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Bay area teens, who spend more time on the Net that most in the country, treat it like an online mall: chatter, notes, shopping, music ... oh, and homework sometimes, too.

By DAVE GUSSOW

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 23, 1999


East Lake High School student Ryan Keeven spent up to five hours a day this summer on his computer, chatting by e-mail with friends.

"It's something to keep me interested," said Ryan, 14, of Oldsmar. "Something to keep doing instead of being bored."

On the other hand, Luis Reyes of Clearwater uses the Net mostly for homework during the school year and to check sports team sites but doesn't linger online.

"It gets boring after a while," Luis, 15, said. "I like the real world."

The start of the school year means some teenagers are returning to their home computers from summer camp, summer jobs and family vacations. Some never left.

More than 5-million children under 12 go online, according to market research firm Jupiter Communications, a number expected to grow to 20-million by 2002.

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J Stephen Kowski, 14, spends 15 to 20 hours a week on the computer, mostly on sports Web sites, playing games or chatting. His father, Stan, sent Stephen to the American Computer Experience, a two-week camp for children ages 8 to 16 at Rollins College in Winter Park. [Times photo: Melissa Lyttle]

Kids in the Tampa Bay area seem to spend more time surfing and chatting than their peers in most other areas of the country, according to a survey released last week by America Online. The Tampa-St. Petersburg-Sarasota area ranked third in the "Junior Wired" poll, behind New York and Philadelphia and ahead of Los Angeles, Cleveland, Boston, Detroit, Washington, Chicago and Seattle.

Time online increases with age, according to the survey: Kids 2-5 years old spend an average of three hours a week online; ages 6-11, four hours; ages 12-14, six hours; and ages 15-17, seven hours.

For teenagers, computers can be a useful tool, a pipeline for gossip or a simple time-killer. Their online habits range from an occasional research project to a nightly obsession.

Some teens are adept at what computer experts call "multitasking," typing away in live chats online with a group of friends while talking on the phone, watching TV and maybe getting some homework done on the side.

"Teens are able to multitask differently than boomers when they were teens," said Davis Masten, a principal at Cheskin Research. "One thing we have in common is we love to gab."

In a survey by Cheskin and Cyberteens.com, 55 percent of teens said surfing the Web is better than watching TV.

Fifteen-year-old Jennifer David spends hours a day online and can't seem to stay away.

"It is completely addicting," said Jennifer, who visited relatives in Oldsmar before heading back to her home in Massachusetts. "You get caught up into it. Just when you think you're done, you find out there's another list of things to do."

She rarely chats but sends e-mail and checks sites for favorite celebrities, such as singer Tori Amos.

Beth Bissett, 11, and her father, Randy Bissett of Dunedin, send each other e-mail when she is in Texas with her mother. She spends about five hours a week online, visiting Web sites such as Nickelodeon (nick.com) and Scholastic Inc. (scholastic.com). She doesn't chat or do instant messages.

Her father thinks she applies common sense to steer clear of the Web's seamier side, a prime worry for parents whose kids spend hours online.

"She pretty much knows what to look at, what not to look at," Bissett said. "And if she has questions, (I've told her to) come talk to me."

Stan Kowski of St. Petersburg says he trusts his teenage son to do the right thing when he is online. But Kowski adds that he understands boys will be boys and that the Internet can provide temptation and danger for teens.

For his part, 14-year-old J Stephen Kowski says he has received junk e-mail from sex-related Web sites and other pitches. His response: "When I first got it, I didn't even know what it was. . . . I just delete it. It doesn't bother me."

Stephen, a student at the Center for Advanced Technology at Lakewood High School in St. Petersburg, spends an hour or two online after school, with e-mail to friends, homework and game sites topping the list of activities. He spends more time watching TV than on the computer and still manages to play sports (soccer and basketball are favorites) and hang out with friends.

Kowski's confidence in his son was built on a lot of conversations over the years, having the computer in the living room where it is easily monitored and occasional checks to see what has been downloaded.

Kowski says the Internet "opens up a world" to kids, but is concerned about the bombardment of sleazy e-mail and business offers sent to his son.

"I'm worried he's going to sign up for something he has to purchase," Kowski said. "There are sites where they con you in. We've talked about that, people out there trying to just sell you anything."

Still, Kowski remembers his own youth and thinks some exploration is inevitable for a teenage boy.

"As a kid, I was curious," Kowski said. "I'd peek in magazines. No doubt he's peeking. I don't think that's abnormal. I don't want him downloading. I don't want him sharing with friends. I don't think you're going to stop any teenage boy from peeking at Playboy magazine."

-- Times correspondent Robb Guido contributed to this report.

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