Cyber playgrounds

01:43, Jan 31 2009

It's no wonder parents are confused and troubled about which websites to let their children visit when cyber stalking is almost daily news.

Children as young as five often come home from school or a friend's house with a hot new site they want to visit. Often these links are innocent enough. Others - children assure you - are cool with everyone else's parents, even though they may contain some content better suited to adolescents.

The internet offers varied and stimulating experiences for children and many sites have been developed solely with children in mind. But budding surfers don't always want to play within the parameters set down by their parents or the site developers. They want to explore and do what their friends do in cyberspace.

But even sites that appear to be safe can sometimes carry age-disclaimers or change and confront children when they least expect it.

We asked some children to show us the sites their friends were talking about and set out to explore them.

You can also try this with your children, although your household's list of prohibited sites may grow at the same rate as your popularity shrinks. Discuss each of your children's favourite sites and any house rules so you can keep the dialogue open.

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Young Media Australia, an organisation devoted to keeping children safe from harmful media, says the internet is not a safe place for children to play unsupervised. It says children's time online should be limited to the time you have available to watch over them.

This may change with their age, ability to decipher what they see and the ease with which they can discuss anything uncomfortable with you. As a rule, go online with your cyber explorers, use parent guide pages and/or terms and conditions to help you decide a site's suitability and remind them, often, not to share their passwords (not even with best friends).

ABC Kids
http://abc.net.au/abckids

The Playground section of this site is perfect for younger children (it is designed for two to seven-year-olds) who will find the colours, voices and sound effects familiar and welcoming.

They can easily navigate the game finder and choose activities to do online. The Make and Do section's party packs help you and your child prepare party decorations and invitations according to their favourite character - hours of engagement guaranteed.

The Rollercoaster page opens up a whole new world for children aged eight to 14 who are able to navigate more complex sites and blogs. It's also available directly at abc.net.au/rollercoaster. Here, inquisitive youngsters can enjoy music, science, and quiz games designed to challenge their minds, try experiments, watch TV episodes and follow their favourite bands on the Loop page linked to Triple J. And being ABC you can rest assured it's ad-free.

Candy Stand
www.candystand.com

This site was developed by the chewing gum company Wrigley to entertain children while cementing awareness of its brands through in-game signage and brand pages. But the popularity of the games here has ensured this site remains a favourite with children. It also has video poker and other "beginner" gambling games, so you may want to discuss which categories are OK to use.

Just don't be surprised if your child suddenly starts asking for LifeSavers or Hubba Bubba.

Cartoon Network
www.cartoonnetwork.com.au

This is a commercial TV-linked property but a favourite with children from as young as three to young teens. There are blogs, downloads, discussion boards and TV schedules, but what kids really come here for is games, and the ability to insert their name and have high scores on show. Beware of the video channel on this site if you have set a time limit on TV watching as full episodes are available online (requires a login). This could be useful on trips away with the notebook in tow, however.

Club Penguin
www.clubpenguin.com

Websites drop out of vogue quickly, but this one is a stayer. A favourite with children of all ages, this Canadian site is ad-free because it derives income from subscriptions. This means your child will need to sign up and you will have to use your credit card to receive full playing rights (basic accounts are free), but it means no flashing commercial messages and some continuity of interest on everyone's part. Most importantly, it's fun, safe and there are no shooting games in sight. Kids love decorating their own igloo, saving to buy goodies and meeting their friends online at arranged times after school.

Disney bought it last August for a reported $NZ996 million, proof of its popularity.

Disney
www.disney.com.au

Largely a self-promotional vehicle for all things Disney, from movie trailers to TV shows and character-led games.

The site will be overhauled this year and will provide an additional Xtreme Digital tab allowing users to customise multimedia content. For a taste of what's to come go to disney.co.uk.

If your children are keen watchers of the Disney Channel, this will drag them away from the TV.

Ads are marked as such and, strangely, include (at the time of review) offers for personal credit cards and home mortgages.

Miniclip
www.miniclip.com

Supposedly the largest game site on the internet, this is full of the games that kids love plus tonnes of cartoon classics to watch online, including Bugs Bunny and Looney Tunes.

Shoot 'em-up games are labelled so you and your child can easily distinguish them and perhaps avoid them. The publishers stress that this site is not for children under the age of 13.

Nickelodeon
www.nickelodeon.com.au

There is plenty here about the shows and characters featured on the pay-TV channel, plus other favourites, including SpongeBob games and My Nick, where children can customise their own webpage, create avatars and chat. It has a "sanitising dictionary" that filters chat to exclude names, email, phone numbers, violent and obscene language. The associated nickjr.com.au is designed for under-fives and has lots of craft, play and recipe ideas for parents and children.

Both are produced in Australia with local content, although children may come home with the US site address (www.nick.com) as it features some favourite games.

76 moocow
www.76moocow.com

The hundreds of free cartoon-style games here are classified by style - action, puzzle, sport, skill - making it easy for parents to set rules and for kids to avoid shooting games if that's what's expected of them. Free to play and visually unpolluted, although it does carry ads. Games are short so if you see something you don't like - like splattered blood - tell them to move on.

The site's Canberra-based creator, Alex, a university student who did not want his last name published, says he never anticipated the site's popularity with children.

Teen Second Life
www.teen.secondlife.com

This parallel universe is not just a game, but it feels like play because the residents here must create a persona, learn to navigate the 3D world and become familiar with the gestures and rules of the place. But real-world properties such as universities and shops have islands here, so it's also an opportunity to socialise, learn and do business.

Users must download the proprietary software to play, but basic membership is free. Those interested in multimedia and arts find great in-world development tools.

The site is separate from the adult version of Second Life to help keep it safe for under-18s. Parents are encouraged to go on a tour with their children to learn more.

Runescape
www.runescape.com

This role-playing game can have more than 150,000 people online at once. It's a complex fantasy world of mystical characters and epic quests where players interact with others they meet online - both friends and strangers.

Players save to buy weapons, armour and the accessories needed to survive in a land of combat and conflict. Different membership levels include free and paid accounts. The site was not designed for children but many play it regularly, even those at primary school.

The developers recommend it for over-13s only. Players are asked their age when creating an account but it's easy to give a false age so it's up to parents to decide if the site is suitable. If you wouldn't want your kids to watch Lord of the Rings, you probably wouldn't want them to play RuneScape.

YouTube
www.youtube.co.nz

Endless hours of fun or lots of time wasted on trivia, depending on your point of view. If your child has a special interest such as football, music or animals, entering it in the search box will produce enough results to keep them busy.

Searching for risque terms will, naturally, produce inappropriate results.

These will usually require a login to see the full video but not before descriptions that might expose children to bad language and confronting thumbnail images.

You probably won't be able to avoid the site altogether given the viral nature of some clips and the offline chatter at school, so go online together often to watch over the latest craze.

Music Sites

It's not just young adults reaching for the iPod and music websites. Eight-year-olds are just as capable of naming songs and artists, so they have probably already told you they can buy songs online for less than the price of a packet of jellybeans.

And given the speed with which songs drop off the charts, it makes good financial sense to buy just the tracks they like.

The site they use depends on whether they have an iPod (www.apple.com/nz/itunes/store) or a Windows-compatible MP3 player.

Teach your children to search, download and manage folders.

But beware, some album versions contain profanity often excluded from the tracks played on radio.

Sydney Morning Herald