Maybe it's the desire to protect our children from the ravages of unfettered Web surfing. Or maybe it's the $350 million that Disney paid last year to buy Club Penguin, a site popular with the preteen set. Whatever the motive, online sites and services aimed at tweens and younger are bouncing up faster than a 6-year-old on a sugar high.
Gone are the days when parents had to rely on clunky and unreliable software to keep kids from venturing into the Web's dark corners. The latest approach is a "walled garden," in which new browsers try to erect a fence around preapproved Web safe zones. It's actually an old approach, once used by America Online as it tried to control what all its subscribers could do on the Web.
Now the new services aim specifically at kids under the age of 13. Most also rely on a subscription model, charging a monthly fee to grow the garden with new, kid-friendly websites and keep pruning the bad ones. Others charge for professional content downloaded to colorful media players.
All aim to let kids roam and play, within safe confines that are ever expanding. "Our service grows in real time, with parents and teachers working every day to add new content," says CEO Cliff Boro of KidZui, one of the new services. Computers use formulas to search out potential content, which a live person then reviews before it gets added.
The services also help parents set time limits for computer use. Most now understand that they should restrict kids' screen time, whether television or the computer. Most pediatricians stress that TV and PCs do more harm than good for children under the age of 2 and offer few if any benefits for a child younger than 5 or 6.
And despite the proliferation of PCs in classrooms and libraries, educators say all children learn better from books— on their own or when curled on a caregiver's lap.
But when it comes to kid screen time, the Web is fast replacing the TV, says Disney Chairman Robert Iger. "In the years ahead, broadband on the computer will be the primary source of entertainment for kids," he recently told a media conference.
The new tools give adults more control of what their children do on a computer, says Larry Hitchcock, CEO of kidthing, one of the new offerings. "Parents and caregivers and teachers should be making the choices based on their own beliefs," he says.
While all the services stress education in their promotions, they're not all about high-brow browsing. A 6-year-old can quickly find shoot-'em-ups and extreme-sports clips.
None of the new services can guarantee safety for kids, and parents can't wander too far before they're needed to add a site that isn't on the preapproved list or offer other help and guidance.
Parents are also well served to consider broader Web safety. They're also smart to talk about it with their kids, who will get access to PCs elsewhere, particularly as they approach their teen years. There are good parenting resources at safety sites like wiredsafety.org and connectsafely.org, which recently added its own entertaining videos.
But the new services can help ease surfing concerns. "We're trying to remove the anxiety, without removing a kid's ability to be curious," says KidZui's Boro.