NEW YORK – Internet news Web sites geared toward kids have turned a generation of Pokemon-playing half-pints into media-savvy know-it-alls.
Thanks in part to stylish fonts and age-appropriate writing, American children have embraced digital media and are frequenting sites like Yahooligans! News.com and Scholastic News Zone for more than just current events homework help. They are going on for fun.
“Kids love it. We can tell by the number of visitors we get for the polls. Some of them have generated responses from hundreds of thousands of kids," said Sara Sinek, Director of Corporate Communications for Scholastic Inc. (search), which runs Scholastic News Zone.
The site, which attracts approximately 3.6 million users per month, features everything from world news to sports scores, and asks serious questions like “How will Iraq recover from the war?”
“We will pretty much cover whatever happens in the news. We cover major events, but write it appropriately for kids," said Sinek.
But not everyone thinks kid-friendly news sites are a positive development.
“Children are very impressionable. You don’t know what spin they are putting on something,” said Tommy Fitzsimmons, a father of two from Long Island, N.Y., whose 11-year-old son was advised by a teacher to visit sites like WeeklyReader.com.
“My teacher says it's good to go on,” said Thomas Jr. “I like it there.”
But possible misinterpretation of the news is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of parental concern. The main fear among parents is that child predators will gain access to their child’s screen name.
“People who want to harm kids have access to these Web sites,” Fitzsimmons said. “It's just not worth it.”
Despite some parental hesitation, kids can’t seem to get onto sites like TIME for Kids fast enough.
“When the Web site was down due to weather, we had kids call in crying," said TIME for Kids representative Melissa Garcia. "We just tell them, ‘Calm down. Try back in a few hours.’”
Like other sites, TIME for Kids offers national and international news articles as well as Harry Potter trivia, ‘tween celebrity interviews and links to dictionaries and congressional Web sites. But what sets them apart is their “What do you think?” section below each story, which affords kids the opportunity to voice their opinions.
Irate after learning that some public schools banned soda machines, 11-year-old Cassie from Massachusetts wrote, "I think that it's absurd to do what NY is doing. I think it's up to the parents to keep their kids on a healthy diet, not the government."
News has been brought to children in many forms for years, yet no medium has generated as much kiddie buzz as the Internet.
Many feel that children’s responsiveness to electronic news is due to the fact that they're more comfortable surfing the Web than navigating their parents’ bulky newspaper.
“They are at a comfort level with the medium. They were born into cyber-culture,” said Kent Davis, founder of Life Skills 4 Kids, which creates elementary school programs. “[Kids] are going to have to function in a world filled with media. I think [news] sites packaged for children are a wonderful option."
Other child experts agreed that a kid-friendly approach to the news is beneficial in a media-saturated society.
“They turn on the computer screen and they see headlines whether they want to or not. It’s hard [for kids] not to be aware of it, especially since 9/11,” said elementary school substitute teacher Amy Wechsler. “Before the Internet, if you missed a story you missed it. Now, you can look it up right away.”
Still, child experts say parents need to take an active role in what their kids surf online — even if the content is meant for kids.
"Like with any powerful tool, [the Internet] should be used properly," said Davis. "It is the same as if your child is going somewhere… You should know where they are going. It's just like the fact you wouldn’t drop your kids off in downtown New York."
But with proper parental supervision, sites like KidsPost.com, aka The Washington Post Jr., can be a great resource for building a politically conscious and socially aware child, said Sinek.
“These sites make kids more worldly and open-minded,” she said. “But parents should definitely monitor their children’s Internet use.”