SO THE 2-YEAR-OLD THROWS A zillion-decibel tantrum in the supermarket, the 4-year-old refuses to go to bed before midnight and the 6-year-old redecorates the living room in a peanut-butter-and-jelly motif. Beleaguered parents will (a) catch the next flight to Paris (sans enfants), (b) swallow a bottle of Valium or (c) peruse the World Wide Web looking for child-rearing advice. If you picked (c), you're thinking like a new-media mogul.
This week Disney launches its redesigned multipart Family.com Web site, joining the growing list of parenting sites backed by such high-profile companies as Starwave, Time Warner and Procter & Gamble. Family-related sites are hot because they attract women--in the minority on the Internet but usually in charge of the household budget. Publishers with a steady female audience can find major advertisers willing to support the sites, which are still mostly free to users, says Diana Simeon, an analyst with Jupiter Communications, a new-media market-research firm. Big corporations also get to showcase related products. For example, ParentTime, a new partnership between Time Warner and Procter & Gamble, incorporates content from family-oriented Time-Life books and such Time Warner publications as Baby Talk and Time for Kids.
The sites contain information on children's health and nutrition, advice on child rearing and tips on family activities--longtime staples of parenting discussion groups on commercial online services as well as print magazines like Parents and Parenting. But what distinguishes the Web sites from their online and print ancestors is their interactivity. Because they are designed specifically for the Web, the online "magazines" have appealing graphic interfaces and lots of links to related sites, which make them accessible Internet gateways for the technologically wary. "We've organized the information into categories to make it easy to find," says Susan Wyland, Family.com's editorial director, who came to the company earlier this year after serving as editor of Martha Stewart Living. The Disney site has partnerships with more than 100 local parenting publications around the country, enabling parents to check out activities in their own communities or figure out how to keep the kids from going crazy on vacation thousands of miles away. A recipe library creates a shopping list based on users' selections, and a customized activities index suggests ways to keep a 5-year-old from climbing the walls on a rainy day.
Web sites can also provide more up-to-date information than monthly print magazines. The cheerful home page for Starwave's Family Planet, based in Bellevue, Wash., has a daily menu of family-related stories culled from news services. Last week, for example, there were articles on the effect of AIDS drugs on kids and research on connections between diet and dyslexia. Carrie Krueger, the managing editor and a former television producer, says news is one of the most popular features. The site has an impressive database; the toy reviews are especially useful. Family Planet also has a customized mailing list, which sends e-mail on topics geared to kids' ages and interests.
Online forums are another big draw; at their best, the sites function as a high-tech version of the old-fashioned park bench. Members of New York's Parent Soup, created last year by two mothers with backgrounds in publishing and magazine journalism, can participate in dozens of often lively bulletin-board discussion groups on topics ranging from "teen madness" to "long-distance parenting." There are regular live chats such as Sanity Break (11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.). In the aftermath of Thanksgiving, one mother wrote: "I get so stressed out this time of year that by New Year's Eve, there is no need for confetti 'cause I can explode at will all over the area of your choice!" Her woes produced this sympathetic response from another member: "Both my husband's family and mine want to have their Christmas parties on the same day, and all I want to do is sit home drooling on anti-psychotic medication and plot their deaths. Oh, and watch the pretty lights on the tree . . . Until I get the light bill."
Family Education Network, based in Boston, aims at parents of school-age children, says president Jonathan Carson, and encourages activism. Features include updates on education-related legislation in Washington, an e-mail form for reaching congressmen and tips on how to become involved in your children's school. A grade-by-grade database has a rundown of what kids of various ages should be learning, along with general descriptions of social and emotional issues that are likely to come up. A question-and-answer section covers other problems. In a section on bullies, a parent wrote: "My child is always getting hit in preschool. How can I help him?" The response: "Parents who tell their children to hit back will end up butting heads with their child's preschool teacher. Instead, teach your child to "use his words.' Ask the teacher to help your child use phrases like "Don't hit my body.' Talk to the teacher about the circumstances surrounding the hitting incidents to see what precedes or provokes the hitting."
At this point, family sites are too new for predictions about which ones, if any, will succeed. All over the Web, sites spring up like mushrooms after a rain--and disappear just as quickly. And time-starved parents may not have the patience to log on in a moment of domestic crisis. Over the past few months there have been rumors that one family site or another might be acquired by a competitor, so no one knows what the Webscape will look like a few months from now. Wyland says Disney has made a "substantial" investment in Family.com, although she won't say exactly how much. The site could get a boost from its Web parent, Disney.com, which has been receiving millions of hits a week since the opening of "101 Dalmatians" and has a link to Family.com. But heavy traffic creates other problems, notably a slow download time that can frustrate users stuck with less than state-of-the-art modems.
Family Education Network, now supported solely by advertising, will start charging fees sometime in 1997, Carson says, probably from $10 to $35 a year--about the same price as a magazine subscription. The company also prints a profit-making newsletter on the same subjects, Education Today, which has 150,000 readers.
But no matter what the success rate of this newest generation of sites, they will undoubtedly help lure more new users to the Web. According to one September study, 24 percent of all U.S. households have computers with modems, up from 20 percent just six months earlier. Millions more explore the Web at work, where fast lines eliminate the irritating download waiting time. Now, if only someone would create a site that does the grocery shopping and folds the laundry.
Here are some addresses for some family-related Web sites:
Family Planet http://family.starwave.com/
Family Education Network http://www.families.com/