Net can be a learning tool for children

Computer Life column for 4/5/97 by
Richard Gordon

A couple of months ago, my seven-year-old asked me as we were driving home, "Do we have WebCrawler at home?"

I was thrilled. This one question told me that my kid was learning to surf the Web at school.

He told me how he and a few of his classmates at the Richey Elementary School were working with Mrs. Minchini, their Librarian, to cruise the Web looking for information for a space dictionary.

That night something else happened for the first time.

I was in the kitchen when I heard those modem tones upstairs. I went to the foot of the stairs and asked, "What are you doing?"

He came to the top of the stairs and looked at me as if he couldn't tell if he was in trouble or not. "I'm starting Netscape, Daddy."

I came upstairs, helped him find WebCrawler (, and watched as he started looking for space things.

He used the word "space" as his key word, finding both things that interested him and things that he knew were silly. I suggested using "NASA" and "planets" and he found more things that he liked.

He continues to explore the Web from time to time.

All way cool, except....

News item: Heaven's Gate suicide cult used Web to recruit new followers.

News item: Supreme Court hears ACLU challenge to Communications Decency Act.

News item: Teacher suspended when students discover bomb-making instructions on line.

News stories like these do raise my concern as a parent, but not to the point that I'm going to curtail my son's Internet use. He's just begun.

There is Web-monitoring software I could get, and I could impose what AOL calls "parental controls" on my son's account. But, as he grows older, will that help him learn to think for himself?

Be a parent, not a censor

There's a better solution: stay involved with what he's doing on the computer just as I do the other things in his life

My son has always asked if he could wander around by himself at half-time of UD basketball games. Last year, I said, "No." However, this year, I allowed him to wander on his own, after we discussed where he could go, how long he could wander--and after making sure he could find our seats by having him lead me to them himself.

We parents should do something similar with our grade-school-age Net cruisers.

Don't dump them in front of the computer saying, "Just go on line while I take a nap." Instead gently supervise what your kids are doing, helping when needed, keeping an eye open for things we need to discuss with them.

Just like any bookstore or library, just like TV, the Internet has good stuff and bad stuff. Unlike those other venues, anyone can put what they want on the Net, available for anyone to grab.

Wait a minute. That sounds like free speech. Isn't that one of the things we teach our kids is right and valuable about America?

If my goal as a parent is to help my son learn to deal with the world successfully, and the Net just reflects the world at large, then part of my job is to oversee his time online, helping him learn to judge for himself what he can trust on the Net.

Discovery is part of growing

Those news stories should make us parents vigilant, but not censorious. On balance, the Net is going to help kids learn more about their world. And in an "information economy," by the time they are in high school, our kids must learn to judge for themselves the worth of what they find.

My son and his classmates are off to a good start. When their "space" searches yield something about being eating by alien space monsters, they laugh but know it's not something to look at for their space dictionary project.

How can something be all bad that lets a kid in Delaware correspond with a chemist in New Zealand about a volcano visible from his office window?

Copyright © 1997, The News Journal Company

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Richard Gordon helps support faculty, staff and student computing at the University of Delaware. E-mail questions, comments or suggestions to, or write him at The News Journal, Box 15505, Wilmington, DE 19850. Although each note cannot be answered individually, reader comments and questions will often be incorporated in future columns.