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CHILD CARING

Parents want answers? Surf the Web with some skepticism

In order to make the most of parenting information that's available on the Internet, there are two things parents need to know: Who is responsible for the site you are visiting, and are they trying to sell you something?

Susan Cronin Ruderman of Arlington never used to care about these issues. When she became a mother five years ago, she would go online almost daily, often after midnight, to visit major parenting sites such as parentsoup.com, babyparenting.about.com, and parenting.com/parenting/.

"There was always some issue I was obsessing about," she says.

As time passed, though, she came to some realizations:

Sites whose addresses end in "com" are commercial, and are pushing products. For her, that was an annoyance she could screen out. For other moms it can feed into paranoia: "Maybe product X is what will make me a better mother." Content is often unsigned or written by volunteers, including other new mothers. While that could be a source of support, Ruderman couldn't count on it as a source of information.

Sites come with biases. As Ruderman became more comfortable in her parenting, she began to see that there is room for individual differences. "I started to avoid sites that insist there is a `best' way to parent. Like parentingweb.com/. It sounds generic enough, but it's too dogmatic for my taste." The one site that remained constant for her was a government site, the US Product Safety Commission (cpsc.gov/cpscpub/prerel/category/child.html), where she could find out about product recalls, especially for toys.

What Ruderman discovered is what media reviewer David Walsh dubs the "treasure and trash" of the Web.

"Most parents -- and the parents are usually women -- end up on commercial sites," says Walsh, founder and president of the nonprofit National Institute on Media and the Family (mediafamily.org).

He says this as though the sites are a nasty disease.

"A lot of the commercial websites for parents are thinly disguised sales efforts, if not for a product then for a point of view," he says.

The trouble is, it's not always obvious.

"Parents can be betrayed by a commercial site and not even know it," says behavioral and developmental pediatrician Rick Solomon, a professor at the University of Michigan. He sees it often in his practice, which specializes in children with autism: Parents come to him armed with information gleaned from the Web, especially about a treatment called chelation therapy. Unfortunately, it's information that is not scientifically or medically sound and he has to break the news to them.

He doesn't think this is unique to parents dealing with autism.

"It's human nature for parents to want for there to be a simple solution," he says. "If a website comes across as professional, parents can be distracted by claims that are not true."

Partly in response to misleading information on commercial websites, Solomon co-founded and supervises YourChild, a website sponsored by the University of Michigan (www.med.umich.edu/1libr/yourchild/). Widely considered the best noncommercial parenting site, it offers researched articles by credible specialists on a wide range of development and behavior issues.

Here are some clues to the credibility of any website: What are the last three letters of the website address? Those with "gov" (government sites), "edu" (academic affiliations), or "org" (nonprofits) offer content that is usually research based and reliably sourced. Anything ending in "com" is a business with something to sell. Just as all commercial sites are not trash, not all academic or non-profit groups are treasure. Some with "edu" are tedious and difficult to navigate; many with "org" have content specific only to their single issue of interest. Who is responsible for the site? Click on "about us." Who are the sponsors? "If a site doesn't offer that option, consider it a red flag to trustworthiness," says Nancy Martland, executive director of the Tufts University Child and Family WebGuide (cfw.tufts.edu), which doesn't offer content on any given subject but evaluates a huge range of sites, then recommends

and offers links to them. One way to use the WebGuide is when you hear about a site, go to the WebGuide to see what Tufts professors think of it. The harder it is to find out about a site's sponsorship, the more leery Martland would be about information it imparts. Indeed, how forthcoming a site is about sponsorship is one criteria for the WebGuide. WebGuide president and Tufts professor Fred Rothbaum uses one popular site, parentstages.com, as an example:

"Not only do they not have an `about us' page, but you can only discover who the sponsor is by going to the contact page. It's Kimberly-Clark," he writes in an e-mail. "Another thing I find disturbing is that they purport to be `the best parenting content,' yet I could not find a single, noncommercial site among their partners nor a single article from a noncommercial site. To use the label `the best' with such restricted material is misleading at best."

What are the interior pages like? Unsigned articles make Martland nervous about reliability of information. But even when articles are signed, as they are on more and more sites ending in "com," credentials themselves are not foolproof. Is the "expert" really an expert? How relevant are his or her credentials to the topic? Are the credentials even real? If you're suspicious, do a Google search on the person. Martland also adds this caution: "Just because someone is an MD doesn't mean there isn't a hidden agenda." Check for a mission statement, often at the very bottom of a site.

There are typically two ways parents end up on websites: Someone recommends one, or you get there via a search engine.

Judy Petrie, also of Arlington, is a savvy parent-user of the web. She almost always uses google.com, and she says the trick is to narrow the search by using more than one word. For instance, when her daughter had impetigo, she typed in "impetigo symptoms." (The more specific you are, the less likely you are to end up on an innapropriate site. Rather than search for "thumb sucking," for instance, search for "solutions to thumb sucking." )

This kind of search is almost always going to turn up commercial sites, however. "They come up high in the search engines because they tend to get the most traffic," says Kyla Boyse, editor and cofounder of YourChild. When you go to Google, she recommends clicking on "advanced search" to automatically weed out commercial sites. You can narrow the search even further if you go to "domain" and type in "edu."

One other thing to consider is online lists. Petrie subscribes to two local parent lists, one in Arlington that's free and a PTA list with an annual membership fee of $15. For $9.95 a year, she also gets e-mail from goCitykids.com, alerting her to local activities. (There's also good information available there without a charge; another site for activities is bostoncentral.com.)

Not surprisingly, parents tend to get more picky as they get more experience as Web users and as parents.

"I've learned over time to look at anything on the Web as a piece of information, not as gospel," says Julie Flanagan of Milton. She doesn't find chats useful, pays attention to credentials, and visits "com" sites sparingly. She might go to pampers.com, for instance, but she goes only to read renowned pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton's column.

Contact Barbara F. Meltz at meltz@globe.com.

sites worth bookmarking
cyfernet.org (Children, Youth & Families Education and Research Network). Also a nonprofit, this site is visually attractive, well-written, and goes through the teen years. Includes a ''Just for Kids'' page.

www.nimh.nih.gov (National Institute of Mental Health). Not as parent-friendly as some, but an excellent resource on subjects such as learning disabilities or obsessive compulsive disorder. You can download booklets.

npin.org (National Parent Information Network). Sponsored by ERIC Clearinghouse Educational Resources Information Center and the US Department of Education, it's the world's largest database on education material. When you click on ask-the-expert, you know you're getting an expert; on the other hand, it takes two days to get an answer.

www.aboutourkids.org (About Our Kids). Sponsored by New York University Child Study Center, this deals with timely topics and is easy to navigate.

cfw.tufts.edu (Tufts University Child and Family WebGuide). Provides hundreds of links to sites that meet stringent quality controls established by Tufts faculty.

www.med.umich.edu/1libr/yourchild/ (YourChild, University of Michigan). Probably the single-most parent friendly and comprehensive of the edu sites. Articles and links are are viewed by a panel of developmental and behavioral pediatricians.

nccic.org (National Child Care Information Center). Everything you need to know about how to find child care, including localized lists.

quackwatch.org A resource for checking reliability of medical information or medical credentials.
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