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Friday, January 14, 2005

Help in finding filters

If they've decided to use filtering or monitoring software, busy parents usually want to know yesterday which one to buy. No hemming and hawing, thank you very much. Though my little nonprofit doesn't have the resources to test all the online-safety products out there, I can definitely point out some very credible sites that do - they specialize in picking the best and making your job much easier.... (please click to this week's issue of my newsletter for more).

Monitoring teen bloggers

The headline of this Detroit News article is not news to a lot of parents: "Teens spill deep secrets in Web logs." But these articles in local papers always offer insights. This one leads with an online journal entry from West Bloomfield High School sophomore Rachel Hines, "one of millions of American teenagers now turning to the Web, writing in online journals, also known as live journals, Web logs, or simply blogs." [Rachel told the paper that she thought about 60% of the people in her school have blogs.] Her blog entry's innocuous, but some go into great detail about teenagers' sex lives, family members, drug use, etc., "blurring the line between public and private life." It's like they're making themselves the stars of their peer group's own reality TV show. Or just "venting" - "getting their frustrations out," as Rachel put it. For some teenagers, that can mean victimization - online harassment or cyberbullying (see "Cyberbullying more harmful to kids" and my series, "The IM life of middle-schoolers"). On the other hand, "some experts laud online journals because they get students to write and as a place where they can try out personalities and test boundaries in a virtual world they often find safer than the physical one," the News reports. What do you think about online journals - does your child blog, do you check in on it every now and then? (Rachel's mom doesn't read her blog - "I decided it was her private thing," she told the News.) Do send in your comments and experiences (or post here by clicking on "comments" just below)!

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Kids in K-8: Web design contest!

"They consider themselves technology mavens. They can write HTML as quickly as their book reports. Their creative ideas for Web content are endless. And they aren't even in high school yet," the press release goes. One of these mavens just may be at your house or school. If so, don't hesitate to have them enter their work in a national contest to find "'America's Youngest Web Wizards' - K-8th graders who have designed Web sites with extraordinary creativity." Its sponsor is Hostway, an international Web hosting company. Winners (one student from grades K-5 and one from 6-8) will receive a Dell laptop, a year of free Web site hosting, and national recognition for their Web work. The deadline is February 28, and winners will be announced March 31. For more information, go to Hostway's Web Wizards page.

Spam law: How's it doing?

The FTC this week "struck the first blow against porn spammers by using provisions in the federal CAN-SPAM Act to convince a Nevada judge to freeze the assets of several companies and five men accused of spewing pornographic emails," reported. The law requires porn spammers to label their emails as such (so people wouldn't open them by mistake), and these companies had failed to do that. Here's an earlier article from the Washington Post explaining the law and why it's had mixed results. [See my 5/21 issue for a report on how much UK kids are exposed to porn spam at school.] Meanwhile, according to AOL, anyway, we're getting less spam overall now. "AOL also said [it] received 2.2 million spam complaints from its subscribers in November, down from 11 million for the same month a year ago," the Washington Post reported.

Oz teens arrested in Net scam

Four Sydney high school students aged 15-17 have been charged with participation in a Russia-based Internet scam, the Associated Press reported. The scammers stole "stole people's banking passwords and siphoned cash [$457,000] into accounts in eastern Europe," according to the AP. "The four students were promised a cut of the profits for letting their bank accounts be used for laundering money stolen from Internet bankers via a computer virus that dropped a program for secretly recording passwords." The students were among 13 Australians arrested in connection with the scam by the time AP filed. Australian police said the students were targeted "because they were naive."

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Young phoners in debt

A lot of parents have been there: opened up a cell-phone provider's bill to find hundreds of dollars of charges staring them in the face. One example is the family of Chaz Albert, whose cell-phone bill last month was $400, $320 of it his charges, the New York Times reports. The real culprit: text messaging. At $.10 an outgoing message and $.02 for each incoming one, its cost is sneaking up on kids (and parents) everywhere, now that "texting" is all the rage in the US (it has been among European and Asian youth for years). The Times cites Forrester Research findings that "Americans sent 2.5 billion text messages a month in mid-2004, triple the number sent in mid-2002." The problem is, the cell phone companies' salespeople sometimes fail to tell new customers about the costs of texting. And what a lot of people don't know is, you can call up Customer Service and have them turn texting off altogether for any phone on your family plan. But if you want your kids to learn the hard way, the Times cites an upside: "For some young people, the cellphone ordeals, though painful, have proved valuable. What is left, it seems, after the bills are paid and the family tensions subside is the emergence of a new maturity when it comes to money." Not to mention some kids graduating from high school with cell-phone debt.

