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Children on the Internet

Dina Demner (

Department of Computer Science
University of Maryland
College Park, MD 20742 USA
April 2001


The Internet today is a part of kids' natural environment. Most

children have access to the Internet at school and/or at home.
In 2000 there were 55,475,000 U.S. households with personal
computers.[11] 99 percent of public schools have access to the
Internet.[8] The number of Internet users worldwide is
expected to grow to 300 million by 2005, from roughly 150
million currently, according to an estimate by IDC. The
greatest growth will be in Asia and South America. The number
of online users will rise 61 percent to 95 million in the US, more
than double to 88 million in Europe and quadruple to 118
million in the rest of the world. NUA Internet Survey, on the
other hand, estimated total number of people online to be
407.1 million in November 2000 .[5] In November 2000 almost
20 percent of all digital media users were children. [4] A recent
National School Boards Foundation telephone survey of 1,735
randomly-chosen households showed that children
predominantly use Internet at home and in school. [9] In a
survey of 10,000 students aged 12 to 24, from 16 countries,
Ipsos-Reid Group found Internet to be widely available to
Swedish and Canadian students. 78 percent of students in
Sweden and 74 percent in Canada are able to go online at
school. 80 percent of Swedish children and 71 percent of
Canadian students have web access at home. Taiwan ranked
third, with 63 percent accessibility at school, followed by the
UK, US, Netherlands, Australia, South Korea, Mexico, Japan,
Italy, Spain, Germany, France, Brazil, and Urban China.[6]

Parents and teachers consider Internet to be a primarily

educational/developmental tool. The study showed
that children find the Internet easy to use, and like to use it for
fun, games, e-mail, chat and instant messaging. Two-thirds of
the children think that it helps them with their learning, and
one-third would like to use it for lessons if they were home sick
from school. [13] Children also go online for learning activities
that are not connected directly with school. The absence of
information filters, such as editors and peer reviewing, on the
Internet presents a challenge to students, who are using the
web to find information for their assignments. Children cannot
properly estimate the validity of the information they find on
the web. They rely upon search engines and accept
information in visually appealing easily accessible pages. [7]
Potential exposure of children to controversial information on
the web resulted in many practical guidelines on Internet
safety for parents and children and the Children's Online
Privacy Protection Act of 1998 on the Internet.[1] This act
provides an official definition of a website directed to children.
However, despite the abundance of web sites for kids,
principles of web design for children are not yet well defined.
Kids' active, extensive and rapidly growing presence on the
Internet poses both a challenge and an opportunity for
researchers and web designers.

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As any other user-interface design process, web design for

children should start with analysis of the user and the tasks.
[10] It is practically impossible to design for children in
general. Defining the following age groups as subcategories of
children users might be one of the appropriate subdivisions:

3-5 years old pre-readers

these children can remember and apply what they have

learned a day before. They cannot separate fantasy from
reality and live in preoperational world. Their attention span is
8 to 15 minutes [12]

5-8 years old beginning readers

5 - 6 years old children form their identities, play

cooperatively, develop fine motor skills. Between ages 6 and 8
child's world expands beyond the immediate surrounding [3]

8-12 years old children

at 9 or 10 children begin to think in abstract terms, become

more focused on interactions with others [3]


teenagers like to experiment with new products, but spend

less time online than adults [4]

In general boys and girls are equally involved in the Internet.

E-mail, search, and instant messaging are the top three
activities for both girls and boys. Both girls and boys
participate in contests, chat rooms, and viewing personal
home pages. However, girls are more likely to use Internet for
education, schoolwork, music and shopping. Boys are more
interested in technology, entertainment and games.[9]
Designing for all these age groups requires keeping in mind
children and teenagers with disabilities. Presently one out of
six students ages 6 to 17 (more than 5 million) have special
needs. For an overview of the role of computer technology and
the Internet in their education see an article by Ted S.
Hasselbring and Candyce H. Williams Glaser at
Tasks domain for children can be roughly subdivided into
education and entertainment. These categories tend to overlap
so much that the term edutainment was coined to describe
software that seeks both to entertain and educate.
Educational tasks include use by teachers for instruction
during class time (66 percent of teachers in public schools),
assigned research using the Internet (30 percent), complete
home schooling or extracurricular courses, expert tutoring or
help with homework assignments. Community Learning
Network is a good place to find an Internet project for a class
A very interesting approach to design for children is designing
with children as design partners. Three design methodologies
have been proposed for work with children outside the school
environment: contextual inquiry, technology immersion, and
participatory design.[2] World Kids Network is an attempt to
implement this approach on the web. It describes itself as an
ongoing project, rather than a website. 80 percent of it is
created and maintained by children.
Webmonkey for kids suggests helping kids with their first steps
in web design. This tool and some practical advice from
teachers, who are using it in their classrooms can be found at


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Web design for children builds upon general principles of good
web design. Sometimes tradeoffs are necessary, for example,
web sites for preschoolers should be almost purely graphical
and include audio alternatives for text. At the same time these
children will switch to some other activity if nothing happens
on the computer screen.
CNET [14] proposes ten key dos and don'ts of web
design for children

