As Internet content struggles to attract a paying audience, there's at least one multimedia package that busy parents will surely consider buying.

The reason: It stars their own children.

ParentWatch, a privately held New York company, has installed cameras in thousands of childcare centers across the country. For about $25 a month, parents with children in these centers can watch streaming video feeds from those cameras on their home or office PC.

It sounds like a great idea, particularly to the father of a 17-month-old girl who spends three days a week in childcare. But after talking it over with my wife and my daughter's caretaker, I realized the issues raised by these webcams could be as troubling as the feelings that come with leaving your child in someone else's care.

The upside is easy to see. When we first started taking Reilly to a childcare center, she wailed and cried when we dropped her off. The employees assured us that she calmed down and had some fun after we left, but we would have loved to see that for ourselves. We also wondered about the quality of care, since the caretakers were outnumbered four to one by children under 12 months old.

ParentWatch cameras could have helped ease our worries or prove they were well-founded. The company's home page (www.parentwatch.com) touts easily believed testimonials from parents who say the service makes them feel more involved in their children's lives. "He is only 3 months old and it broke my heart to return to work," one mother says. "This will definitely make my return from maternity leave much easier."

Access by password

Subscribers can access video from their child's daycare center with passwords that can be shared with relatives who want to peek in on the kids from time to time. While a Reilly webcam might torpedo my mom's workplace productivity, I'm sure she'd treasure a chance to see her granddaughter without making a 120-mile drive from her house to mine. Heck, she'd probably pick up the tab it's less than she and my dad are spending now for gas.

But those passwords were my wife's first cause for concern. She figures our relatives are the sort to leave passwords written on sticky notes taped to their monitors or conveniently saved in some Windows cache file. That leaves open the possibility that someone else could start spying on our kid, a remote yet troublesome addition to the worries already associated with parenthood.

More serious were the concerns raised by Reilly's new caretaker. Since we moved our daughter into this woman's center a few months ago, we no longer worry that she isn't being cared for properly. (If anything, we fret about keeping up with the standard of care she gets there.) But we'd still like to see what Reilly is up to, since we're assured she's doing plenty of cute stuff while we're toiling away at work.

What you don't see

Our caretaker, though, said she'd worry about what the cameras wouldn't show us. Webcams aren't exactly known for their clarity, and they'd be shooting from the corners of a room lit mainly by sunlight. Under these conditions, you couldn't possibly follow your child's activities at all times.

It also would be easy to misinterpret what you do see in a typically choppy streaming video feed. It might seem that a simple fall resulted from another child's push, or that a worker who is comforting a screaming little boy is actually hurting him. Can you imagine a lawsuit based on something parents thought they saw on a webcam? My caretaker doesn't want to, since a single case would likely shut down her small center.

Ultimately, she said, it comes down to trust. I wouldn't want to work with a camera over my shoulder, and I can't blame her if she feels the same way.

My caretaker isn't going to call ParentWatch anytime soon, and I plan on keeping Reilly under her care as long as I can (I'm hoping she takes teen-agers). But I can't help wishing that webcams came with less baggage attached. The Internet provides me with a good many wonders, but I can't think of any more appealing than a new window into my child's world.

To contact syndicated columnist Joe Salkowski, you can e-mail him at joes@azstarnet.com or write to him c/o Tribune Media Services, Inc., 435 N. Michigan Ave., Suite 1400, Chicago, IL 60611.

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