Disney Characters Preach Virtues of Internet Child Safety
by Lawrence J. Magid
Web infotk.com

I've been 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. Toad.

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 encounter.

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 instructions.

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 www.safekids.com/contract.htm.

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."