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October 29, 2004

Dear Subscribers:

Here's our lineup for this last week of October:

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Kids' self-victimization online

A 13-year-old boy in Washington State was arrested for posting 180 pornographic pictures, including photos of himself, in an online chatroom. After his first appearance in juvenile court, he was released to his parents while his case is pending, The Olympian reports. The case is baffling to the court and police, The Olympian adds, because of the boy's age. "Less than 3% of those arrested in child pornography cases are younger than 17." After the hearing last week, the boy's mother told reporters that "she thinks her son's dabbling with child pornography began out of curiosity and spun into something beyond his control. She said she thought the home computers had filters to block pornography."

How unusual is this case? I asked Michelle Collins, director of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children's Exploited Child Unit (ECU). She said that, unfortunately, it's not particularly unique. "We're seeing this more and more. I can think of at least 10 cases right now [that have been reported to the NCMEC's CyberTipline] where the child had transmitted images of himself or herself," she told me. "Up until about 18 months ago, I hadn't heard of this kind of case" (adults were nearly always the victimizers). Self-victimization, as Michelle called it, is still a small percentage of the some 2,500 CyberTipline reports the ECU gets a week. "It's not exactly an epidemic, but it is a very worrisome trend," she added. Especially since the law, meant to deal with adult perpetrators, hasn't caught up.

What explains this trend? "I can say that Webcams and digital cameras are much cheaper than they ever have been, so that technology lands in a lot more hands," Michelle said, pointing out how easy it is to snap a photo and send it off - with no extra step or human being to notice what's being processed and published. She also mentioned the "comfort level" afforded by online anonymity. "All of these are probably factors," she said. "Then put the technology in the hands of a teenager who might be curious or bored. One teenager we know of took photos of himself and transmitted them to someone he believed was a girl his own age online. It certainly could've been, but they're just not thinking about the fact that they might be sending them to strangers."

Marsha Gilmer-Tullis, director of the Center's Family Advocacy Division, told me in a separate interview that these children "really don't view it as victimizing themselves. Exposing themselves to other children is like a game they're engaging in or getting caught up in.... They don't think through the long-term implications for themselves," she added. Behavior like that of the just-turned-teenage boy in Washington State "isn't any big deal" in their minds - a small thing that spins out of control, taking them completely by surprise. "That's the thing we're always anxious to get across to them - you are victimizing yourself," Marsha added.

The devil-may-care attitude and behavior probably wouldn't surprise anyone who works with teenagers; it's the implications that have changed, as their social lives have moved onto the Internet. Private mistakes become very public. For the kids, "it's devastating," said ECU director Michelle Collins.

For more on this and the teen online social scene, please see:

If you feel a child is at risk of exploitation online, the CyberTipline can be reached in two ways, with equally fast action either way: with a toll-free phone call (800-843-5678) or via the Web ( Canada's hotline is at

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A dad writes: 'God sims' clarified

Reader, dad, and gamer Tim recently emailed me about a book review I cited in Harvard Business School's Working Knowledge. The book in question: "Managing the Gamer Generation." Interestingly, London University's Institute of Education just released a study finding that "games are a legitimate area of study in their own right," and "pupils should also be able to create their own games." See the BBC report on this. Here's Tim's correction on another part of my item on this, with some insights into "god sims":

"I recently found and have been enjoying your blog. As a dad of two, and a gamer myself, I enjoyed the link you provided showing that gaming may not just be the idle waste of time my parents thought it was.

"But a minor correction: 'Fable' isn't a 'god sim' [here's the BBC piece I cited on Fable's creator, Peter Molyneux]. Generally speaking, 'God sims' have a top-down perspective and feature an environment you can control, that automatons then populate. Generally speaking, despite their names, the player doesn't control the denizens of these worlds directly - you act instead as a deity who has more or less complete control of the world, and the creatures that populate it must live with the consequences of your decisions. Popular god games include 'The Sims,' and 'Sim City.' Historically, I believe the first of this genre was 'Populous,' and it's arguable that some strategy games (such as 'Civilization') have some elements of god games. Perhaps you were confused by the fact that Peter Molyneux, the creator of 'Fable,' previously released 'Black and White,' a god-type game.

"'Fable,' like 'Black and White,' does have a very strong ethical component - a player's choices in the game affect the game itself. 'Fable,' however, is a role-playing game; the player controls a single player's every move, but the environment the game is played in is controlled by the game, itself, not the player. While other games have tried to model the effects of moral (or immoral) behavior before, 'Fable' tries to hit a new high in changing how other characters in the game react to you based upon your ethical choices. It also has something of a novelty in a main character that ages and changes with experience."

I love hearing from readers. Email me corrections, insights, and stories about tech use at your house anytime:

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Web News Briefs

  1. Fairies top Halloween costume list

    Though we usually think of ghosts, ghouls, and other creepies right about now, fairies are the No. 1 costume pick, at least by JeevesIQ's measure of top searches (if there's a fairy wannabe at your house, check out the cute little numbers at The rest of the Halloween costume Top 10 were Disney characters, Native American costumes, pirates, angels, princesses, devils, witches, Spiderman, and cowboys - in that order.

    Speaking of Halloween, and in a twist on trick-or-treating safety, the Bend [Ore.] Bugle ran an article this week on cell phones as a Halloween "safety net."

  2. Families' PC struggle

    Millions of family PC owners think their PCs are secure (from viruses, spyware, hackers, etc.), when they're far from secure, a new study has found. The study, from America Online and the National Cyber Security Alliance, found that 77% of Americans believe their computer was "very or somewhat safe from threats" and 73% from viruses, while 67% had outdated anti-virus software and 15% didn't have any anti-virus software installed, the Washington Post reports. It's a natural expectation, that the computers we buy come protected, but the basic concept I think a lot of us don't understand is that, when connected to the Internet, computers - even though they come packaged in boxes - aren't stand-alone products. They're connected to a constantly changing environment that their users are trying to understand and get used to. Studies like this will be a great tool for computer makers as they respond to families' PC struggles. For more on those struggles and what to do about them, please see "What if our PC's a zombie?" in the July 16th issue.

    BTW, Mac users can expect greater security because of the way their operating systems were designed. There's an old myth that Windows PCs are more vulnerable because Windows has so many more users; here's a column by David Pogue of the New York Times that clears up that myth and gives four solid reasons why Apples are more secure. (There are, however, early signs that this is changing - see "Mac users face rare threat".)

  3. Porn on phone screens

    You might want to think twice before giving your child a cell phone with Web access. "Half of all wireless data content" - meaning Web content made accessible to those little cell phone screens - "is of an adult nature," Reuters reports. This is Web content specially designed for viewing on mobile phones, but it doesn't require super-sophisticated phones; it's available to just about any phone with a little screen that has been sold in the past year or so - for $5-$10 on top of your typical calling plan. "Mobile phone users around the world will spend $1 billion a year on pornography sent to their handsets by 2008," according to just-released Yankee Group market research cited by Reuters, and just as with the fixed Internet on our desktops, porn is expected to fuel the mobile phone service business. Vodafone, "the world's biggest mobile operator," has added child protections to its service in the UK, where Internet safety is a priority. Obviously the technology for cell-phone parental controls exists, but the US carriers have yet to adopt it. It's "in trials" at more than one carrier, said Chris Herrell, a spokesman for Boston-based BCGI, creators of the technology. For more on phone parental controls in the US, see my feature last May. And for info on Childnet International's pioneering work in Europe, see this page on their site.

  4. Apples on teen wish lists?

    Well, there may not be too many iPod Photos on teenagers' holiday lists (they're $499!), and the just-announced U2 iPod is cool because it's black, but U2 is "so corporate," I've heard. Still, iPods and G5 computers have been leading the pack, where coolness is concerned, and not just in the aesthetics department. They really work. According to the Wall Street Journal's Walt Mossberg, who reviewed three "supposed iPod killers" (Dell's Pocket DJ, the Rio Carbon and the Creative Zen Micro), the competition doesn't come close to the iPod in functionality. And the elegant G5 can do anything a Windows PC can do, reportedly (see "Freshest Apple"), with much more security (though that's just beginning to change - see "Mac users face rare threat").

    However, even though teenagers won't be scrambling for an iPod sporting the signatures of U2's musicians, this special-edition iPod is very interesting - as part of the ongoing recording-industry-vs.-music-fans debate. One analyst told Wired News he was following this one because he's very curious to see how other bands will work with MP3 player makers as a means of distribution. Music marketing has become very complex - from testing tunes on blogs like to pre-installed playlists on MP3 players - and our teenagers are key targets of all these methods and messages. [BTW, the iPod Photo - which Apple says will hold 15,000 music tracks and 25,000 photos, according to the BBC - is an interesting experiment too. Do people really want a photo album on their MP3 player? Hmmm.]

  5. The littlest gamers

    Their ranks are growing fast. A lot of 4-to-6-year-olds want to keep up with older gamers in their families and/or are finding conventional toys increasingly boring. In an article on this group of gamers, the New York Times points out recent Kaiser Family Foundation research showing that "half of all 4-to-6-year-old children have played video games - on hand-held devices, computers or consoles - and one in four played several times a week." The figure is 14% for kids 3 and under. "It is unclear whether video games teach preschool children more about phonics and problem solving than about simply how to tool around in a virtual playground. But everyone seems to agree that the ranks of young video gamers are substantial," according to the Times. That's great news for the likes of VTech, Atari, Techno Source, and other game and console makers. While PS2 and GameBoy will probably appear on a lot of little tykes' wish lists this season, systems like V.Smile and Leapster are the "training wheels" parents are more likely to go for - at least, that's what these marketers are counting on. But the big video game companies like Sony and Nintendo are also developing little-kid-style accessories and games that reach into the lower age levels. Who will win - big brands with little-kid bells and whistles or kid brands that purportedly teach phonics? Tell us what you think - via!

  6. Central filtering in Oz state

    The New South Wales state Education Department is testing a centralized filtering system for its school following the suspension of three students for viewing porn sites on school computers. According to Australian IT, the new filtering system is part of an $84 million plan to tighten Internet security in schools statewide. An Education Department spokesman "said increased security would ensure that inappropriate internet sites were blocked, bad language use stopped, and teachers could monitor chat rooms," Australian IT reports, adding that the system would not necessarily be able to block all overseas-based Web sites. It provides students with their own "electronic learning accounts" and email addresses.

  7. E-rate: Unconnected schools in Alaska

    In some rural schools, the Internet has become as essential as pencils and paper, and having e-rate funds on hold is a hardship, CNET reports. Take the Kuspuk School District, for example. It serves 416 students spread out over 12,000 square miles in southwestern Alaska - "only accessible by plane and, in the summer months, boats on the Kuskokwim River. Video conferencing over the Internet offered a perfect solution to the district's staffing shortage. The technology could be used to connect all nine of its schools, so that teachers and educational specialists could be shared throughout the district," according to CNET. Kuspuk was using e-rate funds (federal Net-connectivity subsidies for schools and libraries) for 90% of its Internet costs. The funding was put on hold while the Universal Service Administrative Company, which runs the e-rate program for the US Federal Communications Commission, is adopting new accounting rules. "The accounting changes and the ensuing chaos in the program have come at a time when the E-rate program is already under scrutiny from lawmakers over charges of fraud, waste and abuse," adds CNET, which does a great job of explaining this complicated problem.

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


Anne Collier, Editor

Net Family News

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