KidZui may work for many families
The Internet presents a real dilemma for parents with younger children. On the one hand, it's filled with fun and wholesome sites for kids, and lots of educational material. On the other, it teems with inappropriate content and potentially dangerous means of communicating with strangers.
There are tools for dealing with the problem, most commonly, filtering software that attempts to bar sexual, violent and other objectionable material. But these can frustrate kids and parents, by either blocking too many things or not blocking enough.
Some other approaches, such as the parental controls built right into the latest Windows and Macintosh operating systems, offer parents more control by allowing them to specify what Web sites a child can access. But that requires close and constant involvement by the parent as the child seeks access to more Web sites.
Last week marked the launch of a parental-control service with a somewhat different approach. It's called KidZui, and it aims to offer kids a safe subset of the Internet where they can roam freely without triggering parental worry. KidZui, for children ages 3 to 12, hopes to emphasize the positive, rather than the negative.
The service, from a San Diego company of the same name, claims to encompass 500,000 safe sites, photos and videos, ranging from pop culture to science, comics and games to history. You can watch the latest "American Idol" contestant, learn about dinosaurs, delve into history or visit popular kids' sites, such as Webkinz and Club Penguin.
The sites, photos and videos included in KidZui are approved by a team of about 200 parents and teachers across the country, and are ranked by age, so that a site that might be right for an 11-year-old isn't served up to a 4-year-old.
While a child can establish a list of friends in KidZui, and can share content with them, there is no instant-messaging or e-mail function.
KidZui isn't free, and it can't be accessed via a regular Web browser. Instead, you must download a special KidZui browser, from kidzui.com, that runs on either Windows or Macintosh computers. I tested it on both platforms, and it downloaded quickly and installed smoothly.
The service nominally costs $99.95 a year, or $9.95 a month, but there is a 30-day free trial and an introductory rate of $49.95 a year, or $4.95 a month. It has no ads, other than those already present on Web sites kids visit.
A key selling point of the service is that busy parents can simply set up KidZui and trust that their kids will be safe online. To that end, the program can be optionally configured, so that a child can't escape from it to use the computer's standard browser, for example. A parent can set KidZui to launch when the computer starts up, in full-screen mode. In this mode, KidZui automatically disables or hides the common keystrokes, icons, commands and techniques that allow users to switch to, or to start up, other programs.
In addition, when KidZui is running in this locked-down mode, the child can be barred from quitting KidZui without a parent's password. In my tests over the past week, I found some loopholes in this lockdown system, but the company plugged each leak I turned up. I can't swear that a clever kid won't be able to escape from KidZui, but the program blocks most obvious exits.
Inside the software, the company has tried to create a fun, lighthearted world. Each child is represented by a "Zui," a cartoon-like character that can be customized with hair, clothing and other features. There are lots of sound effects, and kids can rate content with illustrated tags ranging from "best" and "cool" to "boring" or "gross."
When a child types in a term like "ocean" KidZui offers a list of related terms as well, to guide further exploration. If a child types in a search term or a Web address that has been banned from the KidZui universe, a message appears saying "This page isn't available on KidZui, but your parents can add it for you." This applies not only to terms typed into KidZui's own search bar, but also to terms a child enters at sites like Wikipedia or in the search boxes embedded in other sites. The main pages of Google and Yahoo can't be summoned.
If a search or Web address is new to KidZui, a different message appears promising that it will be reviewed.
I did find some holes in this system. For instance, I was able to get to The Wall Street Journal's Web site and do an internal search on "Spitzer," which turned up a story on the former New York governor's sex scandal.
Parents can get detailed reports about the KidZui activities of each of their children and can tweak the content they can see by adding specific types of material, such as "athletic violence," and approving or blocking specific Web sites.
For parents who want to allow limited Web use by their young children without constantly micromanaging their online activities, KidZui may be worth a try, but don't expect it to be perfect.
© 2008, Dow Jones & Co. Inc.