Growing concern about Web sites for kids: banality

Efforts to increase kids' access to the Net have largely overlooked question of content.

One of the newest and most popular "babysitters" for children this summer is the Internet.

Yet as teenagers become more immersed in new digital media, a growing number of experts are pushing for more challenging and appropriate content.

The issue isn't sexually explicit material - though that's still a concern. Rather, the focus is on the 99 percent of sites aimed at children which, while not offensive, strike many as way below the medium's potential.

What is needed, advocates say, is material that is more sophisticated in combining education and entertainment, is increasingly interactive, and involves teens themselves in its creation.

Otherwise, they add, the Internet is poised to go the same route as broadcast television - producing the same complaints about what it serves up.

"We are poised at that point where we are about to make the same mistakes in new media that we made with TV," warns Alice Cahn of the John and Mary R. Markle Foundation, a funder of research on the effects of new media on children.

The thrust in most communities in recent years has been to increase children's access to the Internet. Billions of dollars' worth of hardware and wiring has been spent to bring the Internet to schools, libraries, and community centers across the country.

Yet as the push for greater access has gained momentum, some are beginning to see a more important issue looming.

"How can we make sure that as children have more and more access, it's access to something meaningful?" says Lois Salisbury of Children Now, an advocacy group in Oakland, Calif.

Although discussions about Web content make some freedom of information advocates nervous, organizations like Children Now aren't advocating censorship or government influence over content. Instead, they're pushing for collaboration among industry, government, and children's groups to develop better models.

To that end, Children Now sponsored a first-of-its-kind discussion about online content for children last week at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif. It involved not only industry heavyweights, but also advocacy groups and the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, William Kennard.

Many at the gathering expressed support for government subsidies or tax credits to help create online equivalents of popular and respected television programming like "Sesame Street."

The need for better quality will become more pressing as more and more kids log on. According to The Children's Partnership, 37 percent of all American children under 18 are now using the Internet. Nearly half of American households with children have access to the Internet, suggesting children's use is going to continue to rise rapidly.

Social inequities still exist. Children in white households, for instance, are about twice as likely to live in homes with Internet access as Hispanic or black children. But while this "digital divide" has received attention and money, Internet content has been largely ignored.

The starting point for concern about content is the degree to which today's children are saturated with media. According to research by the Kaiser Family Foundation and others, media now occupy as much time and are as important in children's lives as more traditional forces like parents, school, and church.

Given this influence, "we have a powerful incentive to understand how such a pervasive experience affects their development," says Ellen Wartella of the University of Texas.

While adults tend to use the Internet as a means to an end, the end being information, for teenagers, it's more a comfortable place for playing games and participating in interactive communities. It is also seen by many teens as a means of self-expression, which explains the popularity of personal Web sites.

Not everyone agrees that there's a dearth of good content, however. David Kleeman of the American Center for Children and Media sees lots of high-quality Web sites, games, and interactive content emerging. He says one of the biggest obstacles is simply making children and parents aware of the quality content that is available online.

Indeed, Mr. Kennard of the FCC says the two complaints he hears most from parents are lack of control in steering their children away from material they consider worthless or inappropriate, and a desire for help in knowing where to find "the good stuff" on the Internet.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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