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Keeping kids safe online

By DAVE GUSSOW

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 12, 2000


Not all kids can count on an anything-goes summer online.

Cartoon characters with names such as Alfy and YOP are ready to help parents control what kids do on the home  computer, even if some tech-savvy kids try to beat the system.

"We did have one family where the teenager wrote us a message to unblock a site," said Karsten Amlie, president of PAX Internet Inc., which runs a "family-safe" Internet service provider that blocks objectionable sites.

The teen's plans ran into a sharp-eyed tech who knew the no-limits request wasn't really from a grown-up. "Just the language that was used in the message caught the technician by surprise," said Amlie, so the service called the home, talked to the mother and put an end to that scheme.

New electronic services offer kids suitable and safe Internet and computer activities while providing parents with peace of mind. Instead of relying on filtering software, parents can choose from Internet service providers such as Paxway, which do the filtering for them; kid-friendly Web portals such as Alfy.com, which allow access only to approved sites; or Your Own World, which creates an offline kids' world with software downloads.

And not just teenagers are affected. Some services aim to give children as young as 2 a high-tech experience free from the Internet's Wild West excesses. It's a market that's growing as more families go online, as more parents want their kids to learn computer and Internet skills, and as more concerns are raised about online safety and privacy issues for kids.

"Our company is not really about scaring people off the Internet and onto our service," said Brian Pass of Los Angeles, who created Your Own World with his brother David. "We think the Internet is a very valuable place. We want to be just another tool and resource for parents."

An offline world

Brian Pass wanted his kids to have fun on the Internet. Little did he know what he would find.

"I just typed in "fun' " on the search engine, Pass said, and one of the hits turned out to be a pornographic site.

Even when he found suitable sites, the children lost patience while waiting for pages to load or when software plug-ins were needed to hear or view sites properly. "They just didn't find the Internet very engaging," Pass said.

That was two years ago. The Pass brothers' company launched Your Own World in February to provide kids from 2 to 12 with suitable things to do on their computers. Company research showed that only about a third of the kids with Internet access available at home went online, mainly because of parental fears about safety.

The idea behind Your Own World: "Let's not try to protect kids online," Pass said. "Let's bring the Internet to them."

Here's how it works:

Parents sign up online (http://www.yourownworld.com) to receive a free CD-ROM. The questionnaire requires the parents' name and occupation, e-mail address, mail address, children by age and gender and home phone number. The company has an extensive explanation of its privacy policy on the site.

Once installed, the software allows parents to set up different accounts for each child based on reading ability and subject material. Those accounts can be updated as the child gets older.

YOW has partners such as the Muppets, Time Magazine for Kids and Mattel Interactive to provide content on channels in the software, which parents can update by downloads from the Internet. YOP (Your Own Penguin) is the mascot.

"I got tired of paying for new CD-ROMs all the time," Pass said. "I wanted to bring them online but I just couldn't leave them alone as I could with CD-ROMs because of the dangers."

But he chafes at the idea that the service is simply a form of electronic babysitter.

"Our service is not like sitting a child in front of a TV or VCR and walking away," Pass said. "There's a lot of educational content, and we think that's valuable."

Pass says the software has advantages over other kid-friendly alternatives on the Web: Too many sites rely on text, which doesn't help younger users. It's difficult to find sites that will satisfy both a 6-year-old and a 10-year-old, and a child won't get lost on the Web if he clicks on an ad on the software. The ads and potential sales are aimed at the parents, Pass said, not the kids.

The company won't say how many people have subscribed, but Pass said they were happy with the response since the company started in February.

"I think what children really enjoy in our service is that they're independent," Pass said. "They have freedom to explore and learn in a restricted environment, being on their own without a parent looking over their shoulder."

A family provider

Nothing will block everything bad on the Internet, but Paxway promises to come close, filtering "99 and 45/100th percent" of adult and violent Web sites.

"There are certain things you can't protect against," such as sites that disguise their Web addresses to avoid filtering software, said Amlie, president of Paxway.

