Online services let kids shop; parents relax

Vickie Dowling, who enters eighth grade this fall in Woodbridge, Va., faced a problem that many teenagers confront. She wanted to shop online but she didn't have a way to pay.

Instead of giving Vickie a credit card, her mother, Laura, signed her up for an iCanBuy account. The service, one of several new online payment options for children, allows preteens and teens to shop on the Web. But unlike cash, this online money allows parents to control where their children shop and how much they spend.

"She's accumulated all this money in her savings account and we just never have time to go out and spend it," says Mrs. Dowling. "This gives her time to sit down and browse on her own."

The limit: Vickie can only buy up to $50 worth of merchandise unless her mother chooses to replenish the account.

Other parents may want to put on more controls. "Parents might decide a 10-year-old is too young to buy perfume," says Carol Kruse, cofounder and vice president of marketing for RocketCash Corp., based in Saratoga, Calif. So they can turn off access to RocketCash's perfume vendor. They can also disable access to the service during certain times of day, such as school hours or homework time.

The services also offer interest-bearing accounts (to encourage children to save for the future) and links to charities (so they can donate some of their money).

"We really want kids to think seriously about all the ways their money works in the world," says Ginger Thomson, president of doughNet Inc. The San Francisco-based payment service lets children use their electronic money to support groups such as Save the Children, Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Rainforest Alliance. "Perhaps we could begin to start a lifetime of supporting a need," Ms. Thomson says.

The services differ somewhat in their presentation. The iCanBuy service has signed up users as young as 5 and as old as 19; doughNet only targets those age 13 and up. RocketCash and iCanBuy screen out adult-content books and videos that their online partners offer, while doughNet does not (although parents can disable access to the entire site). Coming soon are controls that will allow parents even more refined control over how their children spend.

"What we've pioneered in this industry is the ability to implement smart money - money that has permissions on it," says Paul Herman, chief executive and cofounder of

And the idea may catch on more broadly. "Some adults have told us they would like to use this for their spouse. Some adults have told us they would like to use this for themselves," Mr. Herman says.

Meanwhile, children are growing up with a new kind of money. "I like it," says Vickie, who bought books and computer games on the iCanBuy site. "It's very easy to get to instead of having to go out of the house."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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