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Fast Forward: Kidz Online [The Washington Post]

by Hope Katz Gibbs
Fast Forward / The Washington Post
Kids and Computers
March 1996

THE KIDS ARE NOT SMILING. Sharon Cruver wants to take pictures at the Silver Spring Boys & Girls Club, but the eight assembled teens are stone-faced. Luckily Cruver, the mother of Sharon teenage twins, is familiar with the routine.

“The pictures will help you create your own home pages,” she cajoles. “We’ll post your photo on the computer, and beside it you write your name, e-mail address and a little about yourself so other kids can get to know you.”

The idea of being seen by their peers seems to loosen the kids up, and they start to grin. Cruver quickly snaps the shots. But she’s taken on a much bigger challenge than generating smiles-she’s tackling the task of “leveling the high-tech playing field” by helping poor kids learn about computers and online technology. Her main weapon is Kidz Online, a free, closely monitored electronic playground she and her family launched in 1994.

In addition to online dictionaries and databases and kids’ personal pages, Kidz Online also features science and math facts, games, and access to chat rooms, e-mail, columns, poems and art by other kids. David Humphries, 14, of McLean, does a monthly stock analysis of kid-related companies such as Nike and Reebok. Melissa Jerro, 16, of McLean, does a weekly sports wrap-up. Dan Rubin, 13, of Great Falls, does movie reviews.

But Kidz Online is a closed network that does not access the Internet, which is a mixed blessing. This means the kidz will get computer experience without paying visits to Bianca’s Smut Shack, Penthouse Interactive or other potentially unsavory sites. But it also means they don’t get to some of the most valuable places on the Internet, like the Louvre or NASA.

“We will eventually grow to include [some] Internet access,” Cruver says, “but my goal right now is to give kids access to
this bulletin board service and to teach them to use the technology. [We’ll eventually use ] the Internet more like a field trip, where kids go to experience new places. [But] we will install controls to make sure this remains a safe environment.”

Kidz Online is a family affair of Sharon, her husband Phil and their 13-year-old twins, Wesley and Lindsay. The family’s McLean neighborhood has a lot of families with computers. But Sharon Cruver got thinking about how strangely isolated her kids were from those in D.C., and about all the kids who don’t have computer access at all.

So Cruver hatched the idea of an online network to reach out. She asked Wesley, already an electronic bulletin board whiz, to help her build a service, adding color, graphics, games, contests and reviews to the usual BBS fare of chat, message boards and downloadable files. Lindsay—who wouldn’t touch a computer for fear of being labeled a geek-began using the drawing program to illustrate poems and do movie and software reviews (with pseudonym, of course). In a few months, 40 kids were logging on.

Cruver was ready to take her project to the kids who needed it more and contacted the
Boys & Girls Clubs. Angela Broom, director of educational services for the Greater Washington Boys & Girls Clubs, jumped at the chance. Cruver arranged for donations of hardware and software, and soon the kidz were plugged in.

“Kidz Online is the perfect youth development exercise,” says Broom, who has helped get the program into four clubs so far. “It’s been very effective because the kids teach each other.” Wesley trains a handful of kids at each club, and they in turn teach others. About 200 children now access the service. Growing the network remains a challenge.

More modems, computers and telephone lines are needed. “It doesn’t take anymore information to reach 10,000 kids than it does 200,” she says. “The only things we need to grow are more servers and a T1 line.” She’s currently talking to Bell Atlantic about precisely that. But if funding does help Kidz Online grow, there will be a new challenge: How does a tiny group like Cruver’s monitor kids once they can access the anarchic Internet?

“Everything is a learning process,” Cruver says evenly. “But if kids start to learn about the benefits as well as the dangers of technology, they will be that much better off in the future when there aren’t parental controls to monitor them.”

For more: http://www.kidzonline.org/


More Fast Forward / Washington Post Articles

"I get by with a little help from my friends," says Hope, who gives special thanks to:

• MICHAEL GIBBS, website illustration and design: www.michaelgibbs.com
• MAX KUKOY, website development: www.maxwebworks.com
• STEVE BARRETT, portrait of Hope on Bio page: www.stevebarrettphotography.com

Contact HOPE KATZ GIBBS by phone [703-346-6975] or email.