Sooner or later, nearly every parent wishes for a magic wand that will protect young children from things that aren’t good for them. That’s especially true on the Internet where nothing but a mouse click separates even the youngest children from pornography, gambling, and other adult vices. For the past decade, librarians, legislators, teachers and parents have all struggled to make the Internet safe for kids without infringing on the rights of adults. Last year, Congress decided to take another crack at the problem by creating a kids-only domain called kids.us. Domain is a technical word referring to the final part of a website address. The most familiar is .com but there are others such as .org for non-profit organizations or .edu for universities. The first website with the kids.us designation appeared in September. Smithsonian.kids.us is a hopeful harbinger — it’s crammed with content that is both intriguing and educational. More kids.us websites are expected to come online in the next year, and a full directory will be available at www.kids.us. The process is slow because websites can’t simply request addresses with these letters. Instead, they have to apply for the designation by meeting specific standards designed to protect kids. Here are some of the restrictions:
Decency. Sites won’t be allowed to use language that’s obscene or profane.
Education. At least some of the content on the site has to teach kids something useful.
Privacy. The owner of the web site promises not to collect information about kids who visit the site.
Content. Sites cannot include content that promotes violence or includes hate speech of any kind. Material about weapons, drugs, alcohol, tobacco and gambling won’t be permitted either.
Connectivity. If sites include email, chat, instant messaging or message boards, they will be supervised to be sure the content is appropriate for children under 13. Also, sites won’t be allowed to include links that would take kids to websites without the kids.us address.
Obviously, these rules provide important protections against some of the most serious dangers kids can encounter online. Parents, however, need to be aware of three limitations to the new system. First, it’s designed to protect children under 13. As every parent knows, that covers a huge amount of developmental territory. Games that are stimulating for a 10-year-old may be hopelessly frustrating to a 5-year-old. A story that excites an 8-year-old may terrify a 4-year-old sibling. Information that enlightens a fourth-grader may confuse a first grader. In other words, even with the kids.us designation, parents will have to be sure what children are doing online matches their stage of development. Second, kids.us guidelines don’t limit commercial messages. Over-commercialization has already infected some kid-friendly websites. Many of the most colorful and appealing sites have underlying agendas that involve selling candy, toys, sweet cereal, soft drinks and various forms of entertainment. This is problematic because most child development experts agree children under four can’t readily distinguish between advertising and content. Even first and second graders don’t always recognize commercials, especially if they use characters familiar from other contexts. Tweens who may be ad-savvy in some settings often go into a "flow" state when playing online games; they, too, may be more susceptible to commercial messages. On kids.us websites, advertisers won’t be able to lie to kids, but they will be able to include games that incorporate products or spokesfigures associated with products. As a result, parents will still have to decide which commercial messages are benign or even helpful, and which undermine family values. If, for instance, you don’t want to argue about buying sugary cereals for breakfast, you probably won’t want your child to play the Fruit Loop game even if it does have the kids.us domain name. Finally, at this point, limiting kids to kids.us sites will cut them off from other valuable areas of the Web. A large number of kid-friendly websites aren’t likely to apply for the designation because they can’t afford the fees or won’t be able to meet the rules about supervision. It’s important for parents to note recommended websites from trusted sources. Here are three good places to start:
—Great Sites for Kids(www.ala.org/parentspage/greatsites/amazing.html). Hundreds of sites selected by the American Library Association and organized by subject matter.
—Surf the Net with Kids (www.surfnetkids.com). Websites about topics that interest kids, selected by a journalist who has a syndicated column with the same name.
—Berit’s Best Sites for Kids (beritsbest.com). Sites that are both educational and fun, rated by a librarian.
As elementary age kids become restless with pre-selected websites, steer them toward a search engine designed for kids, such as yahooligans.com, surfsafely.com or ajkids.com. Even though kids.us isn’t a magic wand, parents should be on the lookout for websites with those letters at the end. At the very least, these new sites will protect kids from obvious online perils. At their best, these sites may finally create an online haven where parents can, with a clear conscience, say to their children "Go play!"