Children and adolescents being children and adolescents, there is probably no practical way to guarantee that they are exposed only to media content approved by their elders -- V-chips and secret passwords notwithstanding.
The best way to keep them away from the bad stuff is to try to hook them on the good stuff. In furtherance of that mission and in the belief that the makers of good stuff ought to get some notice, I hereby recommend to you a new CD-ROM subscription program called Sprocket Works.
It is a kick to hear my 4-year-old counting down, "3, 2, 1, blastoff," before he launches a Saturn rocket, courtesy of Sprocket Works. The thing roars into space in the form of a real video clip, flames shooting from the tail.
Sprocket Works won me over completely when I realized that by playing with this CD, my son had made the connection between a musical tone and a written note. To me, that's a breakthrough.
The same game is helping me relearn how to read music.
So Sprocket Works, designed with the 8-to-14-year-old set in mind, is actually good from 4 to 40.
The interactivity is fun, simple to use, eye-opening and eye-catching for young people. It is artful, subtle as a learning tool, and most important to me, gentle.
And it doesn't plug anything. It's not Barney and it's not Barbie! It's especially not the well-intentioned Reader Rabbit, who, after all is said and done -- and about him a great deal is said and done -- is essentially a petty tyrant declaring to small children: "You Will Now Learn. You Will Enjoy It."
Every three months, the San Francisco company that produces the CDs, Animatrix Inc., sends out a new CD with new activities. I can vouch only for the first volume, which features the subjects of music, space and U.S. history and offers several points of access to each.
The music offering, for example, includes an on-screen piano keyboard. As you strike the keys using the mouse and hear the tones, they appear as notation on a staff above. When you're done, you can play back your composition. There's also a section on the history of music -- popular, classical, country, rock, folk, musicals and so forth -- constructed along time lines. Moving through time you can listen to excerpts of hundreds of works, whether it's Bach or Bo (Diddley) or Andrew Lloyd Webber.
My son likes the space segment best because he can watch a video of a shuttle launch or the Saturn rocket. He also can see clips of the first and last moon missions, with men skipping along the lunar surface. He can watch the birth of a star in extraordinarily vivid colors and move the heavens to conform with the position of our home so he can identify the stars and planets visible outside.
I've tried two CD encyclopedias that boasted of interactivity for children. Sprocket Works is better -- and much more manageable. I've been to all sorts of Web sites to find rocket launches -- they're too slow a download for the home phone line. Sprocket Works is better.
(Personally, I could have done without the relatively static history section or the ability to churn out Confederate money on my laser printer. Arranging pictures of presidents in chronological order doesn't crank my engine or those of my child testers. But maybe someone will like it and the feature probably will make it okay for a skeptical school board somewhere.)
Now, I understand that similar interactives, such as the music program, are available elsewhere. But you generally need to make a significant investment and you get only the music program, more of it than you wanted.
The beauty of Sprocket Works is that it's a sampler. When we get bored with this volume, if we subscribe, we'll get another new one (the next subjects are chemistry, flight and horses.)
All have an Internet component, which at this point is relatively undeveloped.
Animatrix President Marney Morris, a well-known designer who has worked on projects for Apple Computer Inc., Microsoft Corp. and Walt Disney Co., among other firms, said she, like me, believes that the state of children's software is pretty pathetic.
"It's `shovelware.' . . . They view kids in terms of market segments, as consumers. . . . We really wanted to do something with more heart."
"Somebody," she said, "has got to step up and make a statement about how the media should be used correctly."
She said her company is finding that Sprocket Works appeals to a far greater age range than she imagined -- greater on both ends, younger and older, including elderly people trying to continue their education (or, like me, trying to relearn how to read music).
According to the Sprocket Works World Wide Web site, you can buy a single volume for $24.90, including shipping. You can subscribe annually and receive four volumes for $89.60, including shipping, if you pay in advance. Each volume will cover three topics. The Web site is www.sprocketworks.com. The phone is 1-888-999-1515.
Fred Barbash's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
CAPTION: Sprocketworks.com's interactive Web site and CD-ROM allow children to zoom in on parts of the moon . . .
CAPTION: . . . test their currency knowledge . . .
CAPTION: . . . compose and hear music through their computer . . .
CAPTION: . . . and chart expansion in America with a virtual time line.