Post in our forum for parents, teens - You! - at

Friday, June 26, 2009

Meaty perspective on sexting

Teens sharing nude or provocative photos is not brand-new, says Dr. Richard Chalfen at the Center for Media and Child Health, and there are "at least 4 kinds of sub-cultures crucial to understanding the 'sexting' phenomenon"; "media culture," "digital culture," "intense visual culture," and "adolescent culture." Chalfen explains each one in "Teen Culture," the first of a very digestible three-part series. In Part 2, "Photo Sharing Behavior," he gives examples of "sexting" past, then talks about influences of the current media environment, including reports of adults misusing cellphone cams, intimate paparazzi photos of celebrities, ethically challenged citizen "photojournalists" and even professional photojournalists, reality TV, graphical language and stories in talkshows, and the general blurring of public and private. In Part 3, Dr. Chalfen discusses some of the consequences, with an eye toward family discussion. A related new resource - another project of the Center, a joint venture of Children's Hospital Boston, Harvard Medical School, and Harvard School of Public Health - is "Ask the Mediatrician," where people can email media-related child-health-related questions to and find in-site answers from Dr. Michael Rich, a pediatrician, parent, and director of the Center. It's a brilliant concept. I'd just like to see a search box in the site and - in answer to a question about Internet safety - a link to research down the street at the Harvard Law School's Berkman Center, "Enhancing Child Safety & Online Technologies," which found, among other things, that a child's psychosocial makeup and environment are better predictors of online risk than the technology the child uses.

Labels: , , , , , , ,

Undercover Mom in, Part 2: Talking numbers

By Sharon Duke Estroff

This week’s post continues detailing my investigation of Barbie Girls, and the crown jewels and skeletons in the closet that I uncovered there.

Crown jewel: Number-blocking filters
Part of the appeal of children's virtual worlds like exists in their conversational filters, one of the most notable functions of which is weeding out mention of any specific numbers in both written and numeric form (i.e. “7” or “seven”). The driving wisdom, here, is that without numbers, kids cannot reveal personal information such as age, address, and phone number - which could put them at risk of being targeted by an online predator. From a parental perspective, I found this feature both comforting and welcome. Not only does it place a significant barrier between Internet ne’er-do-wells and our children, it also helps to teach kids the difference between safe and unsafe online chat.

Skeleton in the Closet: Kids' own workarounds

But just how effective are these filters? Strictly speaking they get the job done. Every time I tried typing a number in Barbie Girls, a series of nonsensical symbols (i.e. #*#*) would appear in its place. But digital natives can be very clever and creative when it comes to working around Web site safety features. In one virtual world I visited, I witnessed kids asking one another “How many dots are you?” then tapping out the appropriate response with a sequence of periods. On Barbie Girls, a common tactic is using homonyms and rhyming words in place of numbers. I managed to snap a couple of screenshots demonstrating this technique in action during an open party in another Barbie Girls swanky studio apartment. In the first screenshot, PRINCESSCAALAZ is saying “Get it?” “The Number” “Won and Too” (meaning "12"). “Yes,” replies the avatar sitting next to her. Then, in the second screenshot, PRINCESSCAALAZ is stating that she is “the number before,” or 11. At this point, SALOOMY, the girl with the brown legwarmers, announces that she is “mine,” otherwise known as "nine."

Bottom Line: Indeed,’s conversational filters make it exceedingly difficult for kids to spill their essential 411 on the website. Parents should be aware, however, that it is not impossible for children to reveal their essential FOR WON WON on this or any other Web site. As in the real world, children’s virtual-world activity requires ongoing parental supervision and involvement.

More Barbie Girls to come next week! For an index of the complete Undercover Mom series to date, please click here.

