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September 30, 2005

Dear Subscribers:

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

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A mom's heads-up: Teens in chat

As huge as IM is with kids and teens these days, chat has not gone away, Lauren, a mom in California, is here to tell you.

Mother of two boys 13 and 10, Lauren has configured the parental controls on the computer they use so they cannot chat online, and their computer is one of two she has placed "side by side so can I watch all their online activity."

Why so hands-on? Because of her own experience in online chat. Lauren recently emailed me an "open letter to all parents who have teens online" because of it. Lauren's a biker and has for years been "a regular in an AOL chatroom called 'Biker Bar 1'.... It's not the normal 'pick up' chat room," she wrote, saying the people who spend time there are "mainly just other adults with a love of riding."

"I spend half my time in there chasing teenagers out, telling them that there is no one their age there, and most of us have kids their own age. Now for the point of my letter: Parents, get your computer out of your child's room! People talk about the predators online, but I don't think they have a clue what teenagers are doing! I've seen kids as young as 13 asking for cyber[sex]. When I've told them there's no one their age there, I've gotten answers like, 'So, I like older guys'," Lauren said. "Get a program that will log your child's instant messages and chat activity, and I think you would be shocked at what your child has been doing. Thank you for giving me a place to say this."

I emailed Lauren back to find out more about the level of kids' visits in her chatroom, and she wrote, "It depends on the day. During the summer we get tons. A lot are very nice, and when I point out to them there is no one their age there, they just leave. The ones that get snotty and cuss at me, I report to AOL. I figure their parents will get a log of what their child is doing." [Lauren later explained what many AOL members probably know: "When someone is reported to AOL, a log of what was said is sent to the master screenname, which is usually the parent."]

"We get a lot of kids late at night" in the chatroom she uses, "who go on the PC after their parents have gone to sleep," Lauren continued. "That's the reason for my point about not having the PC in the child's room. I have one 14-year-old I deal with on a regular basis that comes in the room saying she is alone in her room. I have told this child time and time again how unsafe it is for her to be doing this, but she doesn't seem to care."

How does she know they're kids? "My friends say I have 'kidar' [kid radar] - I can spot a kid. A lot of the time they give their age. But it's also the way their [screen]name is written, like 'IaMnOtAtEeN' or the way their profile is written. Oh, and that's another point: Do parents not read their kids profiles? I have seen kids' full names, cities, and states in their profiles - drug references, sexual references in kids' profiles."

She sent some examples of teenagers' comments in the chatroom. I've edited these a bit and shortened screennames to protect their owners while giving a feel for teenage-style screennames for anyone who hasn't seen plenty of them:

"HabitatSk8r: any hott older ladies wanna chat 2 a ... 16/m/ny im me." [You can probably tell he's saying he's 16, in New York State, and inviting an instant message. Here are a few more examples Lauren sent me from chatroom activity this month....]

"Dragons...08: 15/m/tx pic on pro im me to chat
"Jk...4: 18f/pics IM me if u want
"ABeat: sup,any girls wanna cyber with a 13/m/tn with pics im me"

With these and other more graphic examples, Lauren wrote, "This is the reason I wanted to write the open letter to parents. They really need an eye-opener."

[I always appreciate hearing from parents and kids about their online experiences - they can be helpful to other readers. The address:]

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Chat in the news

A new survey sponsored by Zone Labs found that 94% of consumers surveyed by Harris Interactive "agreed that the Internet presents a threat to children," and 61% cited predators in chatrooms as the biggest threat, Internet News reports. Concern about porn in Web sites was at 16%. [Disclosure: Zone Labs sponsors, a partner of Net Family News, but NFN has no direct relationship with Zone Labs or the survey it commissioned. The company markets the free Zonealarm firewall and other PC security products.]


