Tech show tackles what's appropriate (or not) for kids

When it comes to prowling the Internet or choosing age-appropriate toys, overwrought parents have a lot to consider. Can (and should) you monitor or limit the time your children play games or hang out in cyberspace? How do you keep them safe once there? Are educational toys truly educational? Author Lisa Guernsey says there's a high-pitch debate about whether childhood is being squandered or set free by today's tech toys.

Guernsey was speaking at the Sandbox Summit, a first-ever event at the Consumer Electronics Show. "Digital kid" marketers, journalists and representatives from Mattel mat, Microsoft msft, Symantec symc and Sesame Workshop were among attendees, and more issues were raised than solved. The emphasis: understanding how children play and learn, whether they're into picture books or Facebook.

There are no easy answers. A new study by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, a non-profit research arm of the Sesame Workshop, says more academic research is needed to investigate the implications of the current environment on children's informal learning. It also recommends product developers break the traditional model of having one kid in front of one screen. A reason Nintendo's Wii has been so well received is because it encourages group play. One thing everyone seems to agree on: Parents of young children should watch and play along whenever possible.

Here's a sampling of products and parental resources I came across:

•Entertainment software for kids with cancer. I wondered whether young cancer patients might feel a stigma playing a video game aimed at them. But HopeLab says patients who play its Re-Mission software game actually adhere better to their treatment regimens. And friends and siblings without cancer may play along. The object of Re-Mission is to control a nanobot named Roxxi who travels through the bodies of 19 fictional patients to combat their cancer cells. The non-profit HopeLab developed the video game (for Windows PCs) a couple of years ago, with the help of cancer experts and cell biologists. It can be downloaded free at www.re-mission.net.

•Negotiating with the kids. It won't work in every family. But Microsoft (and the national PTA) is urging parents to make a "PACT" to help determine what types of media are appropriate. The "P" stands for parental involvement. The "A" is for determining what your child can access online. "C" is picking the content you deem OK for little ones. And "T" stands for time, as in when and how long the kids can play on the game console, TV or computer. Xbox 360 and Windows Vista have parental controls. Even so, good luck.

•Digging into the ratings. The Entertainment Software Rating Board tries to guide parents. But their ratings don't give the full story. WhatTheyPlay.com is a new website that helps parents understand how ratings apply to the titles their kids want to play.

For example, the subscription-based, online role-playing World of Warcraft game from Blizzard Entertainment carries a "T" for Teen rating from the ESRB, which generally suggests blood, use of alcohol and so on. WhatTheyPlay goes into more detail, telling you the blood and violence includes killing animals for a quest and "killing another player in … an area designated for player-vs.-player combat."

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