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."

•An educational virtual world. Children's online virtual worlds are exploding. The Hitwise online measurement company says visits to such sites went up 68% last year. Mattel's BarbieGirls.com site has 10 million registered users in less than a year. Disney-owned dis Club Penguin and Webkinz are exceedingly popular.

But the Cooney Center report suggests virtual worlds could be more educational. IBM ibm and Zula USA are building one that teaches 4- to 10-year-olds about math and science. Zula is mum on specifics, but launch of the free (at first) site is expected in summer.

•Keeping mind and body active. Wild Planet Entertainment's clever Hyper Dash (ages 6 to 12) and upcoming Animal Scramble (for preschoolers) use the same RFID chip technology found in electronic toll booths. The $20 to $25 games consist of an electronic "tagger," or joystick, and targets you can spread around a room. When players hear a command, a color or number, say, they scramble to tag the appropriate target. Scores are timed. At higher levels, it gets more complex. In Animal Scramble, the tagger and tags are shaped like giraffes, elephants, etc. So commands might be "Who eats bananas?" Or "Who has wings?"

Another Wild Planet game called Hyper Jump (due in the fall) is played on the floor. A saucer-size base unit has pods of different colors and numbers. Players jump on the corresponding pods when they hear "double jump 4" or "yellow, green" and other commands.

This is an age in which even younger children demand iPods and cellphones. And kids have become the chief technology officers in the house, says Nickelodeon and Viacom via consumer products president Leigh Anne Brodsky. Comforting thought for parents: In most family hierarchies, you still outrank them.

Also at the Sandbox Summit

•It's been around a long time, but Digital Blue's fun $100 QX5 Computer Microscope (a version is sold under the Smithsonian name) still delights. It connects to a PC via USB to let you magnify slides and specimens up to 200x. You can capture video, too.

•Mattel launched Barbie iDesign, a fashion-oriented $30 CD-ROM game that comes with a USB scanner. Girls scan in trading cards depicting different hairstyles, shoes, etc. They're uploaded to a "Design Studio" closet. You can alter Barbie's wardrobe and those of other models. Extra card packs cost $5.

•Want to limit kids' time in front of a TV or computer? Meet Bob. The latest model of the $69 to $99 "screentime controller" from Hopscotch Technology lets you set hourly, daily or weekly time limits for up to a half-dozen kids. Basically you plug Bob into any electronic device. When kids want to watch, they punch in a pass code. When their time is up, Bob shuts off the screen. A new feature lets parents add or subtract time in 15-minute increments.

•Need help with your math, social studies, science or English homework? Tutor.com provides online tutors 24/7 at a cost of $25 to $35 an hour; typical sessions last less than a half-hour, and students can grade their tutors.

Meanwhile, if you need help preparing for the SAT, the Princeton Review plans two virtual SAT strategy sessions this month inside Second Life, featuring a 15-to-20-minute presentation, sample test questions and answers and a chance to ask your own questions. Dates are Jan. 19 at 4 p.m. ET and Jan. 31 at 8 p.m. ET.

READERS: What role do you think technology should play in children's development?

E-mail: ebaig@usatoday.com

NOTE: This caption incorrectly named the subject of the photo. It is Tim, not Jim, Effler in the picture.

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