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Web News Briefs

  1. Anti-P2P software for parents

    The US film industry released it last February (see my coverage), and now the free software's available under a different name in six more languages at a site representing the recording industry worldwide. What Parent File Scan and Digital File Check do is 1) scan your PC and tell you what media files (video, music, photos, etc.) and file-sharing software you may have on it, and 2) let you delete any of those files and programs. The very easy-to-use app, which works only on Windows PCs, is designed to help less-than-tech-literate parents educate themselves about multimedia on the family PC, but in India suggests that, these days, "when the kids at home are smarter than their parents when it comes to using computers ... we at TechWhack doubt that this application is going to make much of a difference." In other words, this software may not be able to find the more sophisticated work-arounds young digital-media fans are undoubtedly already developing as P2P services "go legit" (see this blog post). Here's Digital File Scan at the London-based International Federation of the Phonographic Industry's site. You can get Parent File Scan at the Motion Picture Association of America's site,, or through its developer's site. And coverage of its release at the BBC and the International Herald Tribune. See also "File-sharing realities for families."

    Meanwhile, news of the RIAA's latest round of lawsuits against file-sharers broke today (9/30). Of the 757 sued in this round (bringing the number to 14,800 in the US), "about 64 were filed against individuals using college networks," Reuters reports. The 757 sued are at 17 US universities, according to Good Morning Silicon Valley's more tongue-in-cheek coverage.

  2. Firefox secure?

    For Firefox users, the browser and questions about its security have been in the news a lot in the past few days. Washington Post security writer Brian Krebs points to a debate at Slashdot ("news for nerds") about it and says the nine latest security flaws in it "appear to be" plugged in the latest version, 1.0.7 (Brian links to the download page). CNET's Robert Varnosi writes that "Microsoft has only patched two-thirds of the critical vulnerabilities within Internet Explorer, while Mozilla can boast an 86% patch rate." Another Washington Post piece does the big picture on the browser battle. Part of that is market share, with Explorer having slipped from 95% to 89%, Firefox having achieved 4%, and Opera - which is now free - now at about 1%. Both their battle and all of ours with PC security are ongoing - see my recent lead feature on this for a comprehensive approach.

  3. Netscape has flaws too...

    ...but no security patches for them as yet, the Washington Post reports, which means "the bad guys" can use it too to take control of PCs. It occurred to me I should pass this along also, since Netscape didn't come up in the discussion I linked to. Even though the browser is "driven more or less by the same 'engine' as Firefox," Netscape hasn't issued an update to fix the flaws, writes Post security writer Brian Krebs. Nobody who uses a Web browser gets to have even a false sense of security these days!

  4. GTA: San Andreas back in stores

    Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas will be back on shelves Oct. 18, again compliant with the "M" (Mature) game rating and with a bit of "value add," Reuters reports. There will be a special edition for PlayStation 2 with a DVD add-on and, for Xbox, it'll be bundled with GTA 3 and GTA: Vice City. GTA: San Andreas had been pulled by retailers because of sexually explicit content that had upped its rating to "Adults Only." See my 7/22/05 issue for background and the Entertainment Software Rating Board for a description of the ratings. Unless or until there's regulation of game sales to minors, parents concerned about violent or sexually explicit content will want to pay attention to these ratings on game packaging.

  5. New PC security tips

    In addition to the basics - a firewall and anti-virus and -spyware software - there are five tips for further security, reports USATODAY's Kim Kommando. These are good and, particularly for parents, the two about 1) having the PC the kids use function as a limited user account (to keep outsiders from taking control), and 2) telling your kids to "watch out for crush sites." A real vulnerability for family PCs is kids' natural curiosity, playfulness, and tendency not to think about consequences. So when they get a message with a subject like "Someone has a crush on you" or "How does your body rate?", they'll quite likely click to the site with the "answer." In the case of the crush come-on, "a link [in the email] directs you to a site that resembles a dating service. To find out who has the crush, you must guess by entering the correct email address," Kim writes. That's one way spammers collect email address and screennames. The link in the email can also take gullible ones to nasty sites that upload malicious software code on their PCs. You get the picture - this is good fuel for a family discussion on PC security (and kids' critical thinking).

