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Kids Put Online Safety FirstKids Put Online Safety First

Products and services are increasingly influenced by a Net-savvy generation of teens who know the risks of this 21st century playground

4 Min Read

"We're trying to help kids help other kids," Bacon says. Kids "can be part of the problem, but they can also be part of the solution," she says about keeping young people safe and out of trouble on the Web.

Before becoming a TeenAngel, Bacon admits she, like many of her friends, illegally downloaded music using services such as Kazaa. But after learning about piracy through her TeenAngel training, she stopped and has gotten lots of other kids to stop, too. "It's not right and it's unfair to illegally download music and movies," she says. Besides helping kids be ethical in their online behavior, TeenAngels can prevent piracy lawsuits against parents, she adds. In fact, all of her TeenAngels education in cyberlaw has Bacon interested in going to law school.

Members of TeenAngels and TweenAngels aren't the only kids that Microsoft works with. In June, the company held a "pilot" kids' safety summit, the first in what the software maker expects to be an annual event to bring kids together to educate them on Internet safety, privacy, piracy, cyberbullying and more, Portin says. The company invited children from San Diego County to participate in the daylong event designed to teach the youngsters about being "cybersmart." The event was co-sponsored by I-Safe, another children's online safety-awareness organization aimed at educating parents, teachers, and kids.

I-Safe provides educational programs for schools, in which young people are trained by law enforcement, guidance counselors, and others. I-Safe-trained high-school students can receive school credit for mentoring younger kids or creating activities to pass the word on about Internet safety. The group provides training materials free to the schools, president Teri Schroeder says. Microsoft is developing interactive, Web-based I-Safe curriculum to educate teachers, Schroeder says.

Working with groups to help teach kids about online safety is important, Microsoft's Portin says. "There's a strong commitment from Microsoft. We take our responsibility to raise awareness very seriously," she says. Microsoft is looking to partner with organizations such as TeenAngels and I-Safe that have this core competency of helping to educate kids on safe Internet use, she says.

Meanwhile, WiredKids is in the early stages of forming a partnership with technology-industry organization the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association. Together, they hope to create outreach programs that could include videos and brochures to educate parents, teachers, and children about mobile-phone safety. That includes making parents aware that kids can access the Internet--including mature Web sites--from some cell phones, says Carolyn Brandon, the association's VP of policy.

Besides tech vendors, other businesses, including entertainment companies, are relying on kids to help improve the Web safety of their products and services.

Disney Online works with kids to develop new features and services for its interactive online products, including ToonTown Online, an Internet-based playground, and the upcoming PlayHouse Disney Preschool Time Online, a learning-based broadband service for preschool-age children slated to launch in the fall. Disney Online product developers regularly get feedback from young people via focus groups, input from kids groups like TeenAngels, and Disney Online's own developers' children and their friends.

Behind the ToonTown online platform, Disney has "very sophisticated proprietary" filtering software that helps keep kids in line and safe, says Ken Goldstein, executive VP at Disney Online. For instance, swear words are automatically deleted from online chatter. Identifying information that kids attempt to exchange with one another, such as phone numbers, is also blocked to prevent the information from falling into the wrong hands, Goldstein says.

"We can see from a mile away aggressive behavior," he says. And Disney doesn't tolerate such behavior. On occasion, it has revoked the accounts of kids who have behaved aggressively or inappropriately, Goldstein says.

A group of TeenAngels has tested and used ToonTown and made recommendations to Disney Online--which the company acted on--to remove the ability for kids younger than 13 to post their photos on the site, TeenAngel Bacon says.

With more than 10,000 people logging on to ToonTown every day, Disney Online developers and software engineers are more than eager to listen to the suggestions of kids, whether it's for fun or safety. "The Internet has redefined the playground," Goldstein says, and parents and kids all want a safe and fun place to play.

Photo of teenangels.com visor courtesy of Amy Toensing/Getty Images

About the Author(s)

Marianne Kolbasuk McGee

Senior Writer, InformationWeek

Marianne Kolbasuk McGee is a former editor for InformationWeek.

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