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June 24, 2005

Dear Subscribers:

Here's our lineup for this third week of June:


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Net-related crimes against kids: Reality check

There are four key things parents should know about Net-initiated sex crimes against kids: 1) the victims are usually younger teens, 2) they don't think of their assailants as strangers, 3) they didn't feel they were deceived, and 4) these crimes, as much as we hear about them, represent a fraction of overall sexual exploitation of children in the US (I'm looking for more recent figures but, in 2000, there were 500 arrests for Net-related crimes out of 65,000 overall).

This was my take-away from a survey by the University of New Hampshire's Crimes Against Children Research Center of law-enforcement agencies, offering insights into the cases they've handled. Here are some highlights:

This information is from "Internet-initiated Sex Crimes against Minors: Implications for Prevention Based on Findings from a National Study," by Janis Wolak, David Finkelhor and Kimberly J. Mitchell, in the Journal of Adolescent Health, November 2004.

Readers, for helpful insights on this from a fellow parent and the co-author of this study, Janis Wolak, see "Rethinking 'stranger danger' for teens," Part 1 and Part 2, based on an interview with Janis.

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Web News Briefs

  1. When it stops being funny

    The "it" in the headline is people's behavior in IM-ing, blogging, and other online social venues. CNET tells three compelling stories, the first about a 13-year-old who stopped his 2-3 hours of IM-ing a day (that started when he was 11) because he and his friends were spending all that time just insulting each other, and after a while it made him "feel terrible." That's the only story of the three with an upbeat ending. No. 2 is really a phenomenon: happy-slapping. More well-known in the UK but happening in the US, it's "an extreme form of techno-bullying where physical assaults are recorded on mobile phones and distributed to Web sites and other phones via video messaging." Just recently, three 14-year-old Britons were arrested "in connection with the alleged rape of an 11-year-old girl whose attack was videotaped and sent to peers at her North London school," CNET reports. Story 3 is about "Moshzilla." A 19-year-old goes to a San Diego hardcore rock show, snaps photos of people "moshing" (dancing and slamming each other in the mosh pit), and posts them in his site. "One funny but arguably less-than-flattering picture of a young woman ... sparked the imaginations of viewers, who Photoshopped the mosher into a range of poses, including dancing in an iPod ad...." Some of the images depicted the girl in sexually explicit poses. She became known as Moshzilla (only an interview with her is left at Moshzilla.com, a site in her "honor" which was up on the Web for 48 hours, taken down, it says, at the girl's request). However, "within a few weeks," CNET continues, "the photos had spread to multiple message boards, some of which were attracting a quarter of a million hits and 30 responses a page." How online social cruelty, or cyberbullying, can go global and irretrievable is what both parents and kids really need to be aware of. For more on this, see "Cybersocializing, cyberbullying."

  2. 'No child['s data] left behind'

    In a new tack for military recruitment efforts, the Pentagon is using a direct-marketing firm to help put together "an extensive database about teenagers and college students," the Los Angeles Times reports. "The initiative, which privacy groups call an unwarranted government intrusion into private life, will compile detailed information about high school students ages 16 to 18, all college students, and Selective Service System registrants." The database will include Social Security numbers, email addresses, grade-point averages and ethnicities. The Times adds that the No Child Left Behind Act allows the Pentagon to gather the home addresses and telephone numbers of public-school students.

  3. Child-porn chat shut down

    The first thing that happened was that ads were pulled because they were - apparently without the knowledge of the advertisers - associated with "gut-wrenching chat room titles like 'Girls 13 And Up For Much Older Man'" and worse at Yahoo Chat, WebProNews.com reported. Yahoo has since shut the "hundreds, if not thousands, of chatrooms" down, KPRC reported this week. "The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children said the closed chat rooms would make an incredible difference in keeping children safe online," KPRC added. The x-rated rooms were buried somewhere among the thousands of chatrooms behind Yahoo Chat's nearly 20 subjects, from Business to Movies to Health & Wellness. Houston TV station KPRC ran an investigative report on the ads' positioning. "The exposť led to ... a $10 million lawsuit filed on behalf of child victims, and huge corporate entities pulling their ads from Yahoo," according to WebProNews. Pepsi, Georgia Pacific, and State Farm Insurance were among the companies that pulled ads. US Rep. Ted Poe (R) of Texas told KPRC that new legislation is needed. "Currently, there is no legislation in place that provides for prosecution of the chat room organizers. Only civil liability can be assessed under current law, WebProNews reported. Here's KPRC's original report.