Labels: ,

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Sexting legislative update

Vermont lawmakers reconfigured state child-pornography law so that "that minors caught sexting would not be charged with a felony and forced to register as sex offenders, so long as the incident was done voluntarily and without coercion," the Washington Times reports (I mentioned this earlier when a House vote was still pending). The Times adds that Utah and Ohio are considering similar tweaks. Prosecutors in some states, though, have decided that keeping the possibility of criminal charges for teens on the table is a good prevention measure. Some experts agree because they say sexting can be an element in teen dating violence, in which case malicious or criminal intent can be a factor. So sexting needs to be handled on a case-by-case basis, Carolyn Atwell-Davis, director of legislative affairs at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, told the Times. The only problem there is when a sexting case involving bad judgment, not malicious intent (for example this one in Pennsylvania, probably), gets into the hands of a prosecutor who doesn't have the kids' best interests at heart! Here's a commentary on this in the Los Angeles Times by David Walsh of the National Institute on Media and the Family.

Labels: , , ,

Sexting picture a bit clearer, maybe brighter

We all just got a little clearer picture on teen sexting (nude or sexy texting), and it's not quite as dark as previously painted. The first known (and widely cited) survey on the subject, by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, found that 20% of teens have "sent/posted nude or semi-nude pictures or video of themselves." The latest figure - in a new survey by Harris Interactive for the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children and Cox Communications - is very close to that (19%), but it's cumulative; there's a breakdown of who's involved in sexting and how. As ConnectSafely co-director Larry Magid reports in CNET, "the data from the Cox survey showed that, while 20% of teens "have engaged in sexting ... only 9% 'sent a sext,' ... 17% received one and 3% forwarded a 'sext'.... That 9% number is too high but it's less than half the 20% figure commonly used. And 90% of the kids who sent 'sexts' said that nothing bad happened, even though 74% of the kids agreed that sexting is 'wrong'. Twenty-three percent felt that it's OK if both parties are OK with it and only 3% said 'there is nothing wrong with it'." It's when "something bad happens" that we worry, because of the child-porn-related legal implications (see "Tips to Prevent Sexting" for more on that), but sexting can also turn into cyberbullying. And here's what's concerning about there: According to Clemson University psychology professor Robin Kowalski, kids don't want to tell parents or other adults about digital harassment because they fear 1) they'll be further victimized if the bully gets into trouble and retaliates and 2) their parents will remove their computers or cellphones - social lifelines - in an effort to protect them.

Labels: , , , , , ,

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

2 more sites sign on to Euro safe social networking

Popular social sites and, based in Estonia and Spain, respectively, have just signed on to the European Union's "Safe Social Networking Principles," the European Commission reported. They join earlier signatories Arto (Denmark), Bebo (UK/US), Dailymotion (France), Facebook, Google, Hyves (Netherlands), Microsoft Europe, MySpace, (Poland), Netlog (Belgium), (Italy), Piczo, Skyrock (France), (Germany), Sulake/Habbo (Finland), Yahoo! Europe, (Luxembourg). The seven principles are in this PDF document (p. 6), which states that "these Principles are aspirational and not prescriptive or legally binding, but are offered to service providers with a strong recommendation for their use."

Labels: , , ,

'Look, Ma, no textbooks!'

Even as, for obvious budgetary reasons, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced that digital textbooks are on the way and paper ones on the way out, a high school in Arizona proves it absolutely can be done. This year, Empire High School in Vail, Az., graduated its first class "to have started and completed their high school careers without the use of traditional textbooks," Tech&Learning reports (check out the great class photo!). Governor Schwarzenegger, whose plan is not without its critics, should sign a consulting contract with Empire's faculty and students! According to the Toronto Star's well-reported coverage, Schwarzenegger's plan is that as early as this fall, all high school math and science texts "will be entirely digital and, as the program rolls out, all textbooks on all subjects, K-12, will join them." Education reportedly accounts for about 40% of California's budget, and Schwarzenegger's talking about $2 million/year savings per 10,000-student district. "Come again, say critics," according to the Star. "Presuming teachers won't be just distributing print-outs and students will be given some sort of electronic device, aren't those savings wiped out?" Britain's Times Online says UK schools could well follow suit. [See also "Why participatory media need to be in school" and "School & social media: Uber big picture."]

Labels: , , , ,

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Why Gen Y's not into Twitter?

The bottom line: "We have everything we need on Facebook," says Gen Y CNET blogger Sharon Vaknin - though, despite an insightful post, she's pretty hard on her generation. First the numbers: She cites a recent Pace University/ Participatory Media Network study showing that 99% of 18-to-24-year-olds have social network profiles while only 22% use Twitter. Then she offers a little history on Gen Y's migration from creative expression to status updates. "We no longer impress our friends with profiles that represent us through our creative flourishes, but rather with profiles that spell out what we're doing.... What Facebook intends as a forum for sharing, Gen Yers see as a game of show-off." She cites examples of author and psychologist Jean Twenge's "narcissism epidemic" among her peers. "We do anticipate seeing our friends' activities, but what we really look forward to is what they think of our activities - we want to be 'cyberstalked,' preferably in the form of replies to our self-published content." So why not Twitter? Her reasons illustrate two important differences from FB: 1) Twitter, she says, is too one-dimensional, too text-y (e.g., "Sally went to a great party last weekend, but where are the photos? Who went with her?"), and 2) "updates on Twitter happen so fast there really isn't time to react ... my friends don't have time to react to my activities." I think the latter point is about how fleeting tweeting is, compared to status updates in Facebook, which stay until one replaces them. Twitter is like a real-time, ongoing, multi-person conversation - more like back chat in an online presentation, where people just put tweets "out there" without necessarily expecting anything to come back. It's a little like comparing apples and oranges, because a Facebook profile functions so differently - it's as much a representation of a person's social network as a person, which seems to be the greatest appeal for youth. Vaknin's conclusion may say more about how she feels about her generation than about Gen Y itself: "Largely as a result of the digital communication tools on which we were raised, a big part of my generation wants to know what the cyberworld thinks of us, and we want its inhabitants to pay attention to us." Here's more on this from author and youth tech consultant Derek Baird at BarkingRobot.

Labels: , , , ,

Monday, June 22, 2009

Cellphones in class: New study on cheating

On average, US teens send and receive more than 2,000 text messages a month, according to Nielsen figures, and a new study sponsored by Common Sense Media found that - despite many school policies to the contrary - a quarter of those texts are sent and received during class! Common Sense zoomed in on the opportunities this represents for cheating on texts, pointing to these key findings: 26% of students surveyed have stored notes on a cellphone to access during a test, 41% of the students surveyed say doing so is cheating and a 'serious offense'," and 23% don't think it's cheating; 25% of students have texted friends about answers during tests, 45% says this is "cheating and a serious offense," and 20% say it’s not cheating at all; 36% "say that downloading a paper from the Internet to turn in is not a serious cheating offense" and 19% say it isn’t cheating at all. "The results of this poll show a great need for a national discussion on digital ethics," Common Sense says in its press release. Hear, hear! There is no question a national discussion on digital ethics is needed - has been needed for some time - but not just with regard to cheating and plagiarism. What needs to be understood nationwide (worldwide, actually) is that ethics and the respect and civility associated therewith is protective as well. Ethics is protective of individuals and the communities - online communities and school communities - in which they function. And not just legally protective. Ethics, civility, respect, and citizenship mitigate aggression toward and disrespect for individual and collective rights and responsibilities. That is another national discussion we need to have, I feel.

But back to the important academics question. The other side of this needing to be addressed is what testing should look like in the digital age. As my ConnectSafely co-director Larry Magid writes in the San Jose Mercury News today, "Cheating is cheating regardless of whether you use technology or old-fashioned paper notes. But in addition to admonishing kids about why it's wrong to cheat, perhaps it's also time to rethink what it means to evaluate students in the age of the Internet and omnipresent mobile devices." Here's the San Francisco Chronicle on the Common Sense study, mentioning the organization's great new work in media literacy). [Here's my earlier post on the Nielsen teen-texting figure.]

Labels: , , , , , , , ,