- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 20, 2005

Cyberspace quickly has become a favorite destination of children. However, with the amazing amount of learning and communication possibilities available also comes the potential for danger from online predators. In fact, a statistic from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children states that about one in five children received a sexual solicitation or approach over the Internet in the past year.

The center has created an online destination to educate parents and children about the risks associated with being online. One of its sites targets children 5 to 12 years old through a dazzling design that reinforces common-sense lessons for those communicating and traveling along the information superhighway.

NetSmartzKids.org

Site address: www.netsmartzkids.org

Creator: The Web site was created by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Alexandria.

Creator quotable: “We created NetSmartz to empower, entertain and educate children and teens about how to be safer when using the Internet. We also provide adults with a free resource for learning and teaching about the dangers to watch out for online,” says Rick Minicucci, president of NetSmartz.

Word from the Webwise: Visitors will be mesmerized by a site boasting 3-D computer animation techniques, a bevy of colorful characters and tons of rhyming musical lessons.

Between the wide range of multimedia interactives, youngsters are reminded constantly not to use rude or mean language when using the Internet, never to share personal information, never to meet in person anyone met online (without a parent expressly involved) and never to download or respond to anything that makes them feel uncomfortable.

Hosts including Clicky the rappin’ robot and purple humans named Nettie and Webster are completely involved within an active cityscape that leads visitors through the sections Games; Activities; E-Mail; Tunes; Free Stuff; and Ready, Set, Internet.

Visitors looking for a quick test of skills will find 25 opportunities between the Games and Activities sections.

Some of my favorites include quiz introductions to the WizzyWig Gang and Webville Outlaws, which characterize some of the Internet’s dangers and nuisances; the complex Pac-Man-like Maze Game; a pair of art programs to create comic books; timed puzzles; and a Dance Studio to record some of the NetSmartz mascots in action.

The site also takes advantage of streaming animation, and visitors will find eight enlightening music videos (an MP3 download of the songs also is available) along with a pair of multipart cartoons focusing on digital music ethics and discussing bad Internet experiences with a trusted adult.

Ease of use: NetSmartzKids.org is compatible with PCs and Macs and any operating system. Visitors should use either the Safari browser for Mac or Internet Explorer for the PC along with the Flash Player 7.0 and Windows Media 9 plug-ins. The site also contains high-bandwidth content, so a cable or DSL connection would be the optimum choice.

Don’t miss: A pair of more involved games will be certain to teach while consuming a visitor’s time. First, the third-person roaming adventure, Scavenger Hunt, has a player take on the role of Nettie or Webster and use keyboard commands to maneuver through a city, talk to friends and collect CDs stolen by Captain Bootleg.

Next, in NetSmartz Agents, a player has a virtual hour to rescue a 12-year-old boy who may have been taken by someone he met online. Players investigate a dozen locations in the District, collect clues, interview people and crunch data in this hunting and clicking simulation.

Family activity: Under the NetSmartz main site (www.netsmartz.org), activity cards were created to give parents, educators and law enforcement officers ideas such as role-playing and art projects for incorporating the NetSmartz online activities into student instruction. Internet safety pledges also can be printed out, signed and posted by the computer to remind children about how to stay safer on the Internet.

Cyber-sitter synopsis: The Web site mixes a consistent level of professional design with an engaging variety of experiences that do not preach but deliver a fun and safe online destination for children.

Overall grade: A+

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]washingtontimes.com).

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