New: The lean, clean little Mac

This time Apple's got us family computer users in mind for sure. Yesterday it introduced the Mac Mini, and it really is mini in terms of both price and size (here are photos at CNET). Priced at $499 and $599 (for an 80-GB hard drive instead of 40-GB), it's "a tiny machine with a processor, hard drive and optical drive - you supply the monitor, mouse and keyboard," CNET reports. According to the New York Times, "while computers have long been sold as machines that can turn a home into an office, most Americans now use them in their bedrooms and kitchens as e-mail terminals; as hubs for playing music, storing and editing photos; and as stations for navigating the Web.... [The Mini] is aimed squarely at the needs of this new digital household." But not just because of its size and price (which, with peripherals will be closer to $1,000 than $500), methinks. They'll just clinch the switch to Apple for a lot of families looking for simpler, more pest-free computing and surfing experiences. I'm seeing very little about this key PC-security aspect of what Apple offers in the mountain of media coverage the Mini announcement got worldwide. For families with care-free young surfers downloading all kinds of stuff, computer security is becoming huge. Here's the BBC, PC Magazine, and the Washington Post's roundup of many other reports. (BTW: If you buy one of these and don't mind using an old PC monitor you have lying around the house, you can really keep the cost down - a spanking-new Apple mouse and keyboard can be had for about $60.)

This just in (1/13): Here's an excellent analysis at CNET, comparing (in terms of price) a fully tricked-out Mac Mini to a Dell, Gateway, or HP PC with all the features a typical family would want (e.g., monitor, keyboard, mouse, and speakers). The Mini comes out to about $100 more (but less if you already have a monitor you can plug into it). BTW, this is the only piece I've seen that addresses the Mini's PC security advantage, saying a lot of people who find themselves doing all the family tech support may just go out and buy one (out of their allowance!). ;-)

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Microsoft's new patches: Git 'em!

Microsoft issued two new critical patches today and one of next-to-the-highest level of importance. "A hacker could exploit one of the security flaws if a user directed the Web browser to a specially designed Web page," Reuters reports, saying the patches are part of the company's monthly PC security bulletin. Be sure to download them if you have a Windows PC. Go to the company's Windows Update page to check if you need them. If so, you can click once to download the three patches. Also, here's the new page, available just today, where you can scan your PC for virus infection, as I reported last week ("Microsoft's free help for PC pests").

Schools lack Net savvy: Report

American schools have plenty of technology now, but not enough understanding of how to make the most of it in educating students, according to a just-released report from the US Department of Education, "Toward a New Golden Age in American Education: How the Internet, the Law and Today's Students Are Revolutionizing Expectations." "In the realm of technology, the educational community is playing catch-up. Industry is far ahead of education. And tech-savvy high school students often are far ahead of their teachers," DOE says in one of its conclusions, adding elsewhere that "we need to listen to America's students" because of their tech savvy (this is the intro to a section on "Student Voices" that includes a feedback blog). Coverage at USATODAY and CNET cited some arresting stats in the report: "9 in 10 children between 5 and 17 use computers, and even higher numbers of online teenagers use the Net for school-related work"; " 72% of all first graders used a home computer on a weekly basis during their summer breaks" and "the largest group of new Net users from 2000 to '02 were 2-to-5-year-olds, closely followed by 6-to-8-year-olds. In the process, students have become educators' toughest critics" (that last from CNET). The DOE points to ed-tech "success stories" at schools in a dozen states.

Monday, January 10, 2005

For young cell-phoners

Disney is clearly anticipating younger and younger cell-phone customers - or maybe teenagers will find it very cool to have Mickey say "answer your phone" when someone calls. Instead of a "brrrring" or a tune, soon phone users will be able to download the voices of Disney characters as "ringtones," to the tune of $2.50, CNET reports. For example, Goofy will say, "Hello? Is anybody there?" and Mr. Incredible, "Hello? Yeah, I'm Mr. Incredible." Other voices will include Minnie Mouse, Donald Duck, Pooh and Tigger, as well as Stitch, Woody, and Buzz Lightyear. And musical ringtones (from Finding Nemo and Aladdin) and phone screensavers are also in the works, according to CNET. The phenomenon is not unlike the "skins" and other customizing features kids love to use to customize the look of their IMs and instant-messaging services.