For most of its history, the Internet was reserved for grown-ups.
Professors, college students, government officials, defense contractors -- these were the dominant users in the early days. Even after the public gained access through commercial providers in the early to mid-1990s, adults largely ruled the Internet.
Not so any longer.
Over the last two years, the number of children using the World Wide Web has grown sharply -- and that trend is expected to accelerate.
Jupiter Communications, a leading market-research company, estimates that 5 million children ages 2 to 12 are online, and that the number will swell to 21 million by the end of 2002.
Not surprisingly, the number of Web sites developed specifically for kids has skyrocketed as well. According to the research company Media Metrix, other leading kid-oriented Web sites include Nickelodeon (www.nick.com) and Ty Inc. (www.ty.com), makers of the popular Beanie Babies stuffed dolls.
"What you're going to see with the Web is the content's going to change as the composition of the audience changes," said Joe Panepinto, editor of Family PC magazine.
"Years ago, the Internet was largely for academics," he continued. "With the Web, what you got was graphics, sound and full motions video -- all those kind of things that tend to appeal to a larger audience, including children."
An early site catering to children was Yahoo!, which opened its Yahooligans directory service for kids back in 1996. Yahooligans (www.yahooligans.com) serves as a junior version of the Yahoo! search engine, with thousands of links to kid-friendly sites reviewed by its producers.
"We look for sites that are designed for kids as well as appropriate for kids," said Rob McHugh, a senior producer at Yahoo! "We look at the language that's used on the site; is it readable to someone in the target age group? We look for all the obvious no-nos: adult content, free and unmonitored chat, that sort of thing."
America Online has long catered to youngsters through its Kids Only section. The area offers news and sports, games, online clubs, entertainment information, homework help and other subjects. Another leader is Disney (www.disney.com), home not only to corporate promotional efforts but also to a variety of children's entertainment sites.
Among them are Disney's Blast Online, a subscription service for kids, featuring games, stories, activities, and online events; and Zoog Disney, a counterpart to many Disney Channel TV shows.
Jean Armour Polly, author of the new book "The Internet Kids & Family Yellow Pages" (Osborne, $34.99), said the rising popularity of children's sites in cyberspace was inevitable.
"Remember where the Internet came from? It was basically a bunch of geeks talking to each other at academic institutions across the country. So what we saw were the things they were interested in," Polly said.
"In 1995, when I started writing the first edition of the book, there wasn't much out there. But every year, I've seen more and more come out for kids. And this year , especially, there are lots of sites aimed at kids," she said.
In addition to her popular book, now in its third edition, Polly maintains her own Top 100 list of kid-friendly Web sites at www.NetMom.com. Some of her favorites include Ask Jeeves for Kids (www.ajkids.com), a search engine for children; Billy Bear's Playground (www.billybear4kids.com); and Headbone Zone (www.headbone.com).
"There's just a tremendous number of sites dedicated to kids," agreed Ken Leebow, author of "300 Incredible Things for Kids on the Internet" (VIP Pub., $7.95). "Most of the sites give good content, whether it's educational or just fun."
Leebow said ever more sophisticated programming is making the Internet more attractive to youngsters, who crave interactivity and visual excitement.
Another trend is that commercial sites once aimed exclusively at adults are now creating separate sections for younger Web surfers. Consumer product companies are among the leading participants.
But with more and more Web developers creating sites for children, issues have arisen about how to provide them with a safe, wholesome environment and what is the appropriate way to market to them.
One of the key problems is how to protect children from the X-rated material found in some corners of the Web and from the adults who might target children with harmful messages. To that end, a number of companies have developed filtering programs that block access to adult-oriented Web sites and messages.
Another issue is protecting children from overly aggressive marketing. With some sites gathering personal information from children for advertising purposes, the Federal Trade Commission has been investigating whether legislation is needed to protect children. The industry wants to police itself, but it remains to be seen whether that will be effective.
Pub Date: 01/18/99