Five picks for safe surfing.
by Christine Chitnis
October 6, 2009
The Internet is a scary place. Plug a seemingly harmless word into Google and you might find yourself careening down a rabbit hole of inappropriate sites, videos, pictures and links:and don’t forget the constant fear of cyber bullying, identity theft and crippling spam viruses. With all the threats lurking online, it’s no wonder that most parents keep their computers under lock and key, only allowing their kids access with the strictest of supervision. While there is nothing that could replace parental monitoring, these five kid-friendly Internet browsers have made the online world a safer place for children of all ages. All of the browsers reviewed here have an educational component and are not limited to just games and activities, so give them a test run and find the one that best fits your family’s online needs. – Christine Chitnis
1. KidZui – Free basic membership, $7.95/month, $39.95/year for upgraded membership
With its extensive offerings of games, videos, search tools, detailed parental reports and free basic membership, KidZui took the top spot. It is a browser in the truest sense of the word because it allows children to search and access a variety of kid-friendly websites – including PBSKids, Discovery Channel and Disney – but any objectionable content and communication with others is blocked. The great thing about this site is that it expands to cover the entire computer screen and essentially locks users in to the browser, meaning children can’t exit out and go on a web-surfing free-for-all. I found the highlight of this site to be ZuiTube, which is a kid-friendly version of YouTube, with access to a wide range of age-appropriate videos. When you upgrade to a paid membership, perks include access to the Homework Helper, monitored communication with friends and the ability to block individual websites. An unexpected perk of this browser is that it provides children with a multi-sensory learning experience, which works well for those who struggle with traditional learning techniques.
Get it at Kidzui.com.
2. Wonder Rotunda – $45 for a one year membership, annual renewal $35
Wonder Rotunda is not a traditional browser, but an interactive online environment that may satisfy kids too young for browsing. Set on an island in New York’s harbor, this virtual theme park is modeled after the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair. Kids (ages 7-12) get a chance to take an African safari, dive the Great Barrier Reef, or take a submarine ride through the human digestive system (not as gross as it sounds!). The mission of this newly created site is to get kids thinking about the world-at-large through games and interactive adventures. I loved that it introduces kids to subjects ranging from U.S. government to rainforest conservation. One outstanding feature is the ‘Make a Difference’ tent, which teaches kids ways they can be active in making their community and world a better place. By earning money through games, you can buy food to feed your avatar, souvenirs from the ‘Store of Wonderful Things’ and even a blimp ad placement for your favorite cause (I chose to save the coral reef). The only potential drawback is the limited amount of adventures (there are currently fifteen), which might be remedied with future site updates and expansions. But for now, I can’t help but wonder: once you have zip-lined through the rainforest a few times, will you want to come back for more? On the flip side, one of Wonder Rotunda’s best features is that parents can create their own avatars and join their children on visits to the park. This is a great opportunity to explore the ‘wonders of the world’ together.
Get it at wonderrotunda.com.
3. Yahoo Kids – free
Yahoo!’s entertainment and education site for children (ages 6-12) used to be called Yahooligans, but a major content shift warranted a name change. Now games, videos, music and other distractions are kept separate from educational content, so that kids won’t be sidetracked when using the site for homework purposes. The StudyZone is full of helpful information, including an extensive World Factbook with information on all the countries of the world. I especially enjoyed the ‘Ask Earl’ feature, which tackles difficult questions like “What is plagiarism?” and “What is DNA and what does it look like?” The major downfall of Yahoo Kids is that they allow advertisements on the site, including video ads – which is understandable since the site is free, but still seems questionable in light of the site’s mission to encourage kids to learn.
Get it at kids.yahoo.com.
4. Club Penguin – Play is free, $5.95 for a monthly pass with added membership bonus, $57.95 for a one-year membership
Club Penguin is Disney’s online community for children ages 6-14 (although the penguin graphics seem much too childish for a fourteen-year-old). Kids can play for free, but special features such as access to member-only rooms and the ability to customize your clothes and igloos can only be accessed by purchasing a membership. The site allows children to talk to one another and although the chatting is monitored, it is still possible for children to share personal information or be subjected to teasing and bullying. However, there is a SafeChat option that limits conversations to a menu of pre-approved phrases and greetings. While there are plenty of fun games and activities to be accessed while directing your penguin around the neighborhood to various gaming rooms and servers, I found it very odd that rooms close down when they are too full, and you must wait in line to gain entry. If I wanted to wait in line, I would head to Disney World itself!
Get it at ClubPenguin.com.
5. Shrek Browser – $6.97 for a monthly pass, $53.97 for a one year membership
Don’t count on Shrek to save your kids from the evils of the Internet. Users are bombarded with advertisements for every Shrek and Disney product imaginable, making it too easy for kids to confuse ads with actual browser content. To add to the trouble, the browser is packaged with Club Tiki, a kids’ club that allows members to play games, chat with other kids and earn online “moola” – all for an additional fee. The Shrek browser’s constant calls to join the club are downright obnoxious. Once you get past the ads, the browser itself is very functional, allowing children to search for anything while only displaying pre-approved, age-appropriate findings. The aesthetic of the browser, which is made to look like the top of Shrek’s big green head, is possibly its greatest accomplishment. Now if only Shrek could cut down on the ads, we could browse happily ever after.
Get it at ShrekBrowser.com.