writing about Internet safety for kids since 1994 and for the past three years,
have been operating a Web site (www.safekids.com)
that provides advice on safe surfing.
During that time I've learned that it is pretty easy to create safety advice
aimed at adults, but finding a way to reach children directly is a much greater
challenge. Admonitions such as "I will not give out personal information such
as my address, telephone number, parents' work address/telephone number, or the
name and location of my school without my parents' permission" may be good
advice, but they hardly represent the type of content that will keep
5-year-olds begging for more.
Disney, on the other hand, knows a lot about keeping kids entertained and has
invested many decades and untold millions of dollars in developing and
promoting characters that are beloved by children around the world. Last week,
Disney unveiled a new Web site that puts some of those characters to work on
behalf of Internet child safety, privacy and "netiquette." The new site is a
follow up to an earlier Disney child safety area, "Cyber Netiquette Commix" (http://disney.go.com/cybersafety)
that features the Three Little Pigs, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and Mr.
In Disney's new "Surf Swell Island: Adventures in Internet Safety" (www.surfswellisland.com)
Mickey, Donald, Minnie and Goofy take off on what they thought would be a happy
island vacation until they get into trouble in "The Cliff of Mean Manners," the
"Virus Caves" and "No Privacy Beach."
The Web site starts off with a short animation where "Mickey and the Gang"
drive their station wagon to the airport and fly off to the island. The
animations and audio require Flash software from Multimedia, which the site
will help you download if you don't already have it.
While Mickey "is making new friends and cooking island grub," his famous old
friends wander off and get into trouble. They're not abducted by pedophiles or
even exposed to porn. This is Disney, after all. The adventures stick to the
lighter side of child safety, which, frankly, makes a lot of sense.
Aside from being a bit more realistic -- far more children are at risk of
privacy and etiquette problems than sexual predators -- these themes are also a
bit less scary for this age group. Although the virus area, while fun, may be a
bit abstract for its targeted audience, the other two themes -- privacy and
netiquette -- represent problems that young kids are actually likely to
Goofy gets a lesson in netiquette after falling off the Cliff of Mean Manners
into a tree. To get him to the top of the tree and away from the lobsters
nipping at him from below, your child has to rate specific statements from a
chat room as either "mean" or "nice."
Mean phrases include "you type like a baby," "this chat room is lame," "are you
stupid or something" and "your spelling stinks." Those falling into the nice
column include: "I have to log off now, bye" "You seem nice," "don't type in
big letters please" and "sorry I can't type fast." Once you get Goofy to the
top of the tree, the Web site takes you to a true or false online manners quiz
with questions like "If someone online says something that makes you feel bad
or scared, you should log off right away and tell your mom or dad."
Regardless of whether the child's answer is correct, he or she hears a
reinforcement of the correct answer. It may not be the definitive lesson on
netiquette, but it's a good start. Anything that clues kids into how to behave
online is OK by me.
Minnie, lounging on "Privacy Beach" made the mistake of giving her name,
address and vacation information to a stranger on the Internet so she now finds
herself at "No Privacy Beach" bothered by "nosy pests." Your child's job is to
help her get rid of periscopes that pop up to spy on her and banish the
menacing looking man who keeps snapping her picture by clicking on the
appropriate pest. As the child is clicking away, the announcer explains the
mistakes Minnie made that have jeopardized her privacy.
My 16-year-old daughter -- who is admittedly way past the target age group for
this site -- liked "The Virus Caves" where kids use arrow keys and the space
bar to cause Donald to use his peashooter to shoot "mean viruses."
One problem with this section is that it's not intuitive. You actually have to
read the instructions to use it. That could be a problem with pre-readers, not
to mention middle-age newspaper columnists who are too impatient to read
None of what Disney accomplishes in this site is revolutionary but, taken as a
whole, it makes a useful contribution to Internet safety for young kids. The
shockwave animations are cute and relatively sophisticated by today's
standards, but not as compelling as what kids can get on a CD-ROM. If you're
logging on with a slow modem, you may get sluggish performance. My daughter and
I found quizzes a bit trite and tiresome, but they should keep the attention of
small kids long enough for them to absorb at least a few of the messages.
I do recommend Disney's SurfSwell Island for families with young children, but
please don't stop there. It's also very important that you speak with your kids
about Internet safety. As entertaining as Mickey and the gang maybe, they're no
substitute for parental involvement.
As goofy as it may seem, engaging your children about safety issues not only
helps reinforce the messages but also provides you an opportunity to check in
with your kids to show them that you are interested in and supportive of their
use of the Internet.
You'll find a lot of useful information at GetNetWise.org, a child safety site
sponsored by a collation of online companies, including Disney, AOL and
Microsoft. It might also be a good idea for both you and your kids to read and
sign the "Family Contract for Online Safety" which you can find at
In this family contract, the kids agree to some basic safety rules and parents
agree to get to know the sites their kids visit, the friends they make online
as well as "not overreact if my child tells me about a problem he or she is
having on the Internet."