The new Internet service provider (http://www.paxway.com) is part of Paxson Communications Corp. of West Palm Beach, which built a TV network around family-oriented TV shows with little sex and violence. Its founder is Lowell "Bud" Paxson, co-founder of the Home Shopping Network in St. Petersburg.

"Our philosophy is to allow families to use the Internet without fear," Amlie said, "without kids under the age of 18 encountering material that can do damage from a violent perspective, sexual perspective or some sites that offer some sick, disgusting fare that you wouldn't want anyone to see."

Paxway blocks sites in 30 categories, such as pornography, drugs and hate. Its target audience is families with children up to 18, though Amlie says most of Paxway's first subscribers have children 10 and younger. It signed up about 1,000 subscribers this spring and hopes to have 25,000 by the end of the year for its $19.95-a-month service in the 30 markets it serves, including the Tampa Bay area.

Amlie realizes the one-block-fits-all philosophy won't appeal to everyone, so it offers the first month free. While he described initial reaction as excellent, he also said some adults found the blocking too conservative, and some families wanted to protect younger children while giving teenagers more flexibility to surf.

For those families, Paxway suggests letting young children use it, while the family downloads a free Internet service provider for other family members. In addition, the service gets requests from subscribers to unblock some sites for availability to all users. While the teenager who posed as a parent failed to get a gothic chat room unblocked, Amlie says Paxway reviews the requests. If it deems a site suitable, it will unblock it.

In addition to blocking sites, the service blocks spam e-mail messages and allows instant messages only within its service. That means a Paxway subscriber could not talk to an America Online user.

Amlie said a recent study concluded that "parents will trust their children to use the Internet, but there's a big gap between those who trust and have a filtered ISP and those who don't. And those who don't have problems."

He said: "Just like with TV, you can't be there all the time when your child wants to go on the Internet. You can't be there all the time when you want to protect them from something on the Internet.

A kids' world

More sites for kids
Parents have other choices beyond Alfy.com, Your Own World and Paxway's Internet access service for their children. Some sites and services have greater safeguards, and parents should check out any service thoroughly to make sure it meets their family's needs. Here are a few.

Online to laugh, to chat, but not to buy
Christina Marsalisi, a seventh-grader with a broad smile, spends 30 hours a week online.

Alfy created an online world where kids can surf among 2,000 or so approved Web sites, or they can use Alfy's own content. But they can't go beyond this virtual world.

Instead of creating a blacklist of bad sites, Alfy screens and approves sites suitable for kids age 3 to 9. It also has software that will prevent kids from going outside that list, even if they click on a link that might lead them elsewhere on the Web.

A traditional blacklist "is almost out of date as soon as it's printed," said Wendi Kromash, director of marketing for the Web portal (http://www.alfy.com). By creating a list of approved sites, parents will know upfront that Alfy's choices are safe and appropriate.

Alfy, which is based in New York, relies on graphics and sound to build its world, making it easy for even the youngest surfers to move around comfortably even if they can't yet read.

"It's just fun for them," Kromash said. "They're learning things but they're not realizing they're learning."

Its original content and activities include Storyville, with interactive stories where children click on objects to advance the story; Brain Train, where toddlers can learn their ABCs, numbers and shapes; and the Clubhouse, where kids can send greeting cards or create home pages.

There are sections for teachers and parents, and Alfy is developing an activity center that will allow parents to work with their kids online, as well as let the adults learn more about the technology and terms used, a guide to Web resources and suggestions for activities outside of Alfy.

But it's kids, particularly young kids, that Alfy hopes to appeal to. "We see this as an opportunity for us to really carve out our own niche," said Kromash, noting kids age 10 and older want to move on to other activities on the Internet.

As for whether 3 is too young to start a child on a computer, Kromash says it's up to parents to make that decision. "We've certainly seen examples as young as 2 1/2 who were completely comfortable" on a computer.

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