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Friday, November 26, 2004

Calling all young Webmasters!

December 6 is the deadline for Web developers under 18 to submit their projects to the Cable & Wireless Childnet Academy. To qualify, they must be a key person in the development of a site that benefits other young people. Two examples:

*, which spotlights the experiences, art, poetry, and plight of children caught up in war, beginning in Sierra Leone and now throughout the world. The project, according to its site, "has its roots in a friendship between two teachers at opposite ends of the Earth, who are both part of iEARN, the International Education and Resource Network."

*, a site created by three Australian teenagers (and sisters) which hosts kids' Web sites and provides easy tools for site development - all for free. At last check, 867,308 people had developed home pages at MatMice.

Winners receive a place at the Academy, which will be held in Jamaica next spring (3/26-4/1); a grant from the project development fund totaling $50,0000+; an all-expenses-paid trip for two to Jamaica (must be accompanied by an adult); and follow-up Web support from Childnet and the Academy's mentors and trainers. Webmasters in any country are welcome to submit. Here's the "How to Enter" page at the Academy's site, based in London.

Net porn compared to cocaine

It's the new crack cocaine, according to clinicians and researchers testifying on Capitol Hill. They said Internet pornography leads to "addiction, misogyny, pedophilia, boob jobs and erectile dysfunction, Wired News reports. Testifying before the Senate Commerce Committee's Science, Technology and Space Subcommittee, Mary Anne Layden of the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Cognitive Therapy, called the Internet "the perfect drug delivery system." It removes inefficiencies, such as the middleman or having to get to some physical place to partake. About the "drug" itself, she said, "porn addicts have a more difficult time recovering from their addiction than cocaine addicts, since coke users can get the drug out of their system, but pornographic images stay in the brain forever." Testifiers acknowledged, though, that "there is no consensus among mental health professionals about the dangers of porn or the use of the term 'pornography addiction'," according to Wired News, and many psychologists find the term problematic.

In related news, Spain's National Police this week announced they "have arrested 90 people, including 21 juveniles, in the country's largest operation against child pornography distribution." CNN reports that the arrests occurred in 26 provinces, and the "suspects include schoolteachers, students, software engineers, civil servants, military personnel and domestic cleaning personnel."

The $64k question for online kids

How to keep kids safe on the Internet has long been a controversial issue - partly because, as with no other medium before the Net, it always bumps into free-speech protections. Some think children's safety should be legislated, others feel filtering's the answer, a lot of techies think the problem's overblown, and many people in this field feel families should be able to pick and choose from the complete menu - education for kids, parenting tips, school policies, filtering and monitoring, and the occasional law (such as the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, or COPPA, one of the few legislative efforts that actually took effect in the US). UK dad and technology commentator Bill Thompson thought his daughter had a very reasonable recommendation: "She believes that net safety should be a central part of the [Net and tech] teaching she gets at school, from reception onwards, and that teachers are the ones to show children what is safe and what is not," he writes in a commentary for the BBC. "That way it is unavoidable, it does not rely on parents who may not bother, know or be able to explain, and it becomes part of the general awareness of life that you pick up in school." He adds that it's not the only thing we should be doing to protect online kids (and it would probably be more practicable in the UK than in the US), but better tech training at school (which includes media literacy and critical thinking) would be a big step forward in any country. But I'd like to hear what you feel is the best way to keep kids' experiences with technology safe and constructive. Please email me!

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Don't be caught by the phish

"Phishing." It's a trendy techie word, yes, but it's also a growing Internet plague that every family should know about and a financial scourge that involves identity theft, fraud, and in some cases personal bankruptcy. The good news is, you can pretty much avoid it by making sure everyone in your family remembers one simple rule: Never give out personal information online. In its "How to Fend Off Phishing," the Washington Post reports, "real companies almost never send email asking you to submit personal data." That means financial data like social security numbers, bank account numbers (for kids, of course, it also means personally-identifying information like gender, name, location, or favorite anything). But it's hard to believe how effectively some phishers' emails can trick smart people. They come with very real-looking bank logos and addresses (that are easily faked) and they get us right where we're vulnerable, e.g., saying our PayPal account has been charged $237, and the item we've ordered will soon be shipped. The Post has published a whole series on this, including real people's stories of phishing victimization (tricks and tactics to watch out for), "A Brief History of Phishing," and "Catch the Phish: Take the Quiz" (something to do around the PC as a family, maybe).

'10 worst video games'

Last week the best, this week the worst. To round out the video-game picture (see last week's "Kid-tested, parent-approved video games"), this week children's media watchdog, the Minneapolis-based National Institute on Media and the Family, released its "Ninth-Annual MediaWise Video Game Report Card" on Capitol Hill. "Doom 3" and "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas" top the list (at the very bottom of the report). Here's ABC News on the "Report Card." The Institute also offered its Top 10 for children and teens, and only one game - "ESPN NFL 2 K5" - overlapped with's top 10, however FamilyFun only looked at games for the 6-to-12-year-old age range.

