put together by a different K-12 class somewhere in the United States. The project is hosted by the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

    The latest, September 26, issue, by a class in Altoona, Pa., looks at Internet-based contests for kids and students. At the top of their list (top of ours as well) is ThinkQuest, with CyberSurfari a close second.

  6. kidzwerld: Commercial site for 'tweens

    The URL is not going to help problem spellers, but this near-future arrival on the fairly crowded-though-thinning kids' Web scene says it's just for 'tweens (9-14-year-olds, thoough 13- and 14-year-olds would probably move "up" to full-blown teen sites like,,, and It hasn't launched yet, but we're including it because of the insights it offers into what kids' sites are trying to look like (responsible) and do (attract kids) in these days of tough financial times, COPPA, and consumer privacy fears in general. It's tough to appeal to both grownups and kids at the same time!!!

    Kidzwerld looks to be aimed more at boys, figuring gamers will be its bread 'n' butter (a very large, passionate online community to serve, even in the 'tween category, but maybe a tough one to win over). The site is very flashy - literally. The pages are very bouncy, requiring the latest Flash plugin, which Kidzwerld's research probably shows kids like. The site is a "gateway," it tells parents, sending kids only to sites that are safe and appropriate for them. Within the "werld" will be contests, monitored chat, email accounts, epostcards, and games ("arcade, new arcade, brainteasers, sports simulators," and cheats, gamers' own reviews, previews, and downloads for multi-player gamers, of which there are many in this age group). We'll have to wait and see if all this really happens.

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Family Tech

  1. Filtering revisited

    Filtering software is - and needs to be - a perennial subject for parents with kids online. Even for parents familiar with the Internet's pluses and minuses, it's good to check in on how the technology's changed lately. For parents new to the Internet, filtering has its complexities. For one thing, it's far from fool-proof. That's why it's helpful to check in with's Larry Magid every now and then. In "Keeping your kids from online porn," his column for the San Jose Mercury News this week, Larry mentions a few good client-based programs (filtering software installed on your PC hard drive), including his favorite. But more important, "The biggest issue when it comes to filtering is not so much which filter to get but whether it's a good idea for your family," Larry explains. He brings a parent's experience to what follows.

  2. Tech support for families (anyone, really)

    Wonder how to get rid of a pesky icon on your computer screen, or how to get a piece of jammed paper out of your printer? In a recent piece for the Los Angeles Times, Larry tried out just those questions on a tech-support service you can subscribe to (with a 14-day free trial), and lived to tell about the experience. The article might bring computer-related stress levels at your house down a notch or two!

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Web News Briefs

  1. COPA Commission wrapping up

    The US government-appointed panel is putting the final touches on its report to Congress later this month, resoundingly recommending a largely "hands-off approach" to protecting kids online. That's according to Wired News, adding that the commission is suggesting that practices like deceptively mislabeling adult sites should be against the law. It's asking federal agencies to "consider greater enforcement and possibly rulemaking to discourage deceptive or unfair practices to entice children to view obscene materials, including the practices of 'mouse trapping' and deceptive meta-tagging." "Mouse trapping" is what happens "when a sex site makes it difficult to close all the ad windows on the screen," Wired explains. Deceptive meta-tagging is Web page code that "lies" to search engines, saying for example that there's educational or child-safe material on a site that is actually sexually explicit. Contrary to recent media reports, the commission is basically calling for better public education and "responsible adult empowerment" rather than new criminal laws or new top-level domains (such as ".sex" or ".kids"). The COPA Commission, mandated by the Child Online Protection Act of October '98, is the only part of the law that wasn't blocked by a federal judge. Once it hands its report in to Congress on October 21, the under-funded panel will probably cease operations.

  2. Knuckles rapped

    From COPA to COPPA (the other law protecting online kids, which did not get blocked). There was a bit of irony in the news this past week, when the news broke that some of the most non-law-abiding Web sites, where COPPA is concerned, are US government ones. To wit: "COPPA requires that parents be able to control their child's information, that Web sites provide contact information and that parents consent before a Web site asks for information from kids. The White House doesn't," reports Wired News. However, the USIIA Bulletin adds that, "even though the Web site for the White House extracts personal data from children without the required parental consent, the Federal Trade Commission has announced that its crackdown on compliance with the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act will not include government sites. The government initially exempted itself from any requirement to meet the privacy law, but a recent order from the Office and Management and Budget requires government sites to comply. In addition, the government sites have been directed to outline their privacy practices as part of the budgeting process for 2001. The FTC says it will begin a sweep of commercial sites for COPPA compliance within the next two months."

  3. For holiday un-wish lists

    As a service to fellow parents this shopping season, we'll link you to "buyer beware" stories when we run across them. If a child you know is asking for a robotic pet, think twice about Fisher-Price's "Rocket." ZDNet calls Rocket "one pathetic puppy." Sony's Aibo 2 is no alternative, though - not with a pricetag of $1,400 (a bargain compared with version 1, priced at more than $2,000!). According to Reuters, Aibo 2 has just been let out of the kennel.

    Sony's not getting points from parents this season for another even more important reason - at least not from those of us with older kids and console-game aficionados at home. The New York Times says Sony "raised the blood pressure of millions of American parents … when it announced that its initial shipment of PlayStation 2, the cutting-edge entertainment device that is expected to be the hottest gift of this holiday season, would be half what it had promised." Only 500,000 machines will arrive on store shelves later this month, which suggests that holiday shopping for some gamers ends before Halloween.