  4. P2P pests on BitTorrent

    Families with file-sharers need to know that spyware and adware are showing up on BitTorrent, the world's most popular file-sharing tool. "Purveyors of the applications that produce pop-up ads on PC screens and track browsing habits have discovered BitTorrent as a new distribution channel," CNET reports. This is new. Previous-generation file-sharing services like Kazaa were widely known to be riddled with these pests, which hurt PC performance. Now, users of BitTorrent are dealing with them. An example CNET gave was a copy of Fox TV's "Family Guy," which arrived on a security researcher's PC "bundled with several pieces of known adware." The researcher said that could really reduce the performance of the average family PC. Usually, when downloading a media file, file-sharers will see on their screens "a dialog box advising that the extra software was about to be installed." It gives the impression, CNET says, that you need to install the extra software to get access to the desired file. However, the security researcher found, if you just decline the adware or spyware license a couple of times, you get the file without installing the pests. See also "File-sharing realities for families" and InformationWeek on a new FTC study on P2P's benefits and risks - more on the study next week.

  5. File-sharing's 'normal': Study

    The anti-piracy message media companies are sending file-swappers doesn't seem to be getting through. The BBC reports that, at least in the UK, people don't see downloading copyrighted material as theft, according to a government-funded study called "Fake Nation" by researchers at the University of Central Lancashire and the University of Manchester. The study was previewed at this week's gamemakers' "summit" in London. The authors also found that "not having to pay for games was particularly attractive for teenagers, as it meant they had more money for other things." Meanwhile, the Associated Press reports, recording companies have adopted an "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" approach (or added it to the litigation part of their campaign). "In the last few months, major record labels have signed licensing deals with companies working to field file-swapping services that would block unauthorized files from being traded online."

  6. UK mom sued for child's file-sharing

    Sylvia Price, mother of a 14-year-old file-sharer and "self-confessed computer illiterate," received a letter demanding 4,000 pounds (about $7,300) "in compensation by solicitors acting for the music industry," The Guardian reports. She is not alone. The letter was part of the third wave of legal actions in the UK taken by the recording industry trade group there, as well as the more than 10,000 lawsuits filed against file-sharers in the US. Mrs. Price told The Guardian she didn't know where she was going to get the money. Her daughter told the paper that she didn't know her file-sharing was illegal - everybody at school was doing it. She had downloaded 1,400 songs for free, but she said she thought she'd been "picked on" because her computer was always on and the songs are her hard drive were available to other file-sharers. The $7,300 is apparently a settlement charge; Price "has until July 1 to pay the BPI [British Phonographic Industry] or face a civil action." I wonder if UK citizens can join a US class-action suit (see "Family sues P2P service")? Meanwhile, litigation is making it tough for some online music retailers too. One of the world's oldest cheap-online-music sites, Weblisten.com in Spain, has shut down "after years of legal battles with record labels," CNET reports.

  7. Senator condemns new game

    Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York says "25 to Life" takes video games to a new "all-time low," CNET reports, adding that it makes Grand Theft Auto look like "Romper Room" (remember that little-kids show, fellow baby-boomers?). "The new video game lets players 'be the law' or 'break the law,' taking the side of police or thugs in running gun battles through a grimy urban landscape. The criminals use human shields in fights, while police call in special weapons and tactics units," according to CNET. The senator is discouraging sales and distribution of the game when it's released this summer. Its maker, Eidos, declined to comment. "25 to Life" is rated M (17+) by the Entertainment Software Rating Board for "blood and gore, intense violence, sexual themes, strong language and drug references."

  8. UK parents ignore game ratings: Study

    Although most UK parents surveyed knew video games had age ratings, they tend to ignore them, according to a new study by Swiss research firm Modulum, commissioned by the UK games industry. The study was presented at an industry "summit" in London this past week. It "found that parents let children play games for adults, even though they knew they were 18-rated," the BBC reports, citing Modulum's Jurgen Freund as saying that most parents think the games won't influence their children - they're "mature enough" to handle them. Parents were more concerned about the amount of time kids were spending on gameplay, the study found. And, ironically, an 18+ rating tends to promote games more than deter their purchase. But here's an even more important finding: "The problem was that parents felt disconnected from the world of video games and so showed little interest in this aspect of their children's lives." The BBC provided a bit of background: Violence in video games "rose to prominence last year when the parents of a 14-year-old blamed the game Manhunt for his death. Police investigating the murder dismissed its influence, and Manhunt was not part of its legal case. But the case rekindled the debate over 18-rated games that appeared to relish in gore and carnage."

  9. A pro gamer's story

    "The world's top PC gamer," no less, as the BBC describes 24-year-old Jonathan Wendel, who started playing video games when he was five. When he was 18, his father was about to pull the plug, wanting him to get a job or go to school full-time, when Jonathan asked if he could just try one tournament. If he made "significant money," he'd keep competing, if not, he'd go to college. His father agreed, and Jonathan won 3rd place and $4,000. He has since traveled from one competition to another around the world, "winning six Cyberathlete Professional League championships, the only gamer ever to do so," according to the BBC. He is now "Doom 3's first-ever world champion, according to the Twin Galaxies' Official Video Game and Pinball Book of World Records, the industry's official record book." Looking back over his teenage years, Jonathan said gaming was his stress-reliever - a way to get away from parents, school, and part-time dishwashing into his own little world. "But Jonathan does not fit the stereotypical image of the gamer as an anti-social loner in his bedroom. During his teens, he was a keen athlete, playing American football, baseball, hockey and tennis." Maybe he's the Tony Hawk of video games. For an overview on the gamemaking biz, see this BBC piece on the recent two-day summit in London of UK entertainment software publishers.