  6. Videogames & ADD

    "Son, don't forget to do your videogaming tonight." Ever think that sentence would spill from a parent's lips?! Well, USATODAY reports that some kids who have attention deficit disorder are being prescribed videogame therapy by psychologists - aided by the S.M.A.R.T. BrainGames system currently being used in 50 US clinics (according to the psychologist who adapted it for this type of therapy). Working with a PlayStation 2 console, the "consists of a special controller, a helmet with built-in sensors for monitoring brain activity, and a Smartbox that receives the brain signals," according to the USATODAY piece. When players are calmly focused on the game, it plays normally; when their minds wander, "the Smartbox sends a signal to the controller hindering acceleration or character movement in the game." The system was among 40 projects on display at a recent "Games for Health" Conference in Baltimore, Md. - "an offshoot of The Serious Games Initiative, which seeks to push the evolution of games technology to aid in problem solving, public policy and social issues," USATODAY adds.

  7. From Wikipedia to wiki-textbooks

    I have to admit to a little skepticism about this - how could a "textbook" written and edited by the online masses be reliably accurate? What I discovered in reading CNET's piece about Wikibooks is that mine was an old, narrow view of textbooks. Wikibooks won't necessarily replace textbooks (at least not for a while); they add something new to the equation. They're a teaching tool. They're also a catalyst, lighting a fire under very proprietary textbook publishers that take years to get new material into the pipeline. But the teaching-tool part is the really interesting one. CNET cites U. of Massachusetts biology Prof. Steven Brewer's vision of "teachers - at any level - asking students to examine existing Wikibooks entries for accuracy and relevancy and then appending their findings to those entries ... teaching tool and a work in progress all at once." The Net as it should be - a tool to enhance the immediacy, richness, and empowerment of collaborative learning, teaching kids critical thinking in the process. There's much more about this in the CNET piece, including some pitfalls that will have to be worked out - do check it out. BTW, if you want to see how the Wikipedia works, with its "749,000 some articles in English alone [among its 10 languages]," see this other CNET piece. It really is the information version of the open-source Linux operating system. I wish we could make this newsletter just as open-source - send in your comments!

  8. MTV on phones

    Music videos have been on the Web for some time. Now they're coming to cellphones - MTV-produced ones, anyway, USATODAY reports. "MTV will create and distribute videos with Warner artists such as Green Day, Sean Paul and Twista for cellphones and other wireless gadgets." Warner's the first of the major record labels to strike a deal with MTV for the phone platform, USATODAY adds. Pricing will depend on what the phone companies offer, whether pay-per-video or subscription. Here's another view from the San Jose Mercury News. A phone content-rating system is in the works in the US (see my 5/6/05 issue, though there are signs the cellphone services are interested in selling porn on video-enabled phones (see last week's issue).

  9. Bold Net goal in Maine

    The former governor who put laptops in the hands of 7th- and 8th-graders statewide is now working on making Net connectivity available for free to any household in Maine that can't afford it. Angus King, who left office in '02, has started a foundation, the Maine Learning Technology Foundation, to extend the laptop program to connectivity for all students," reports, in keeping with his vision for Maine to gain "an economic edge by becoming the most digitally literate state in the nation." At least where tech-enabled students are concerned, the numbers are positive. "Independent studies by researchers at the University of Southern Maine say the positive impact of the laptop program is being felt statewide." More than 80% of the teachers surveyed last year said students who are using the state-provided laptops were more engaged in their schoolwork and produced better work, and 70+% of students surveyed said the laptops "helped them to be more organized and complete higher-quality schoolwork more quickly."

  10. Virtual pandemic

    Or might it be a "pandemic"?! It's not the first time game characters have fallen prey to the spread of a virtual disease, but this time it's happening in "the most widely played massively multiplayer online (MMO) game in the world," the BBC reports. That would be World of Warcraft, which claims 4 million players worldwide. The current "deadly plague" seems to have been launched at the murder of "the fearsome Hakkar, the god of Blood," when he was killed in the Zul'Gurub dungeon, newly added to the game. But wait, there's hope in virtual reality: "Luckily the death of a character in World of Warcraft is not final so all those killed were soon resurrected," according to the BBC.

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


Anne Collier, Editor

Net Family News

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