When my kids were little, I taught them to look both ways before crossing the street. When it comes to the information highway, a bit of street wisdom is just as important.
That's why it's so helpful when a popular cartoon character like Disney's "Doug" takes it upon himself to teach rudimentary Internet safety ("Doug's Adventures Online" June 5, ABC, within the 8:30-10:30 a.m. time block). The message is "never give out personal information."
It helps that Doug's creators and executive producers are parents themselves. Jim Jinkins and David Campbell had concerns of their own about the World Wide Web. Several newspaper articles came out about predatory adults meeting kids in chat rooms awhile back, and Jinkins and Campbell wanted to warn children without unduly frightening them.
"We approach these serious issues with humility," Campbell says.
The team rewrote the script several times because early versions went too far. "At the end of the day, we hope we are making an entertainment kids will think is fun. The lessons come underneath - a current of ethics."
In the televised story, Doug and his buddy Skeeter are in charge of music for the big dance. Searching for "oldies but goodies" on the Net, they meet another "kid" - "Webster" - in a chat room who tells them he's willing to trade a rare old hit record for some of their records. But what they don't know is that "Friendly Frankie," an unscrupulous record dealer, is posing as Webster.
It's one of those rare kid's TV shows that has real heart and meaning (maybe because Jinkins and Campbell idealistically want to make a contribution to children's television). Adults are there to protect the boys, but Doug and Skeeter see the importance of caution.
"Really, our mission at Jumbo Pictures is to try very hard to start from legitimate kid issues as common as 'Will I look good at the dance?' " Jinkins says, "the stuff kids go through every day. Now and then we stumble on more pointed specific issues."
They also have done an antismoking show (really anti-addiction), in which a candy called Kicknacks became a little too popular. Doug had a bad feeling about the candy, and it turns out he was right. Another episode took on eating disorders, challenging the values that cause them. The pair also did a show about the lure of video games, in which Doug, unhappily as it turns out, loses a weekend to a new game.
"When we are successful - and sometimes we are less so - we manage to blend a good strong kid issue with comedy," Campbell says.
Doug is the kind of cartoon kid I would have liked my kids to watch. When his creators set out to teach a lesson, they are never too moralistic, simplistic, or scary - which is more than can be said for most fairy tales.
*M.S. Mason is a staff writer in Denver. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org