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It may not be the Wild West, but the Web can still be a dangerous place for kids. Most Web browsers are designed for the broadest audience possible, with little thought to the needs of specific age groups. Kids who are researching assignments, keeping up-to-date on current events, or just surfing for fun have different needs than most adults. Two browsers made especially for kids, App4Mac’s KidsBrowser 3.2 and Freeverse Software’s BumperCar 2.0 make the Web more fun (for kids) and safe (for parents). Both have their merits depending on a child’s age and the amount of supervision he or she needs to avoid questionable content.
Unlike a parent, teacher, or guardian, a computer can’t determine appropriate content for a particular viewer. Some Web sites will self-rate, providing metadata ratings that a Web browser can use to filter content based on limitations that have been previously set by a guardian. However, not all Web sites include this information, so guardians need to be able to set up black lists (Web sites that can never be viewed) and white lists (Web sites that can always be viewed), as well as decide on words to block. In addition, the browser needs to limit how the child interacts with Web sites, preventing them from giving out information that might be improperly used.
Both of these browsers offer these basic safety features for parents to set up. The main difference between them is in their user interface and experience.
KidsBrowser 3.2 takes over the entire screen to give kids an immersive Web-browsing experience complete with multiple kid-friendly interface themes (space, trucks, technology, etc.) using large, easy-to-click buttons. Surprisingly, though the themes were cartoonish, they all integrated smoothly with the sites my daughter and I visited.
One of our favorite features in KidsBrowser was the large preview image that accompanies each link on the Favorites page. Rather than simply listing the name of the Web site, KidsBrowser also takes a snapshot of the page when an adult sets up a bookmark using the parental controls. This allows kids to see which page they’re about to access, making it especially useful for kids still learning to read. Inexplicably, though, the preview is not created when kids use the F7 key to add a favorite Web site. Another limitation in KidsBrowser is that it doesn’t let kids organize their Favorites into different categories, so they may end up with a very long list of Web page favorites.
KidsBrowser avoids cluttering its interface by hiding the URL entry field, although kids can click a button to have it slide out when needed. This makes a lot of sense, as most kids do not need to constantly know their URL. However, one feature that is noticeably lacking is a quick search field that would allow kids to type in a search term and get the results without having to travel to the main Google (or other search engine) home page first.
Both of these browsers provide standard safety controls, but BumperCar 2.0’s offers more options, which are especially useful for older kids who may need some extra guidance to keep away from questionable content. BumperCar lets parents, teachers, and guardians block Web sites based on the Web sites’ own content ratings. Adults also can filter search results; block ads; block cookies; set the number of hours per day allowed for browsing; and set what time of day kids can browse (so no sneaking over to the computer after bedtime).
One nice new feature in BumperCar 2.0 is the ability to set the start page for one of three age levels: Young Children, Older Children, and Preschool (the browser doesn’t specify age ranges for these). Each age group has a slightly different design and links tailored to the age level. In addition, you can choose the Education design, which allows you to customize the start page with a school name.
As with Apple’s Safari and Mozilla’s Firefox, BumperCar 2.0 includes a Google search field in the control bar. However, we found that younger kids may not always know what to do after typing a search term, so an obvious Go button could be helpful.
One odd quirk to BumperCar is the adversarial tone it takes in many of its messages. For example, when trying to access blocked content, kids may be presented with the message “Curses! Foiled Again,” or a BumperCar icon wagging its finger at them. While adults may think this is cute, the patronizing attitude may turn off kids who got to the problematic content by mistake, make them feel guilty and ashamed, or simply serve as a challenge to those kids trying to break through.
Both KidsBrowser and BumperCar go a long way toward ensuring that surfing kids are safe from either accidentally or actively getting to inappropriate content. However, rather than focusing on just safety, both Freeverse and App4Mac would also benefit from paying closer attention to what kids need in a Web browser, and work to include functionality and features that will help kids find the content they need. For example, school-aged kids need quick access to an online dictionary, thesaurus, or encyclopedia to look up information as they are surfing. For very young children, an invaluable learning tool would be the ability to have all or parts of the Web page read to them, highlighting words as they are being spoken.
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BumperCar 2.0 and KidsBrowser 3.2.1 will display Web pages almost exactly the same way as Safari, but they also provide safety and filter controls that will help teachers, parents, or guardians better guide children’s Web-browsing experience. While BumperCar provides more flexibility with its safety settings and more robust browser controls, KidsBrowser provides a simpler Web experience for very young children who might need more of a helping hand.
If you are buying a browser for younger children just getting started with the Web (preschool to sixth grade), KidsBrowser will provide the best experience. However, for older kids who need a more robust Web experience (and possibly greater supervision), BumperCar is well worth the price.
[ Jason Cranford Teague and his daughter Jocelyn live near Washington D.C., where Jason is a senior user interface designer at AOL, and Jocelyn is in first grade. Jocelyn wants to be a punk rocker when she grows up and Jason regularly rants about technology and culture on his blog, webbedENVIRONMENTS.]BumperCar’s customizable home pages allow you to put your school’s name front and center.KidsBrowser’s thumbnail views let kids see where they are going.