Meanwhile, a coalition of children's, women's, and church groups led by the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility also announced its picks for the worst 10, ZDNET reports. It pretty much matched the MediaWise list but included "America's Army," "a free game distributed by the U.S. Army as a recruiting tool," according to ZDNET. The highly controversial game that reenacts President Kennedy's assassination didn't make the list because it was released too late (here's a review in Slate and a report in London's Times Online). Some members of the group also criticized the nonprofit Entertainment Software Ratings Board (, which this week released its own research, finding that "more than 80% of parents considered the group's ratings appropriate and helpful." [See my 9/24 issue for more on the ESRB and its ratings.]

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Gregarious teens: Marketers' dream

This really dates me, but I remember poring over the Sears Catalog to develop my holiday wish list. Now, of course, wishes are sown in IMs, phones text messages, emails, and blogs, the Seattle Times reports. What parents and many kids don't realize - but marketers certainly do - is that a lot of the viral advertising going on in cyberspace originates with corporations. "Rather than wait for cool teens to pick the next 'hot' T-shirt (or shoes or new musician or even deodorant), companies are increasingly targeting gregarious teens as underground spokespeople, paid in free products, discounts and cutting-edge cachet. The goal is what's called "real life product-placement" - getting a popular teenager to wear/use one's product so that it will take off in his/her peer group and then - via physical events and cyberspace - spread to other peer groups. It brings new, infinitely broader, meaning to "word of mouth." For example, Procter & Gamble's viral marketing unit is called, and it "boasts 200,000 'of the most influential teens in the US'," according to the Times. What we all, especially the teenagers we love, need to be aware of is that - because IMs, phone-texting, etc., are so integral to teens' social lives - viral marketing is more influential than TV ads or catalogs ever were. It can actually affect their social standing and sense of self. That's the message of the critics of "stealth advertising," and they provide a healthy counter-balance to this powerful phenomenon. The Seattle Times article would be a great resource for any family or classroom discussion aimed at developing critical thinking.

India: Snagging young cell-phoners

It is a small world. Does this marketers' tactic in India sound way familiar - cell phone companies wooing kid customers with new interactive games, cartoons, and quizzes on phones? "While these companies say the plethora of information will open up a whole new world of 'learning with fun,' telecom experts say it is the trend worldwide to target specific groups like women, children and elderly and the same is happening here [in New Delhi] also," the Hindustan Times reports. So, the Times continues, you have the Whiz Kid (math, wildlife, current affairs info), Word Wizard (vocab booster), Games Garage, and Fact Monster on cell phones. Youth cell-phone demographics are pretty staggering in other parts of the world: 29% Hong Kong children 6-15 use mobiles, 25% in Australia and Japan, and cell phones were the most requested holiday gift last year by kids 10-15 in the UK, according to the Hindustan Times. Thanks to the Casey Journalism Center on Children and Families for pointing this piece out.

Monday, November 22, 2004

Family PC: What on earth to buy?

The Washington Post doesn't paint a very positive picture when it details why the eternally unprogrammed, blinking VCR clock was the good old days of family technology. But reality isn't always pretty. "More than ever, today's consumers need to plan and research their tech purchases to make sure the parts of their digital dream home will actually work together," the Post reports. It cites a number of families for which that wasn't the case. The good news is that, in the "Holiday Tech Buying Guide" attached to that "reality-based" lead article, is tech writer Rob Pegoraro's guide to buying a family PC. The three things to consider are hard drive, memory, and removable storage, Rob says. "Start with the hard drive: Forty gigabytes, the usual minimum, is plenty if you won't install dozens of games or copy hundreds of CDs to the computer. But for most uses, 60 GB seems a more realistic floor. If you want to edit video, double that figure." Then he goes into families' memory and removable storage needs. This is pure practicality. Not to be missed if you're considering a new computer.

Blending free and fee in P2P

Here's a twist - sort of like iTunes and Kazaa in a single package. "While the music industry attempts to shutter peer-to-peer services in court and in Congress, one company is using P2P networks to promote and pay artists," Wired News reports. It's called Weed and it allows file-sharers to download a song and play it three times for free. The fourth time, they pay a dollar (iTunes-style pricing). Then they can burn it to an unlimited number of CDs, file-share at will, and even post it on a Web page. How does it help artists? They get promoted by their fans - in addition to their 50% of sales. Weed "encourages sharing by awarding a commission to people who pass the songs on to friends who then buy it. The copyright owner always gets 50% of each sale. Weed gets 15% for service and software costs. The fan who passes the music along gets 20% of the sale if a friend buys the track," Wired News explains.

Another idea being played with is Napster founder Shawn Fanning's. His new company Snocap has technology that, rumor has it, "would allow users to share a low-quality copy of a licensed song for free, and would grant them access to a higher-quality version only after they paid a fee," the Wall Street Journal reports. Snocap just licensed Vivendi Universal's catalog of 150,000 songs. A third idea being used right now at P2P service Grokster is a combination of file-sharing and Internet radio. It allows users to "stream and listen to high-quality versions of specific songs - even music that is not available through download software like Apple Computer's iTunes," CNET reports. Because the music is streamed and not downloaded, it's like sampling rather than owning and thus complies with copyright law, its promoters say. However successful, all three approaches are great for online families - because legal and ethical options for the file-sharing so popular with teens are definitely multiplying!