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PERSONAL TECHNOLOGY | PC FOCUS / LAWRENCE J. MAGID

Grown-Ups Can Make Web a Swell Place for Kids

May 06, 1996|LAWRENCE J. MAGID

We hear a lot of mixed messages when it comes to kids and the Internet. Some say it's the best educational tool since the blackboard. Others argue it's a cesspool of pornography and violence. I don't buy either argument.

While not a substitute for a good teacher, the Internet, especially the World Wide Web, does have some wonderful fun and educational resources for children. And, like every other part of society, there are places that should be off-limits to children. But both its value and its potential dangers are often exaggerated.

The key to making the most out of the positive and avoiding the negative can be boiled down to two words: "parenting" and "teaching." It's the same whether you're talking about the Internet, multimedia CD-ROMs or books, periodicals, videos and TV.

A computer, especially when connected to the Internet, is not an electronic baby sitter, and there is no machine I'm aware of that can substitute for a good teacher or a loving parent. No matter how adept your children may be at surfing the Web, it's parents and teachers who can provide the guidance, knowledge, wisdom and perspective that gives it meaning.

The technology itself creates a paradox: One of the biggest benefits of computerized searching, the ability to jump quickly and easily from place to place, is also one of its weaknesses. Having so many options can be empowering, but it can also lead to a more shallow experience because the user doesn't get a complete picture of what he or she is exploring.

What's more, the Web and multimedia CDs usually allow you to explore at your own pace. That has its advantages, but it can also be counterproductive: I've spent many hours watching kids using the Web and CDs and know how easy it is for them to lose much of the meaning or impact of a presentation. A teacher or parent, however, can help put it into perspective and steer the child to an appropriate pace and order.

Some people are worried kids will get into places they don't belong, but, as I'll discuss in next week's column, there are ways to greatly reduce the chance of that happening. More dangerous than sex and violence, in fact, are sites that waste your kids' time, bombard them with advertisements, or entice them into buying products or handing over information about themselves with games and other ploys.

For now I'll focus on the positive sides of cyberspace, with a few suggestions on how you and your kids can get started.

Jean Amour Polly, author of "The Internet for Kids Yellow Pages" (Osborne McGraw-Hill, $19.95), which lists hundreds of child-oriented sites, has a Web site (http://www.well.com/user/polly/) with "Fifty Extraordinary Experiences for Internet Kids." I don't agree with everything on her list, but it's a good starting place.

Another good starting place is the kids' version of Yahoo, the mother of all Internet search engines. Yahooligans (http://www.yahooligans.com/) lets you search for child-friendly sites by category or keyword. Categories include Around the World (culture, politics, history), Art Soup, School Bells, Entertainment, Science and Oddities, Sports and Recreation and, of course, Comics.

Uncle Bob's Kid Page (http://gagme.wwa.com/~boba/kidslinks.html) is a well-edited compendium of kids' sites with links to plenty of educational sites, including a directory of museums around the world. Another site, Volcano World (http://volcano.und.nodak.edu/) lets kids explore one of the Earth's most explosive subjects.

Cyber Patrol, which makes control software to keep kids out of inappropriate sites, has its own list of great places for kids to visit at http://www.microsys.com/616/. The site, which is divided into sections for play, schoolwork and parents, is one of the best collections of links on the Net.

There are a lot of government sites that are well suited for children, including NASA's home page (http://www.nasa.gov), which links to all National Aeronautics and Space Administration sites and a searchable gallery of photos, video and audio files. Kids can visit the White House (http://www.whitehouse.gov), where Socks, the presidential cat, will take them on a special tour. The site also contains access to historic documents such as the Constitution.

My own Web site (http://www.larrysworld.com) contains an entire section devoted to kids, parents and teachers, as well as all the links from this column.

* Lawrence J. Magid can be reached by e-mail at magid@latimes.com

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