  10. Adobe Reader patch needed

    Family PC patch needs keep growing, it seems. If members of your family ever click to pdf files (the kind that make Adobe Reader software load oh so slowly before we can read them) - and most of us do every now and then (for in-depth articles and research that their publishers don't want cut 'n' pasted elsewhere) - you need a patch Adobe has just issued. The Washington Post's security expert, Brian Krebs, said that when he opened a pdf doc over the weekend, his Reader software prompted him to download a patch, which he did. It gets rid of "a fairly serious security flaw," he said in his blog - one that allows hackers to read other docs on our hard drives. If you don't get that prompt, he provides a link to the patch at Adobe.com. Meanwhile, hackers are looking beyond the Windows operating system for security exploits, ZDNET reports. "As the pool of easily exploitable Windows security bugs dries up, hackers are looking for holes in security software to break into PCs." They're now seeking security flaws in security software! "Antivirus software is like low-hanging fruit to hackers," a new Yankee Group study has found. There's nothing families can do about this at the moment. It just says to antivirus companies it's time to start "acknowledging and fixing potential problems in their code."

  11. Finding something near you

    Another option for local searchers got added to the mix today. MSN has beefed up its Local search tool, CNET reports. Now "a local search on 'auto mechanics' will display listings of nearby mechanics, repair shops and towing companies. Each result will be shown as a numbered pin on a corresponding map from Microsoft MapPoint Web Service, and aerial images from TerraServer-USA will appear when available." To try it, click on "Local" at MSN Search and type in "pizza" (I can definitely see a college application for this!). Yahoo and Google provide similar local search services. Here's the Associated Press on this.

  12. Way connected teens

    Not just to some abstract thing called "the Net," these teenagers are connected much more specifically. And fluidly, from computer-based IM-ing to phone talking to phone texting. An insightful Los Angeles Times article, "24/7, Teens Get the Message," points to 15-year-old Will, who spends an average of 5.5 hours a day and 10,000 minutes a month on his cell phone. He just leaves the phone on, with a buddy spending "entire days - together, but apart - shopping, snacking, doing homework, and even nodding off to sleep" (thank god for free calling with fellow Cingular, Verizon, etc. users!). Eighteen-year-old Kaleese "spends almost 10 hours a day on the phone" and jokes with the reporter that her cellphone is "a drug." Other highlights: "15-year-old girls are now the world's top consumers of computer chips," according to a semiconductor company's research cited by the Times. The 100+ buddy lists: 13-year-old Ryan's has 110 people on it, "mostly people he sees regularly and all of whom he messages at least occasionally in this rite of bonding overbandwidth." A social necessity, because otherwise he'd miss something in the life of the peer group, which just can't happen, not if you want to be popular. The control piece: As opposed to voice communication, in texting and IM, you can think before you say something - an argument, for some teens, for breaking up with someone online. One 14-year-old with a conscience said she saw online breakups as "a level below face-to-face conversation," but it gives one time to think and reduces the "emotional factor." Has this one come up at your house? Do email any experiences you and your kids have had with electronically enhanced socializing - and wisdom shared in either direction! (See also "IM anthropology: 11-to-15-year-olds' virtual community.")

  13. Screen reading

    Reading is so much less linear now. One reason is more and more of it is being done on screens - computer monitors, cellphones, etc. Another reason is the way it's done on-screen: hopping from one (Web) page to another and back because of hyperlinks. A third is how annotated reading is getting. We don't just read an article, play, story, etc. on screen - we also read commentary on it (what those hyperlinks link to). An example offered by the Christian Science Monitor in "How the Web changes your reading habits" is Hamletworks.org. "When completed, the site will help visitors comb through several editions of the play, along with 300 years of commentaries by a slew of scholars. Readers can click to commentaries linked to each line of text in the nearly 3,500-line play. The idea is that some day, anyone wanting to study 'Hamlet' will find nearly all the known scholarship brought together in a cohesive way that printed books cannot."

  14. 'What's ok to say in blogs?'

    The article in the Palm Beach Daily News doesn't answer that question - quite possibly because it doesn't have an answer yet. None of us really do. The article's about grownups blogging, zooming in on a couple of bloggers who have "joined an army of angry exes, embittered employees and rancorous relatives who air their grievances to a potential audience of millions." But it raises issues kids and parents might want to consider too. "Although some people are posting innocuous information about everything from politics to poetry, many bloggers have axes to grind online. The full legal, ethical and interpersonal implications of these virtual vendettas are just beginning to be explored," the Daily News reports. One of the implications is what potential employers or friends might find in future Web searches about people - parents, ex-boy- or girl-friends, teachers, etc - who've been blogged about, if their names are used in posts. See my item last week about kids needing to become their own spin doctors and "Teacher to parents: Be wary of teen blogs."

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

Sincerely,

Anne Collier, Editor

Net Family News


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