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The best way of determining whether the Internet will ultimately prove to be a remarkable educational tool or a remarkable waste of time is to watch children as they use it.

So if you have any of the little darlings at a loose end this holiday, forget about the damage it will do to your phone bill and take advantage of the free trial offers being advertised by CompuServe, America Online, the Microsoft Network, Which? Online and some of the other Internet service providers.

Children quickly discover that the Net is the ultimate John Bull printing outfit which enables them not only to get their words in print but also to reach more readers than even Catherine Cookson can manage. There are several on-line magazines written by children, for children, where they can publish their letters, poems, stories and artwork. Another form of self-publishing becoming increasingly popular is where service providers give customers space on-line to create their own Web sites.

There is always something painfully self-conscious about mum and dad's contribution, but the kids seem to have no qualms whatsoever about broadcasting their news, views, jokes and favourite pics to the entire planet.

Giving children this kind of opportunity to contribute to the Internet is every bit as important as allowing them to explore the more erudite material that has already been published there. It teaches them that the Internet is theirs: that they, too, can be creators in the Digital Age and not its Beavis and Buttheads, cast permanently in the role of passive consumers. Between creative bouts, they will find plenty to keep them amused.

At first they will be tempted to treat the Web as a gargantuan compendium of games. They can, for instance, use it to play Battleships, Noughts and Crosses and Connect 4; they can twiddle remote Rubik's Cubes, join-the-dots or paint the picture on Bert's Coloring Page.

They quickly discover that this is very poor second-best to the far simpler alternative of inviting a pal around to play. But they will also find sites devoted to their favourite television programmes, pop groups and movies which provide them with a wealth of information that they couldn't possibly find elsewhere.

It's probably best to ignore the worksheets, the distance learning packages and the resources specifically designed for the classroom. There will be plenty of time for those later. There are, however, countless sites which are undoubtedly educational but which children will want to visit and re-visit simply because they are fun. They can, for example, gain free admission to hundreds of museums and galleries.

It goes without saying that a virtual tour, even one that uses every multimedia gimmick, doesn't bear comparison with the real thing. But it's certainly better than nothing. The same applies to seeing the pyramids, exploring the Amazon rain forest or watching a launch at NASA.

In theory, children could learn as much by dipping into books. But there isn't a library on the planet that contains this much information or that offers such an irresistible temptation to find out more.

It's true that files can take what seems like forever to download, and that the Net still has far too many blind alleys, red herrings and disappointments.

But children are better served than many other groups. They could do worse than start their search at the Yahooligans! search engine which contains a vast directory that lists other child-centred sites - and lists other direct-ories that list even more.

It has all been carefully vetted so you can allow your children to follow their fancy, safe in the knowledge that they won't encounter anything too distressing. You will, however. When your telephone bill arrives.

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