The kids are all right

by Alan Zisman (c) 2000. First published in Vancouver Computes, August 2000

You've probably heard that the story that the most requested Internet search is a three-letter word?by some descriptions S-E-X, and by others M-P-3. One or another variant of the story has been passed around by most technology writers, maybe even by me.

So I was especially interested to see a list published by the Lycos search engine of its top-20 search topics for the week ending May 20th. The list bears examining:

Search term Weeks on list
1. Pokemon  40
2. Britney Spears 40
3. Dragonball  40
4. The WWF  40
5. Eminem  40
6. Tattoos  4
7. Napster  12
8. Pamela Anderson 40
9. Mother's Day 3
10. Victoria's Secret 1
11. Gundam Wing 11
12. 'N Sync  40
13. Final Fantasy 38
14. Baseball  15
15. Marijuana  20
16. Las Vegas  40
17. Golf  9
18. Metallica  26
19. Flowers  2
20. Simpsons  20

A couple of items, flowers and Mother's Day are clearly just because that holiday was just around the corner. And searches for Napster seem to have replaced searches for 'MP3', which makes sense?the popular Napster application is certainly an easier way to find songs (illegal or not) that looking for here today, gone tomorrow MP3 websites. (Though why bother looking for Napster on a search engine rather than just scooting off to to download a copy)?

But check out the rest of the items. The bulk of them are items of interest mostly to pre- or just-teens: Pokemon, the #1 search term are those Japanese animated creatures, of Gameboy fame, perhaps most popular with 8-10 year old boys.

But young girls are in here too. #12's 'N Sync and #2's Britney Spears both count more or less 12-year old girls among their biggest fans. Add in white rapster Eminem, video game Final Fantasy, Simpsons, Dragonball, and WWF and you've got a pretty comprehensive collection of what's current with the under-16s. We could even add in marijuana?if you have to search for it on the Web, I'd suspect you're more curious than using it.

In fact, the only thing missing, as far as I could tell, was 'South Park'. But then, the young people I work with seem less interested in that series then they were a year ago, so maybe it's on the slippery slope downhill.

What this list really shows is that without much publicity, kids have become a growing presence on the Internet. The number of kids online as grown dramatically over the past year, due in part to increased Net access in public schools and libraries and more and more families with computers and Internet accounts at home. In the by-no-means upper class East Vancouver school where I teach, well over 70% of the families have computers at home.

And being active on the Internet is no longer just for computer nerds. Growing numbers of elementary school kids have their own e-mail accounts, often through free mail services like Hotmail and Yahoo, and more and more have created their own web pages, using free services like GeoCities. Asian Avenue ( is popular with many kids, as an ethnically-oriented portal offering free web pages, e-mail, chat, and more.

For many adults, the idea of kids running wild on the Internet is scary. To these adults, the Internet seems to be a place were kids have free and easy access to sex and pornography and are easy targets for predators.

And there's some reality behind these fears. But they're wildly overblown?just take a look again at those search topics. #1 isn't sex, it's Pokemon, which has been on the list for a full 40 weeks (I suspect as long as Lycos has been keeping tabs), compared to Victoria's Secret's single week on the list.

Many families have responded by installing software to help limit their kids' access to the Net?a June article in ComputerWorld Canada suggested "a recent study shows that most Canadian parents are taking some action to monitor their kids' on-line activities". And in Vancouver, for example, together with extending Internet access to all of the district's 100+ schools, the district's Wide Area Network project installed CyberPatrol software in an attempt to control where kids at school can and can't go.

School servers automatically update their no-can-go list each Sunday. But it's far from perfect. Inevitably, it relies on lists of addresses deemed inappropriate. (There's a job to have on your resume?spending eight hours a day tracking down porn sites). On the one hand, it raises questions about what's on the list and why?concerns have been raised that organizations such as Planned Parenthood have been made taboo.

As well, there are other problems.

On the one hand, it's hard to keep any list up to date and complete. On a professional development day when the kids weren't around, a group of teachers and I carried out an experiment in an elementary school library. We went to a popular search engine and typed in 'Sex'?some teachers had imagined that this would be blocked. It wasn't. We got a long list of sites, organized by topic. The first topic was 'Bondage and Discipline'?we clicked on the first site listed. And there, a few clicks and a minimum of typing, was somebody's leather fantasy site, up and running in the school library, right under the watchful (or in this case, sleeping) eye of the would-be protection software.

Teachers are more likely to complain, though, of the opposite problem. As set up in Vancouver, CyberPatrol forbids access to all web pages hosted on a number of free sites such as GeoCities. The rationale seems to be that since anyone can post anything, such pages aren't too be trusted?either for sexually explicit content or for academic credibility.

Again, there's some reality behind this perception. But many people are taking advantage of free websites to post valuable, credible information. And all too often, teachers are researching Internet-based assignments from home, only to find that when they come to school, the protection software blocks their kids (and teachers) from getting to the site.

In fact, the best protection, both at school and at home, is an adult presence. When the kids know that you know what they're doing, they tend to do the right thing. My grade 6s, researching planets in the solar system, stumbled on the sexually-explicit (again, despite CyberPatrol). Right away, they let me know, so that I could manually block it out.

As the Who used to sing, The Kids are All Right.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan