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October 31, 2003

Dear Subscribers:

Happy Halloween to all trick-or-treaters (and their costume advisers)! Here's our lineup for this last week of October:

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Family Tech: 2 key studies on 2 sides of the Atlantic

  1. US's littlest media consumers

    TV, computer, video, console games - to people 6 and under, it's just all "screen media," we noticed as we read the a just-released survey of 1,000 parents across the US, "Zero to Six: Electronic Media in the Lives of Young Children". The study, the first publicly released one of its kind in the US, was a joint project of the Menlo Park, Calif.-based Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) and the Children's Digital Media Centers (CDMC) at various universities around the country.

    Teens aren't the only ultra-wired (or unwired) people in the US. "Even the very youngest children in America are growing up immersed in media, spending hours a day watching TV and videos, using computers and playing video games," the KFF study found. "Children six and under spend an average of two hours a day using screen media (1:58), about the same amount of time they spend playing outside (2:01), and well over the amount they spend reading or being read to (39 minutes).

    Then there are the surprising "bedroom media" findings: "More than a third of all 0-to-6-year-olds (36%) have a TV in their bedroom," while 30% of 0-to-3- year-olds and 43% of 4-to-6-year-olds do (KFF reports that the American Academy of Pediatrics "urges parents to avoid television for children under 2"). As for other bedroom media, 27% of 0-to-6-year-olds have a VCR or DVD in their bedrooms, 10% have a video game player; and 7% have a computer (more important for teens, but a cardinal online-safety rule is not to have a connected computer in kids' bedrooms). Here are further arresting findings:

    • 'Heavy TV': 65% of 0-to-6-year-olds live in homes where the TV is left on at least half the time, even if no one's watching, and 36% live in homes where the TV is on "always" or "most of the time." (The study found that kids "who have a TV in their bedroom or who live in 'heavy' TV households spend significantly more time watching than other children do, and less time reading or playing outside.")
    • 48% of children six and under have used a computer (31% of 0-to-3- year-olds, 70% of 4-to-6-year-olds).
    • Video games: 30% have played video games (14% 0-3, 50% 4-6).
    • Under 2: 43% of those under two watch TV every day, and 26% have a TV in their bedroom; and in any given day, 68% of children under two will use a screen medium, for an average of just over two hours (2:05).
    • Gender, the study found that "there do not appear to be many differences in how boys and girls use media at the youngest ages."
    • Parents: 72% of parents think using a computer "mostly helps" children's learning (parents' views begin on page 8 of the pdf-format report).

    There was a note of urgency in the study's conclusion: "The impact that this level of media exposure has on children's development is unknown, but one thing is certain: it is an issue that demands immediate attention from parents, educators, researchers, and health professionals." Here's coverage in the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Associated Press.

  2. UK's 9-to-19-year-olds on the Net

    Recent conversations that two London School of Economics professors had with 14 focus groups of UK kids and teens confirmed that we face another kind of "digital divide" - the generational one. Profs. Sonia Livingstone and Magdalena Bober found that this generation gap may be a lasting one because of children's willingness to experiment with technology (and adults' hesitancy).

    What we learned from the report, "Children Go Online: Listening to young people's experiences," is that - though parents are catching up in the tech-literacy area - they need to get more sophisticated in working with their children who, despite their (kids') technical prowess, are still "relatively trusting and uncritical" about their experiences on and with the Net. If parents use too much in the way of filtering and monitoring technology (the report found that young people are "particularly frustrated by overly restrictive or inefficient filtering"), there is the risk of communication breaking down and/or kids going elsewhere for access - because the Net is now so embedded in their lives. Heads up: The report cites one 15-year-old's comment that "talking to your parents about the Internet is bad for you. They might try and think about taking the Internet off your computer."

    Because young people's technical sophistication is way ahead of their critical judgment, adults need to think about how best to provide support for constructive use. Among the authors' recommendations is "Developing critical evaluation skills": "Being able to make informed evaluations of online sites and services is crucial if children are both to benefit from online opportunities and to avoid the dangers. Hence, while parents, teachers, and others should continue to value children's expertise, it should be recognised that they also need continued guidance in use of the Internet" - because, we would add, the ability to distinguish fact from fiction, is extremely helpful whether they're confronted with online hate, pornography, sales of "prescription" drugs, get- rich-quick scams, or a pedophile well-practiced in grooming unsuspecting kids in chatrooms, on phones, or in instant-messaging. [For more on this, see our lead feature on critical thinking, 5/30/03.]

    Other young-user realities:

    • Empowerment at home: "Both girls and boys gain significant, perhaps even unprecedented, social status and domestic power through the value that adults place on this [tech] expertise." This, we'd add, can be harnessed to increase family communication and support parent-child mutual respect.
    • Nuanced communications: "While adults tend to judge online communications against an ideal of face-to-face conversation, young people evaluate a wide range of options - face-to-face, email, instant message, chatrooms, phone, SMS - according to their communicative needs. Their criteria include immediacy, message complexity, mobility, cost, privacy, and embarrassment.
    • File-sharing & hacking: "Teens especially were keen to discuss alternative forms of expertise. In addition to, or even more than, educational skills, they place a high value on music file-sharing, hacking, and communication skills as central to their peer culture."
    • Net's embedded, but...: "Enthusiasm for the Internet, though considerable, remains less than for other activities - going out, meeting or phoning friends, watching television. Seen as a great convenience, young people remain confident they could do all they need or wish without the Internet if necessary."
    • Online safety vs. social status: "Most young people see little point in talking to strangers on the Internet, regarding unknown online contacts as 'dodgy'." BUT "Some are motivated to acquire social status through making new contacts online."

    These are preliminary, qualitative findings in a two-year study slated to end in spring of 2005. But there's a wealth of interesting information in this 43-page doc, including the case-studies of Megan (12), Anisah (15), and Ted (18) from very different walks of life, and the focus group findings with lots of quotes from the teens themselves. Brief media coverage can be found at the BBC, The Guardian, and Webuser magazine.

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Web News Briefs

  1. 90% of US 5-to-17-year-olds use computers

    ...and 59% of them use the Internet, according to a new US Education Department (DOE) analysis of its 2001 data on the subject. The figures confirmed what many suspected: the numbers on kids' computer and Internet use are higher than those of adults. "Even kindergartners are becoming more plugged in: One out of four [25% of] 5-year-olds uses the Internet," 60% of 10-year-olds, and 80% of 16- year-olds, the Associated Press reports. Another report from DOE found that 99% of public schools now have Internet access (with a connected computer for every five students). As for the gender gap and digital divide, the former has almost completely vanished, but the gap between Net-access haves and have-nots remains: "Almost two-thirds of young white people use the Internet, but less than half of black people ages 5 to 17 do, and slightly more than a third of Hispanic young people log on." Consequently, the study found, "more children and teens use computers at school than at home."

    But look at another finding from the DOE's latest analysis: Despite Internet accessibility at school, "young people are more likely to access the Internet at home than at school" - a phenomenon that might be explained by another article this week, from Tech Central Station. Using the Net at school is problematic for kids: "They can't get to Net-linked computers locked in the lab. Their searches are blocked by intrusive anti-porn filters. Some teachers don't give Internet-based assignments; others don't know how to design an engaging, useful assignment using the Internet," Tech Central Station reports. It adds that the US Education Department is working on a new National Education Technology Plan, which DOE says is taking student input into consideration (see too our report on NetDay's "Speak Up!" for students, 10/17).

  2. New digital-divide data

    Though the gap between computer and Net haves and have-nots is narrowing in many countries, aspects of it are not - in so-called advanced countries, as well as developing nations. In a comparative study of "eight markets," the Global Consumer Advisory Board found that in the US, the UK and Japan, the "gender divide" is decreasing. But in China, Germany, Italy, Korea, and Mexico women still lag behind in tech access. The study also found that the US "is slower than other advanced markets in adopting technologies such as mobile Net access and broadband, where Japan and South Korea lead respectively. CNET has a report on this.