  4. FBI's most wanted: Net ethics ed

    Well, it's quite a different sort of FBI wish list. It wants young people to understand that vandalism on the Internet can be costly to corporations and the economy and just as criminal as traditional property-trashing. According to the Associated Press (via the San Jose Mercury News), "the US Justice Department and the Information Technology Association of America, a trade group, has launched the Cybercitizen Partnership to encourage educators and parents to talk to children in ways that equate computer crimes with old-fashioned wrongdoing." The Mercury News cited a recent survey finding that 48% of students in elementary and middle school don't consider hacking illegal.

  5. Mentoring by email

    Experts aren't sure if email mentoring is as effective as the face-to-face kind, but the email version is definitely in growth mode. And traditional mentoring programs are adding email to their offerings. According to the New York Times, programs like and are making mentoring possible for a lot of kids who wouldn't otherwise benefit from an adult's career guidance. The Times article looks at all aspects of online mentoring, pluses and minuses.

  6. 50 million to lose out?

    The Internet will soon be such a fact of life in the US that not having access to it will be like not being able to read or write. That's the finding of the Gartner Group, technology researchers, in a recent survey it conducted. According to Reuters (via, the study found that "as many as 50 million US adults are in danger of becoming functionally 'illiterate' " because they don't know how to use the Internet. Gartner projects that 75% of US households will be linked to the Net by 2005, up from 50% now.

    For balance, our thanks to for its "Fast Facts" on the digital divide, an (almost) at-a-glance summary of recent surveys on who's wired and who's not. The evidence certainly doesn't counter Gartner Group's findings - just offers a little more detail.

  7. Net-savvy seniors

    Senior citizens will not be well-represented among the Net-illiterate cited above, it appears. According to, Americans over 55 are some of the most enthusiastic Net users. "In 1999 there were 6.6 million active seniors online," eMarketer reports. "Internet penetration among seniors has grown by one-third over the course of one year. By the end of this year, there will be 9.1 million seniors online, and by 2003 there will be 17.3 million seniors online."

  8. Disabled: 40%+ online

    And while we're on the subject, here's another very tech-literate demographic group. cites the US Census Bureau stat that 21% of Americans, or 54 million people, have a disability. Of those more than 40% are online, a Harris Poll found. "Although that's a smaller share than the non-disabled population," reports, "Web surfers with a disability spend more time logged on and report more positive feelings about the Internet than non-disabled Web surfers." [The site's designed in "frames," so we can't give you the article's URL. The headline is "The Internet's Next Niche" under "Top Lines" to the left on's home page.]

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A subscriber writes: Filtering vs. ratings

Referring to our item last week, "US schools & libraries: Mandatory filtering", and a subscriber comment on Internet ratings, subscriber Mike in California emailed us this week:

"Thanks for the recent info on Congress and filtering. I saw the post by the gentleman about how the federal government could just require all R- or X-rated sites to have a 'www.r' in front of the address. The thing he (and others) are missing is that the Internet isn't American or a United States-governed entity. It is worldwide. Congress can enact laws requiring our computers in our schools to have filtered access, but they can't effectively police the whole World Wide Web, nor should they.

"This is of course my opinion, but I am an owner of a filtered ISP, and I don't think Congress should waste our money attempting to censor those that do things that even I think are objectionable. If they do, what would stop them from censoring me if I disagreed with them on some other issue later on down the line. And again, pragmatically speaking, they can't. All the porn peddlers have to do is take their content to any offshore hosting company that puts the domains out of US government control.

"As odd as this may sound coming from me, we need to work with the porn industry to put more child-protection safeguards on their sites, more credit card checks, etc. It isn't the best answer, but it will work. In addition, we need to encourage people to use a filtered service so that the ISP Industry that specializes in protecting families can thrive and afford to invest in new technology to make filtering more functional and more thorough.

"'Foil the filters' is a great article - it shows the weaknesses of end-user filtering. Server-side filtering is much stronger and more effective, as there is far less overblocking, and a better response time to sites that are mistakenly blocked. If something is blocked, we can have it unblocked within minutes rather than waiting for CyberPatrol [client-based filtering software company] to make a huge policy change that might require weeks to review. Plus, it doesn't cost the end user anything. If they subscribe to AOL, Earthlink, etc, switching to a filtered provider like Integrity Online or Purenet costs the same and provides a higher level of security. It isn't foolproof, it isn't a panacea, but it allows you the ability to let your kids explore the Web without being paranoid and checking over their shoulder every 2 minutes."

[Editor's Note on Filtering Choices: That's a bit of a sales pitch, but informative, too, we thought, so we published it. One problem with filtered ISPs that more neutral experts have noted is the fact that tech-literate kids can temporarily switch to a different, unfiltered, ISP account - maybe that of a friend - when Mom and Dad aren't looking. Another potential problem, shared by both filtering software companies and filtered ISPs, is: Unless families can customize the software or Internet service, they have little control over the criteria used to decide what is blocked. The values behind the criteria are a company's. Mike is right: Filtered ISPs can potentially be more responsive to customers' wishes than software makers with packaged products, but whether an Internet service actually is responsive is something to check out. Something else filter-using families might want to find out is whether the service or software company publishes its criteria for filtering, its list of filtered sites, or the key words or phrases that it uses to filter or block material.]

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That does it for this week. Have a great weekend!


Anne Collier, Editor

Net Family News

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