- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 26, 2002

About 16 million tweens children between the ages of 9 and 12 reside in the United States today and roughly 4 out of 5 of them spend time online, according to a report from the Census Bureau.

Hundreds of Web sites cater to their pop culture fascinations, but few try to help them deal with real life. The latest cyber stop to test these angst-ridden waters comes from the combined might of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and a company that has spent the past seven years chronicling teen-agers and their concerns.

It's My Life

Site address: www.pbskids.org/itsmylife


New York City-based CastleWorks Inc., formed in 1995, is best-known for producing "In the Mix," the long-running, award-winning teen documentary series airing nationally on PBS.

Creator quotable:

"We created this site to fill a gap in online resources for children aged 9 to 12. During these years, they struggle with issues like relationships, self-esteem and ethical choices. Many also deal with problems that were formerly associated with older teens, such as eating disorders, drug abuse and depression. This site gives 'tweens' a safe yet fun place for them to get information, share experiences, and know that they are not alone," says Jennifer Castle, producer of "It's My Life."

Word from the Webwise:

I know little about the demographic this site caters to, but I do know about tight, smart, organized Web design, and CastleWorks has done a solid job. Using rectangular configurations and an active logo featuring silhouettes of tweens in motion, "It's My Life" offers three main sections that consume the life of the tween "Friends," "Family" and "School."

The front page also highlights some of the site's subsections and articles of interest, such as an interview with Ali Shawkat from ABC Family's "State of Grace," a survey on why children smoke and a way to respond to queries such as, "Have you ever told a person you like him or her?"

Each of the three main sections features a highlighted, mainly text-based topic, a list of related topics, a poll, a video clip, a game, suggestions for off-line activities, a place to react to a question, advice from the site's mentors (all tweens themselves) and a list of phone numbers to get help.

For example, under "School," visitors can explore the pain of embarrassing moments, read about celebrity goofs, and learn how to deal with embarrassment, how to help a friend through a cringing moment and that even the most red-faced debacle does not mean the end of the world. I found the video snippet here most interesting as it shows real tweens talking about honest experiences with flatulence in class or going to school for the first time wearing braces.

Other spots to click in this section include a poll where visitors vote on their worst moments, a challenge to escape the world's worst day (Monday, of course), a link to quizzes and the other topic of the section "My Teacher Hates Me."

Ease of use:

Visitors will need current browsers, at least a 56k modem connection and the Macromedia Shockwave and RealVideo plug-in to easily enjoy the site. Files and pages load quickly, but the video snippets still suffer from choppiness regardless of the connectivity speed, and can sometimes be an annoying adventure.

Don't miss:

I love a multifunctional game, and "Beat the Bully" certainly meets my criteria. In this outer space rocket race from the year 2248, the player selects a hip male or female aviator. The player must correctly answer five questions about those nasty neighborhood and school tormentors to defeat some brutish aliens. Players who successfully answer the multiple-choice queries based on knowledge acquired in the "Friends" section defeat the alien and move onto a more traditional challenge in which ducking meteors and starships leads to victory.

Family activity:

Each section offers a selection of off-line, printable ideas to get the whole clan involved. These range from journal pages to crossword puzzles to a list of questions for the whole family to discuss on topics such as bullies, divorce and birth order.

Cybersitter synopsis:

Content will always be king on the World Wide Web, and this 2-month-old site is a bit light in that department. Tweens will rip thorough the information in a few hours and move on to more commercial places with outrageous chat rooms, entertainment reviews or harder games.

Overall, the site does show plenty of promise and sections on the body, which covers issues such as alcohol, smoking and drug abuse, and emotions, which covers depression, self-esteem, fear and bereavement, will arrive by the end of August, giving the young multitasker more reasons to stick around.

Overall grade: B

Remember: The information on the Internet is constantly changing. Please verify the advice on the sites before you act to be sure it's accurate and updated. Health sites, for example, should be discussed with your own physician. Have a cool site for the family? Write to Joseph Szadkowski at Webwise, The Washington Times, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, D.C. 20002; call 202/636-3016; or send an e-mail message ([email protected]).

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