  3. MIT students have a P2P answer?

    They've come up with one solution for universities, anyway. MIT students Keith Winstein and Josh Mandel have, in a Microsoft-funded student project, come up with a way for schools to have the file-sharing without the lawsuits. A timely discovery, if it takes off, because "college students are among the most enthusiastic file-swappers, and universities are exploring ways, such as fee- based systems, to give their students legal access to music," Australian IT points out. [A later story in the L.A. Times this week did report that the students' design ran into a licensing snag, but they're working on fixing it.]

    In any case, it's kind of ingenious. Called LAMP (for Library Access to Music), it's like a cross between radio and file-swapping. Users go to a Web page and choose one of 16 channels in MIT's cable TV network. The controller, who has control of the channel for up to 80 minutes (tho' anyone can tune in and listen), picks songs from among 3,500 CDs - "all suggested by students in an online survey over the past year" that Winstein and Mandel have compiled. The music is then pumped into the user's room on that channel and played through a TV, a laptop with an audio jack or external speakers. Any school can operate this legal music network for a few thousand dollars, Winstein and Mandel say.

    Australian IT and the New York Times explain how the complicated LAMP solution stays within the bounds of copyright law. But it also does something quite possibly more important: highlights and tests the copyright system's flaws. We can't resist the Times's quote on this from Harvard Internet law Prof. Jonathan Zittrain: " 'It's almost an act of performance art,' Mr. Zittrain said. Mr. Winstein, he said, has 'arrayed the gerbils under the hood so it appears to meet the statutory requirement' - and has shown how badly the system of copyright needs sensible revamping."

    BTW, the RIAA filed 80 more lawsuits against file-sharers this week - 80 out of the 204 who'd been threatened with litigation. The RIAA said the other 124 people had approached its lawyers about settling, the Washington Post reports.

  4. Three new scary games for Halloween

    But watch out, they'd scare even experienced gamers, the New York Times reports. For example, Ghost Master, a strategy game from Sick Puppies, pits the living against the dead on missions with titles like "Phantom of the Operating Room" and "Poultrygeist" (at an ancient chicken burial ground, don't ya love it?). Halloween's almost past as we publish this issue, but in case goblins in your family are seeking "virtual haunts," another New York Times article says "you can experience the entire holiday without leaving your computer."

  5. UK's new legal music service

    Billing itself "the world's first royalty paying ISP," PlayLouder MSP launched in the UK. "MSP" stands for "music service provider," which explains what's different about this service. It provides a broadband Internet connection (with an ISP partner) as well as file-sharing in a "walled garden" environment, according to The Register. It may not have quite as broad appeal as, say, Apple's iTunes, but it has "secured backing and music from independent record labels XL Recordings, Beggars Group, V2 Music, PIAS Recordings and Ninja Tune," The Register reports, adding: that the service "has also secured licence agreements with MCPS-PRS, the licensing body that collects royalties on behalf of music publishers." (See "Canada's new music service," 10/17, for another such service outside the US.)

  6. Georgia high school students sue school

    They were suspended because of criticism of a teacher which they'd posted in another student's Web site. The students and their fathers, with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Georgia, filed suit in an Atlanta federal court, seeking "to have the school's policies found unconstitutional on the grounds they infringe on the students' First Amendment rights of free speech," the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports. "The suit also seeks a court order that expunges from school records any reference to the students' discipline and suspensions." The lawsuit says the Web site was created as " an outlet to provide students, teachers and parents at Brookwood High School or other citizens a place to vent and post comments concerning a particular [Brookwood] teacher ... with whom many students were experiencing frustration and difficulty." Our thanks to BNA Internet Law for pointing this item out.

  7. 17-year-old in Brisbane arrested

    The teenager, whose identity couldn't be reported until his case went to court, was accused of hacking into the network of a major Australian Internet service provider, Australian IT reports. Internet crime investigators searched the boy's home and workplace after receiving a complaint from the ISP. A federal investigator told Australian IT that "he hoped the arrest served as a warning to would-be hackers, and appealed to any ISPs who believed they had been hacked to contact the [Australian High Tech Crime] Centre.

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Spam's hot: Useful news for family Net users

Spam was as plenteous in the news this week as it was in everybody's in-boxes! (The Washington Post agrees that it monopolized headlines). Here are some news items useful to home PC users.

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That does it for this week. Have a great weekend!


Anne Collier, Editor

Net Family News


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