Our story begins with coloring pages. My sons, who wake with the dawn, were gathered around the computer one morning when I had the bright idea to Google "Star Wars printouts." The first two results were borderline spam, with lots of pop-up windows and distracting ads. It took plenty of digging around to find a decent image of Yoda. The ninth result was especially odd: "Color lego star wars printouts. Do cinemax actors really have sex." Luckily, the boys didn't catch on, but I could see that being awkward one day.
My older son, who is 6, also likes to watch amateur Star Wars Lego movies, such as the minor comic masterpiece "An Average Death Star Day." But I don't leave him alone on YouTube, because I never know if some strange-ass video will appear in the "Related Videos" section. You would not believe some of the things people do with Legos. And, yes, I know that a 6-year-old should not be left unattended with a computer, but it would be nice, on occasion, to just let him roam around on YouTube and watch stuff that he's curious about while I "do the dishes" by having a beer in the kitchen.
I really liked the now defunct site, TotLol, which handpicked videos on YouTube that were appropriate for children and also categorized them by genre—you could get your fill of Schoolhouse Rock, Thomas the Tank Engine, and non-gory animal videos. The site's developer started to sell subscriptions but he ran afoul of YouTube's new Terms of Service and shut the whole thing down. Apparently, you are not allowed to make money off a site that only embeds videos and doesn't offer other content.
These two examples lead to my modest proposal: Google should create Google Kids, a search engine that filters the Web for children. Think back to when you were a kid and your parents dropped you off at the library. In the children's section, the only "inappropriate" stuff to be found was Judy Blume's Forever, which someone's older sister had usually already checked out anyway. Similarly, Google Kids would be a sort of children's section of the Web, focused on providing high-quality results based on age.
I am not the first person to think of this, of course. Clicking around, I found that the search engine Ask.com has a site called Ask Kids, but the results are well, from Ask.com, meaning not that helpful and very commercial. Mostly what I stumbled across were sites like GoogleForKid.com that are spammy window dressings around Google's own SafeSearch filter and custom search engine. Their shortcomings are easy to spot. The site GoGooligans.com bills itself as an "education/academic" search engine for teens, but just try finding anything on "asexual reproduction" for that science report due tomorrow.
Google itself has thought a lot about this problem, and they've set up a Family Safety Center. I'm sure there's lots of helpful information there but I'm lazy and often inattentive. I don't want to turn on SafeSearch for when my kids are using the computer and turn it off for me. Same with YouTube's Safety Mode, even though that one is admittedly pretty easy to use. (The switch is located in small type at the bottom of every video page.) No, my suggestion involves a lot more work for Google and some pitching in from parents.
For starters, Google needs to establish GoogleKids.com. That URL lets our sleep-deprived brains know that we're in the right place, and, more importantly, it provides a playground, a gated-off space that parents can help Google watch over. In return, we agree to tell Google our age, such as "I'm 6" or "I'm a 37-year-old parent searching with a 4-year-old." (Not unlike buying an airline ticket.) By inputting our age, we are giving Google another "signal" with which they can personalize search results. The system wouldn't be perfect at first, but as Google watched the search behavior of kids or parents-with-kids it could see what we click on and what we don't. The results would become better through all of the myriad and proprietary ways Google uses to judge a result's usefulness. Naturally, Google would also show us more precise ads, the "price" that we pay for free search.
But we can't expect Google's algorithm to do all the heavy lifting. My search for Star Wars printouts showed that sometimes the best results, from a parent's perspective, don't appear in the top Google results. As it happens, Google already has a tool to help with this problem: the +1 button that essentially lets you "Like" a search result. (The two are not really the same but explaining why is tedious.) In my Google Kids search engine, I would easily be able to put a stamp of approval on the best result for Star Wars printouts. Same with YouTube or other sites on the Web. It would be like leaving a trail marking for my fellow parents that says, "I've watched this video and it was harmless," or, "My son and I checked out this page about Mars, and it did not have any scary autopsy photos of aliens," or, "This princess site was way too slow and annoying."
Sure, there will be parents who mess up the system, like the ones who let their kids run naked through the sprinklers, which is fine, but then your kid wants to run naked through the sprinklers. We all have different values about what is "appropriate." But it would be wonderful to see if, in the aggregate, we could carve out a children's section of the Web. One that represents what we've found helpful, fun, and intellectually rewarding—an attitude that differs from the defensive crouch of so many "safe" search filters. Don't let my kid see anything bad ever! Rather, we could start by identifying the cool stuff and build outward from there. Like Starfall, or this game, or this video. And please don't tell me you have yet to introduce a toddler to the wonder of the Nyan cat.