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Girls part of children's market, too

Pundits at the Digital Kids '97 conference say developing content to include both sexes at the youngest age is the best way to rewrite the Net's gender discrepancies.

Sit your average adult today in front of a computer screen and tell him or her to start navigating, and the person will look at you like you're nuts.

But sit a kid--a really young kid, 2 or 3--in front of a computer screen filled with colorful graphics, and she or he will immediately grab the mouse and cruise.

That's why it's so important for companies wanting to stake out a space online to get there now, speakers said at the opening of Jupiter Communications' Digital Kids '97 conference.

And it's equally important that the Internet be developed differently than movies, television, or gaming, said Herb Scannell, president and CEO of Nickelodeon. His conference-opening keynote address emphasized the need to cater to girls as well as boys.

While advertisers and retailers may not yet totally understand either the significance of the children's online market or the market for girls, companies like Disney, Nickelodeon, the Learning Company, Microsoft, and America Online say they do.

"You have to remember these kids have grown up with computers," said Jake Winebaum, the president of Disney Online, who spoke on a panel following Scannell's talk. "It seems incredible to us that they understand the Internet; when they see a door on a screen, they go through it."

That's as true for girls as it is for boys, Scannell added. However, "TV, movies, and video games tell girls they're less important--that it's a boys world and girls had better get used to it. The sign over the entire video field is 'boys only.'"

But there's a reason for that, a solid, economic reason: Boys represent a proven market. "We do believe the Internet market is more male," said Gary Griffiths, president and CEO of SegaSoft. But, he added, like a lot of software companies out there, SegaSoft is planning to increasingly cater to girls.

You can thank Barbie, the inhumanly curvaceous plastic doll whose feet are permanently molded to wear high heels, for that, noted Kevin O'Leary, the president of the Learning Company who participated in the panel discussion. (Incidentally, the panelists were six men and one woman, all white.)

Retailers had been reluctant to give over valuable shelf space to products catering to girls until Mattel came out with a Barbie Fashion Designer CD-ROM, which caused a buying frenzy.

All of a sudden, retailers understood that the other half of the population could spend as much on high tech as boys did.

Laura Groppe, president of Girl Games, always knew that, she said after the panel discussion. But once Barbie sold 600,000 discs and actually encouraged parents to go out and purchase computers so their daughters could use the CD, the market knew it too.

Next year, the Learning Company's O'Leary predicted, the stores will be filled with software appropriate for girls. Groppe said she doubted it would happen that quickly or that efficiently, but it's a start.

"I worry if we're not careful the same conventional wisdom that infected video games might find its way into the online world as well," Scannell said. "Girls now feel the door to technology is open to them. Young girls like computers. They only stop liking them when we stereotype them."

Regardless of how well the market serves the genders, the people at the conference clearly understood that the girls' market is there and they want a piece of it. "From just the sheer economics of it, this thing is an expanding market," O'Leary said.

Advertisers, panelists added, eventually will understand too.