America Online has launched a new internet safety campaign for kids built around an automated instant-messaging “buddy” that dispenses advice in real time.

Kids can add “AOLSafetyBot” to their buddy lists of friends on AOL Instant Messenger. It’s programmed to answer, within seconds, such questions as whether kids should agree to physical meetings with online acquaintances or reveal such personal information as their address and age.

Some experts wonder, however, whether a scripted program can always be an appropriate guide in a complicated online world, given varying age groups and parental preferences. The SafetyBot campaign, launched Oct. 23, also includes a web site at AOL’s, where kids can play a trivia game and watch a video featuring characters from the Cartoon Network, a unit of AOL Time Warner. People who don’t use AOL’s instant-messaging software can also find the SafetyBot buddy on the SafetyClicks site.

Automated instant-messaging buddies, or bots, are not new, but past ones have been mostly devoted to marketing and promotions. Internet safety resources also exist elsewhere as web sites, among them Disney’s

AOL said it created SafetyBot to bring safety resources to a forum with which kids are already familiar. The company’s instant-messaging software is the most popular on the internet, with more than 150 million registered users.

According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, more than 40 percent of teenagers on the internet use instant messaging on a given day, compared with 11 percent for online adults.

“Instant messaging clearly is a form of communications that they enjoy, so there was a natural predisposition to using a bot,” said Tatiana Gau, AOL’s senior vice president for integrity assurance.

According to a 2000 study by Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, one in five youths aged 10 to 17 received unwanted sexual solicitations over the internet within the year. Only a quarter of them told a parent.

Will kids use the bot instead of asking parents for advice? Will parents depend on the bot to supervise their kids?

Gau said the bot is not meant for that or as a substitute for other safety resources.

“Obviously as a bot, it has intelligence and the ability to answer and handle certain questions,” she said. But “they have certain limitations, as all bots do.”

Many of the answers emphasize telling parents if, say, an online acquaintance asks for a meeting or personal information.

Parry Aftab, a leading internet safety expert, applauded efforts to make learning about safety fun.

“The kids will play with it, and if they play with it, maybe they will learn something,” she said. But she cautioned that correct answers might depend on age and other factors—for instance, some parents might want to handle meeting strangers differently.

The AOL bot offers only generic responses. And even safety experts disagree on the proper approach. Aftab said she used to recommend that kids give strangers a false name—until someone pointed out that kids might then consider lying permissible behavior.

“There is not always one clear answer,” she said. The AOL bot, made available to eSchool News’ wire service for testing, was good about giving relevant answers on general safety issues, such as sending photos to strangers, protecting passwords, and confronting bad language. But it did not always answer questions head-on. For example, the question “Could you meet me at Kmart?” returned a warning never to meet online friends in person without a parent. The question “Could you come to Kmart with me?” returned a generic message introducing the bot. Off-topic questions occasionally yielded humorous answers.

What are your hobbies? “I like to dance. (The “electric slide” is my favorite.) I also like to read and surf the internet.”

Why are you annoying? “Well, I am a bot.” Other times, even on questions related to internet safety, the bot said it couldn’t understand and directed the user to ask again, visit a menu of safety tips, or ask a parent.

AOL officials say the bot, which only responds when addressed, was programmed to make such replies rather than guess and potentially give a wrong answer. More questions and answers will be added over time.


AOL safety site

Parry Aftab’s site

Disney safety site