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Thursday, September 30, 2004

The IM life of middle-schoolers

"It's almost like, to our kids, IM is an alternate reality," a friend and parent said to me recently. I think he's right, but it seems that way to parents too. alternate reality because kids behave differently when in instant-messaging mode. With fellow instant-messagers they're often more bold, freer to try different behaviors or personas than what they'd do or be in person. With people in the same room, sometimes it's as if we're not even there. When IMing, they're in another space.

This new online part of our children's social lives seems unfathomable to many of us. At least, that's what Amanda, a Net-literate school counselor (and trained social worker) in Salt Lake City, has found. "I was shocked by the shock of the parents. This kind of communication is so new to them that the boundaries are blurred.... They don't know when to put their foot down, so they don't." Last year there was "a kind of explosion" in Net-related issues at Amanda's independent middle school - "it exploded in parents' consciousness," not in kids' instant-messaging, she explained. Amanda has worked through IM issue with a lot of 11-to-13-year-olds and has some helpful ideas for parents and other educators on dealing with this aspect of kids' social lives now blurring the lines between home and school. To read more, click here.

A mom writes: IM impersonations

Just as I was working on this week's feature on the IM life of middle-schoolers, a reader, Betsy in Ohio, emailed me with a question about IM parental controls (which aren't - can't be - provided by the free, public IM services like AIM, ICQ, or Yahoo Messenger). When I replied, she kindly, over several email exchanges, shared her experience with an IM trick a couple of kids close to her had played on peers. Her account echoes important points school counselor Amanda makes in the feature - e.g., about being in touch with other parents and how to work with our kids on this. For Betsy's comments, click here. As you can tell, I welcome comments and often publish them for the benefit of all readers. Please email me at

Digital divide & kids: Fresh look

According to the latest figures available, in the 2003-04 school year, 61% of US 8-to-18-year-olds used the Internet daily, 74% had access at home, and 96% had gone online (experienced the Net at least once). Those figures are from a just-released Kaiser Family Foundation study, "Digital Divide...Where to Go From Here," urging policymakers to refocus on this issue. The 96% figure, encouragingly, showed "no significant differences according to race, parent education, or median income of the community in which the children went to school," the report says, but that's not the most revealing figure where the digital divide's concerned. It's the figures for "have Net access at home" and "use the Net on a typical day" that show us how well we're closing the gap, and the study shows we still have work to do.

Vote 2004: Helping young critical thinkers

Could there be a more "teachable moment" for working with our kids on critical thinking? At least for Americans, at a very polarized point in our political history? Besides the flood of "information" we all face, for young media consumers, "it's not always obvious how to make the leap from a civics lessons involving founding fathers wearing powdered wigs to slick political ads on TV," as Shelley Pasnik puts it. So - just in time - Shelley, creator of The PBS Parents Guide to Children and Media, has just published an article, with links to other Web resources, on working with kids through all the 2004 Election "truths." I think teachers will find this very useful, too, and Shelley's basic points - such as how myths are easier to promote than facts and how soundbites differ from policy - are relevant to parents and educators in any country.

Beware IM virus

This week's was an "early warning" from the Internet Storm Center (ISC, a Net security experts cooperative), but IM users and their parents should be on the alert. The ISC warned that the profiles of AIM users (the personal descriptions users provide which anyone can look up) are vulnerable to malicious hackers, Internet News reports. Basically, they attach virus-infected image files to the profiles, and send an IM to people enticing them to "go to my profile and check out this photo." When the photo's downloaded, the viewer's PC gets infected. Tell your kids not to be fooled by invitations like this especially from anyone they don't know (and they do know not to put any personally identifiable information in their profiles, don't they?!). The BBC calls these images "poisoned pictures." They have already turned up in an older, more techie venue called newsgroups. The BBC notes that only Internet Explorer browser users are vulnerable to this virus.

Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Congress: After those pirates!

It's up to Congress, US lawmakers apparently feel, to protect the music biz from copyright pirates. Two bills are in the works - the Induce Act in the Senate and the Piracy Deterrence and Education Act in the House of Representatives. This summer, Sen. Orrin Hatch announced that they "must pass legislation this year that would effectively drive online digital music swapping companies out of business," the Washington Post reported. The Induce Act, which the Senate is expected to vote on tomorrow, would allow recording companies and movie studios to sue file-sharing networks like Kazaa or eDonkey for enticing their users to illegally share copyrighted tunes and films. The other bill, passed by the House yesterday, would - if signed into law - make it a crime both to share large numbers of music files on P2P networks and to use video cameras to record films in movie theaters, the Associated Press reports.

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Non-stranger danger

"Don't talk to strangers" only confuses kids, according to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC). An article in today's Rochester Democrat & Chronicle reiterates this message that I'm hearing from other expert sources as well (see my 8/27 issue about findings from a University of New Hampshire study on this). The article refers to arrests of fairly reputable people in the Rochester area who have been arrested for child sexual exploitation: a deputy sheriff, a retired Orleans County Court judge, a prominent physician, and a school official. The point is not that they're prominent but that they are not the stereotypical sexual predator - the guy in a trench coat lurking behind a bush near some playground. NCMEC says the danger of sexual predation is greater from someone you or your children know than from a stranger. In a blue column to the right of the article are five tips from the National Center on keeping children safe from sexual exploitation. Parents should also know about the Center's CyberTipline, where incidents of exploitation, online enticement/luring, child pornography, or sexually explicit material sent to children can be reported via a Web form (click on "Report" at or a toll-free number (800.843.5678). You can contact the CyberTipline even if you're worried that a child is being sexually exploited.

Net books for needy kids

There's a wonderful project, Anywhere Books, that's putting books into the hands of children who wouldn't otherwise have them. Using Internet sources such as Project Gutenberg and the Internet Archive, Anywhere Books's "digital bookmobile" - "a van outfitted with a laptop, laser printer, bookbinding machine, and cutter," Wired News reports - recently visited Gulu, Uganda, for example. It provided books for "children commonly referred to as night commuters," according to Charles Batambuze, a librarian with the sponsoring National Library of Uganda who was in Gulu for the event. "They move from their homes every evening to spend the night in the safety of Gulu town. These children displaced by war together with their teachers and parents attended a children's reading tent event held on 27th-28th March 2004 at Gulu Public School," Charles reported, adding that English is the language of instruction in Ugandan Public Schools. Peter Rabbit and Alice in Wonderland were among the more popular books printed for the Gulu students. Anywhere Books told Wired News that "on average, there is one textbook for every six kids in Uganda."

Monday, September 27, 2004

Legal movies

We covered "Legal music" the other day, but we left out films. Your kids probably already know of these, but USToday brings us up to date on this front with "Download movies from Web can be easy, legal." Columnist Kim Komando names four major film sources, all of which offer trial memberships. Important caveat: Don't try 'em if you don't have a high-speed Net connection. Otherwise, movies take way too long to download.