Educators and parents have a new, industry-backed internet resource——at their disposal, and it promises to help them protect children from the perils of the world wide web.

Information on how to help kids avoid pornography, hate speech, and explicit sites about drugs or alcohol will never be more than a mouse-click away, provided by the operators of some of the web’s largest sites, including those run by Yahoo!, America Online, Lycos Inc., The Walt Disney Co., and Microsoft Corp.

The coalition’s $1 million web site was unveiled July 29 in Washington, D.C., at a news conference with Vice President Al Gore and Commerce Secretary William Daley, along with several industry executives.

“The internet industry has stepped forward as a strong and responsible corporate citizen,” said Gore. “It is safe to say that never before in the history of a new industry have so many companies that compete in the boardroom come together to ensure our children’s safety in the living room.”

The project’s web site includes details about more than 80 commercial software programs parents and schools can use to block web sites inappropriate for children and monitor the time kids spend online.

Although some companies that design internet filtering software helped pay for the site, details are listed about all such technology tools.

The site also includes links to sites deemed safe for children of different ages as well as resources for reporting inappropriate or criminal behavior on the web.

“We’re not substituting for parents, but we’re giving parents a leg up,” said Jerry Berman, president of the Washingtonbased Internet Education Foundation and one of the project’s principal organizers.

Ernie Allen, chief executive officer for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, said organizers sought to design the web site for parents anxious about what children might find online.

“[The internet is] an incredible resource, but it’s scary,” Allen said. “Your kids know more about it than you do.”

Companies involved in the campaign claimed that almost 95 percent of the internet’s traffic flows through their sites.

Participation in the campaign was so broad that it brought together otherwise bitter rivals: Microsoft and AOL currently feuding over software that lets consumers send “instant messages” as well as AT&T and the nation’s internet providers, which are battling over the future of high-speed web access over cable-television lines.

Although hundreds of web sites will simply offer parents a link to, others will recompile the information and present it themselves. Allowing the recompiling is partly a concession to ultra-competitive high-tech companies that want to keep visitors on their own site.

America Online, for example, said it will offer the information within its “parental controls” section, one of the first areas a parent sees when signing onto AOL. It also will include a link on its popular web site.

The idea to develop a parental web site had been kicked around by industry players for a couple of years.

Then came the April 20 shooting spree at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo. The tragedy and a little prodding from the likes of Gore and others put a new sense of urgency into the project.

While the resources to be offered on the site are not new—and though many web sites already promote child safety—backers of the initiative say the link from major internet sites and the push from the vice president could help spur parents to get more involved in their children’s online activities.

A survey conducted in February by the market research firm Greenfield Online found that when it comes to internet use in the home, parents tend to take a strict approach for children under age 11. But once children reach age 12, most are allowed to “go online whenever they feel like it” and with little or no supervision.

The internet’s role in the Littleton massacre also has been hotly debated. In a Gallup poll taken just one day after the tragedy, respondents placed nearly as much blame on the internet as the easy accessibility of guns. According to the Gallup poll, 82 percent of the 659 adult respondents said the internet was at least partly to blame for the Littleton tragedy, while 88 percent said the same was true of gun availability.

Another survey, this one commissioned by the Annenberg Public Policy Center and released May 4, found that parents of school-aged kids are “deeply fearful about the web’s influence on their children.”

The study showed that over 75 percent of parents are “strongly” or “somewhat” concerned that their children might view inappropriate web content. Two-thirds agreed that the internet can cause their children to become isolated, and 42 percent believe too much internet use can cause children to develop anti-social behavior.

At the same time, however, parents believe the internet to be an important educational tool and something that can help their children with homework.

“We found this incredible conflict,” commented Joseph Turow, who wrote the Annenberg report. “People trust their kids with the internet, but they don’t trust the internet with their kids.”

The founders of hope that’s all about to change.


America Online

Annenberg Public Policy Center


Greenfield Online

Internet Education Foundation

Lycos Inc.

Microsoft Corp.

National Center for Missing and Exploited Children

The Walt Disney Co.