Increasingly, the Internet Combines Education With Advertising
As use of the World Wide Web grows by leaps and bounds, the culture of cyberspace is being shaped increasingly by advertising, say veterans of the easy-to-use, highly visual region of the Internet.
Educators must take heed to prepare children for the barrage of ads they will encounter on-line, experts caution.
The early growth of the Internet was fueled by scientists, educators, and hobbyists who delighted in the free sharing of information. They have now been joined by companies offering information on their Web sites to entice people to spend time in the presence of advertisements and, ultimately, to spend money.
"The Internet started with a circle of gifts--you would take something from the Net and you'd give something back," said Jean Armour Polly, the author of the Internet Kids' Yellow Pages, published by Osborne McGraw-Hill.
"Now it's 'How can you get eyeballs to come in and look?'--that's the rub," she added.
Still, companies know Web visitors expect freebies, and some commercial sites "have fabulous content," Ms. Polly said.
For example, the Crayola Web site offered by Binney & Smith Inc. shows how crayons are made, "which is really quite interesting," she said.
And the site for one brand of breakfast cereal features an adventure game that tests children's knowledge of endangered species, she added. At the same time, Web advertising is becoming more potent, as companies gain new methods of tailoring ads to individual users.
Many commercial Web sites, including some for children, require users to register to have full access to the site, said Shelley Pasnik, the director of children's policy at the Center for Media Education, a Washington think tank.
By registering, the user supplies a variety of personal information, such as age, gender, hobbies, and electronic-mail address, which may be compiled and sold to e-mail marketers. Or the data may be recorded in a "cookie," a software device stored on the user's computer that then tracks what the user does at the site and can be read by the Web site on subsequent visits.
A cookie can be helpful if it allows the Web site to tailor information to the user's interests, Ms. Polly said. It can also be used to target advertising or to build marketing databases.
Web browsers can be set to warn users when cookies are created; users can also delete them.
Another important change in the Web has to do with the methods people use to find information.
"Search engines"--Web sites such as Yahoo! and Excite! that are used to find other Web sites--sift through millions of Web pages and retrieve lists of those that are relevant to key words supplied by the user. But many search engines now use the same key words to specially select ads that appear on the user's search screen.
And some search engines allow companies to pay a fee so their Web site will be prominently displayed within the lists of relevant sites, said Ms. Pasnik, who is the co-author of a study last year of Web-based marketing to children. She said this practice could lead students astray in conducting on-line research.
Teachers have been very concerned about the issue of pornography on the Internet and the need to protect children from the potential dangers of Internet encounters, Ms. Pasnik said. But few educators have tackled issues such as exposure of children to advertising, the invasion of students' privacy, and the blending of advertising and content on the Web.
Web advertising shouldn't be banned, Ms. Pasnik added. But teachers and their students need to think critically about what they see, to understand how the technologies work, and to be "somewhat leery of the content they encounter."