Look, ma, I can e-mail

Summary:Susan Lammers decided to start a children's software company four years ago when she discovered her 4-year-old son Wally would rather play on the computer than watch cartoons. "I said to him, 'Do you want to watch TV?

Susan Lammers decided to start a children's software company four years ago when she discovered her 4-year-old son Wally would rather play on the computer than watch cartoons.

"I said to him, 'Do you want to watch TV?' which was a really big deal, because he couldn't just watch TV whenever he wanted," Lammers remembers. "He said, 'I'd like to, but I just need to finish this one thing.'" That's when Lammers set out to create a safe place for kids to come together online.

So she founded Headbone Interactive Inc., which runs the Headbone Zone Web site where kids can chat and play collaborative games. "We bring a freshness and integration features that more traditional media companies don't offer," Lammers said.

Pioneers, newbies face challenges
Though she was a pioneer in creating one of the first children's online sites from scratch, she and others like her are still grappling with many issues, including attracting children to the Internet while walking the fine line between commerce and privacy.

Kids companies, software developers and analysts are gathering in San Francisco to tackle such challenges at the Jupiter Communications Online Digital Kids conference this week. One question Jupiter is attempting to answer is: What are kids doing online?

'Given the fact that kids are so exploratory, we really feel that privacy needs to be highlighted in a much more obvious fashion'
-- Jupiter analyst Regina Joseph

According to a study released here, they're e-mailing. Nearly half of children 12 and under named e-mailing as their favorite activity, with playing games coming in a close second. For teens, emailing was the preferred activity of nearly 60 percent. Chatting was the runner up. That's because the Internet offers a two-way, interactive communications system that's unlike any other medium.

But kids aren't shopping online. Only 3 percent said they bought online, and two out of three parents said they restrict their children's e-commerce habits.

Privacy, safety issues loom
However, industry watchers say it's not enough to simply know what kids are doing online, companies and parents must work to protect them without preventing them from learning.

"This medium is perhaps the most powerful innovation in learning since the blackboard," Children's Television Workshop CEO David Britt said. But he said fears about safety are hindering its use.

Privacy concerns are a hot topic as many children's sites find themselves in the center of a debate about collecting information from youngsters. According to Jupiter, privacy is the number one requirement for developers setting up a kid's Web site, followed by fast download times and content targeted to a specific age group.

"Given the fact that kids are so exploratory, we really feel that privacy needs to be highlighted in a much more obvious fashion," Jupiter analyst Regina Joseph said.

The Federal Trade Commission thinks so too. Two weeks ago, the FTC said it planned to press for aggressive privacy legislation following a report that discovered that 89 percent of children's sites collect personal information from surfers. Some are cheering the decision, while others say proposed legislation unfairly targets kids sites while failing to prevent kids from visiting adult sites.

Looking for brand loyalty
Whatever the outcome in Washington, it won't slow down the mushrooming 18-and-under Web population. Companies with dollar signs in their eyes are flocking to the Web, hoping to develop brand loyalty among kids even if they don't make money right away.

Going forward, expect more subscription-based kids sites, more children's participation online, and more kid-oriented search engines. The Children's Television Workshop is planning to start charging for parts of its site soon. CNN has plans to get kids more involved in the gathering and reporting of news. And Disney is planning to unveil a new site tomorrow that's "better than Yahooligans," Yahoo! Inc.'s kid-oriented site.

Topics: Privacy, E-Commerce, Security

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