Baby sitters: Online, they're a hot commodity

Web sites promise to match parents, child-care providers

Family Matters

December 19, 2004|By Kate Shatzkin | By Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

It's a busy weekend for holiday parties, and somebody else has already hired your favorite baby sitter, your second favorite, your third through fifth choices, and that friend of a friend of a friend. Will you and your spouse be stuck at home with a video?

Or will you go online, type your ZIP code into one of a growing number of baby-sitting Web sites, find an available candidate and make the social scene at the last minute?

The Internet has become the latest place for parents and baby sitters to meet. For a fee, sites like sittercity.com, mynannycalledinsick.com and phoneababysitter.com allow parents to peruse lists of sitters by age, location and attri-butes like CPR training and proficiency in a foreign language.

Chicago-based sittercity.com advertises itself as the largest of the sites with about 50,000 baby sitters across the country, including the Baltimore area, where it recently opened its virtual doors.

Sittercity founder Genevieve Thiers started the service in 2001 after being a very busy student baby sitter at Boston College. Her answering machine often blinked with requests from friends of her clients, asking if she could take care of their children, too.

When she saw a pregnant woman desperately lumbering up the campus hills to put up fliers advertising for a sitter, Thiers knew there would be demand for her site, which she calls "match.com for parents."

"We have noticed that as the online dating services get more popular, we get more popular as well," Thiers said.

Sheila Kerr started mynannycalledinsick. com from her home near Toronto so she could find care for her three children. "It's made my life so much easier," she said.

Fees for parents to join the sites range from about $15 to $40, with some charging ongoing lower monthly or yearly maintenance fees. Baby sitters usually sign up free, although some sites charge sitters to list extra information about themselves.

Some sites have feedback functions, similar to those found on eBay or amazon.com, so that parents can "review" their experiences with baby sitters and vice versa. Sitters often are required to list at least one reference. And some sites post tips about how to interview a prospective baby sitter or family.

The 'stranger' factor

But the sites are careful to say that they're only meeting places -- and that they don't screen baby sitters or parents who participate. "We have no control over human nature," warns sitterland.com.

Kerr said her service "is just like putting an ad in the newspaper or putting up a sign in your neighborhood." Getting sitters through word of mouth isn't necessarily better, she said: "A friend of a friend is still a stranger."

But Eric Shih, an assistant professor of marketing at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., who studies online consumer psychology, thinks parents will be more leery about meeting caregivers online -- at least without assurances about the sitters they'll get.

"If the parents have to do all the work ... then the value of this diminishes greatly," said Shih. Though he knows the frustration of trying to find a sitter for his own young children, Shih said of the sites: "Personally, I wouldn't use them."

To allay those concerns, several sites are starting to offer background checks for an additional fee. Sittercity plans to offer sitters the option of paying for their own criminal checks, and advertising that they have done so on the site.

Karen Graveline, a North Baltimore mother, has been happy with the part-time nanny she found at enannysource.com. She went on the Internet only after word of mouth failed.

Graveline was able to post the specifics of her job for free. She interviewed two of the four candidates who answered, then bought a $149 enhanced membership that included their contact information and a background check on her final choice. The cost, she said, was much lower than going through a nanny agency.

"I guess I liked that I could go at my pace," Graveline said. "You're always nervous when it deals with your children."

Sitters, be careful

The safety concerns go both ways.

Sittercity requires its sitters to be at least 18. But some sites allow teenagers as young as 13 to take part.

That notion troubled Jane Aksoy, who teaches a baby sitters' training course at the American Red Cross of Central Maryland. "What we tell students in our class is that they only should baby-sit for parents that they know or that their parents know," she said.

Catherine Morris of Towson said her 15-year-old daughter, Lauren Bader, hasn't needed to go online -- she's found jobs in her neighborhood. But Morris wouldn't necessarily be opposed to it. "I could be proactive and meet the people," she said. "It becomes a network for providing you with the opportunity to get jobs."

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