Do: Know your target audience

Define the age range of the target audience

Do: Include interaction

Offer chat rooms, e-mail, discussion groups, collaborative

storytelling; a possibility to customize the site: change the
computer's wallpaper, layout; interactive games

Do: Be careful with private info

Tell children and their parents what information you collect

and why. Commercial sites need parental consent before
collecting personal information from children 12 years old or
younger. [1]

Do: Test with kids

Find representative children and ask them to perform typical

tasks or just watch how they use the site

Do: Use characters

Characters can present useful, but boring information in a fun

easy to learn way

Don't: Be lame

Don't be afraid to address complicated issues, don't be

condescending or boring

Don't: Rely on tired design metaphors

Use straightforward icons and obvious category names for

Don't: Neglect your content

Present quality information, update it regularly and change the


Don't: Even start if you don't love kids

Don't: Forget to check out other stuff for kids

Allison Druin and coauthors [2] give practical advice on

implementation of the methodologies they suggested for
designing with children:
Contextual Inquiry with children

Observe children in their own rooms or other familiar to them


Give children time

Wear informal clothing

Do not stand with young children. Rather than being an

authority or outsider, be one of the kids

Use an object, such as computer, as a bridge to develop


Ask about their opinions and feelings, show that you need their

Use informal language

The interactor must not take notes

Note-taking should be very discreet. Use small notepads

Note-takers must become a background nonmoving part of the


Technology immersion:

Give children unlimited time, access to technology-rich

environment and freedom of choice to find out what children
do and want.
Participatory design:

7-10 years old children are ideal partners

Two or three adults with three to four children form an ideal


Adult-to-adult interaction is as important as adult-to-child and

child-to-child interaction

Use diverse low-tech prototyping tools: crayons, paper, LEGO

blocks, etc.

Freely combine this tools

Introduce low-tech prototyping tools as early as possible

Children open up faster to informal and playful adults

Goals should be flexible

Microsoft team [2] developed guidelines for design of

activities, instructions and screen layout observing children
interacting with both successful and unsuccessful interfaces.

Design activities to be inherently interesting and challenging

Design activities to allow for expanding complexity and

support children as they move from one level to the next

Design supportive reward structures that take children's

developmental level and context of use into account


Present instructions in an age-appropriate format

Design instructions to be easy to comprehend and remember

On-screen character interventions should be supportive rather

than distracting

Allow children to control access to information

Screen Layout
Design icons to be visually meaningful to children

The best icons are easily recognizable, look clickable and are
at least size of a quarter

Use cursor design to help communicate functionality

Use rollover audio, animation and highlighting to indicate


All experts on online education warn that students may get

lost in the mass of available information. An interactive
concept map is a good solution to this problem.

Given the enormous amount of web sites for children of all

ages it is not easy to find a good or a useful one. There are
some excellent starting points for parents and teachers to find
appropriate sites, such as Cool Sites for Kids, a large collection
of websites for children and parents reviewed and organized
by the American Library Association; Brendan Kehoe's running
catalog of web sites related to kids: The Kids on the Web; Berit
Ericson's best sites for children; Net-mom®'s list organized by
interests and many others.
On the other hand several sites might be used by children
directly, or with a little help from a parent. 123 Sesame Street
online is a great web site for children that very thoughtfully
implements many of the mentioned before guidelines. This and
other toddlers' and preschoolers' websites help parents to
enhance creativity in children and offer an excellent
opportunity to spend time together. Some of the sites have
very nice ideas and great implementation in general, but can
cause frustration because of little details. For example, Tool
Shed Trouble at is a great idea to teach kids tool
names and develop fine motor skills. In this game children
have to pick up a tool and place it into its slot, but the 'hot'
areas seem to be much smaller than the tool shapes, moreover
these areas are often obscured by text balloons.
All good sites for under-ten kids offer coloring pages, music,
stories and games. Coloring pages range from very simple
ones, where one mouse click randomly changes one detail, to
somewhat creative, where kids can select colors (Coloring 4
Kids), to more complicated, where fine motor skills are needed
(Arthur: D.W.'s Art Studio). Yahooligans! is a good site for older
children to explore on their own. offers very
good examples of interaction and visually appealing regularly
changing environment. Although Lycos Zone is a great award
winning site, it lacks originality. For example it reuses the
Sesame Street's site map. offers edutainment for preschool, kindergarten,

1st, 2nd , 3rd/4th, and 5th/6th grades. All above mentioned
sites for children require shockwave and load time from one to
four minutes, depending on connection, but they offer some
fun activity while the site is loading (funschool offers a tic-tac-
toe game or a car race). is an extensive
educational web site, with minimal graphics and relatively
useful help and feedback. Even the best educational and
homework helpers sites provide little help on how to use the
site and no explanations how the correct answer was
obtained. Often graphics seems to be the goal of the designer,
rather than an illustration to the problem. Surprisingly there
are sites for children almost completely void of illustrations.
For example, that, in its own words,
"presents novels and short stories for children from age 4 to
13" does just that. Below on the left is its idea of a suitable
web presentation for the Little Red Cap. On the right is one of
the pictures from the slide show that comes with it, when the
links are not broken.