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Friday, April 08, 2005

Tips from a tech-savvy dad

Eleven-year-old "Rachel" "is a horse freak," her dad told me, "her true passion is horses." In a recent phone interview, "Tom," a tech company executive in California, told me about two less-well-known developments that he and Rachel have encountered and that other parents might want to know about. The first involved a virtual horse-care and -show site Rachel loves, the second involved what Tom called "cross-over sites" that hook kids into online porn. For more, please click to this week's SafeKids/NetFamilyNewsletter.

Childnet Academy '05

Spending a few days with a small group of people representing seven continents is extraordinary in itself. But when they're young and communicators and promoters of the best of causes and ideas, spending time with each other can be life-changing for them and everyone involved. I'm speaking of this year's Childnet Academy in Jamaica last week, celebrating some of the best young Webmasters in the world. I was inspired by the work of this year's winners, among them:

* UK 8-year-old Lalit Maganti's "Animals in Danger," which Lalit learned how to build from borrowing a Web site how-to book from the library.
* 14-year-old Elizabeth Clegg's "Looking at You" for the sight-impaired (Elizabeth wrote site content from her own experience).
* 17-year-old Nigerian Samuel Oloyede Odofin's - "Biotechnology: The food solution," written in three languages (from a country greatly in need of increased food production).
* "It's all in the mix" by students at Northern Ireland's first religiously integrated school, reaching out with their stories about mixing it up in a divided community to peers in other divided communities worldwide.

PSP connects your kid

With a simple little hack (that's easy for any kid), a child can use his PlayStation Portable to access any page on the Web, USATODAY reports. No hardware modification or unlicensed software installation required,USATODAY even lists the easy steps. The article also tells how to upload your own movies to the device, read e-books, and set up Internet relay chat. The PSP also has parental controls, so if you buy one for your child, configure these with him or her right out of the box, working out some connection ground rules in the process. Remember, when they're playing games over the Net, they're playing them with strangers. The vast majority will be well-meaning gamers just like your child, but some may not be.

Kid-friendly search engines

I've been waiting for this: the specialists at SearchEngineWatch updating their survey of child-safe search engines. The article covers major directories of child-appropriate Web sites, grownup search engines that provide filtering, and a bit about filtering software in general. One children's directory they missed is Kidsnet's, which offers only child=safe Web pages actually reviewed by human beings (Kidsnet's number was 175 million pages a year ago). For more on Kidsnet filtering, see my write-up, 4/9/04. Parents, you do know about filtered Web search, right? If you don't have filtering for your family PC, this would be the most basic precaution against kids stumbling upon online porn: Go to Google, Yahoo, MSN Search, etc. and turn on strict filtering on their preferences pages. A family rule to use only those filtered search engines (to keep it simple at our house, we all just use one search engine) and not to change the preferences would back that up. As an additional precaution, we tell our kids to use that search engine to find sites whose URLs they're not sure about - don't just type any old URL into your browser windeow, because of the bad stuff you can run into. [Thanks to Marylaine Block's "Neat New Stuff I Found This Week" for pointing out the SearchEngineWatch update.]

Thursday, April 07, 2005

'Playlist anxiety'

Don't ya love it - an anthopological study of people's feelings about their iPod playlists? That's what researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology and the Palo Alto Research Center did, and - though it was about playlist-sharing at the office - it definitely provides insights into the online music scene in which teens are a huge demographic group. "Public embarrassment may now be the routine lot of the unhappy [teenager] who gets caught with a [music] collection too heavily weighted toward the collective works of [fill in any band or singer that is "uncool" among his/her peer group]," CNET reports. Other findings: people waiting to add tunes to their collections until after they'd checked out what other people were listening to; perceptions of others generally unchanged "except for one or two people who seemed a little too attached to the most current pop hits [in which case the perception would be quite negative]"; and "a sense of loss" when friends' computers went offline because people become attached to peers' music libraries. You begin to see who emerges as alpha male and female of these digital-music social packs!

Predator stopped in Seattle

Police arrested a 42-year-old man outside a shopping mall when he was rendezvousing with "a 13-year-old girl" he'd been "grooming" in online chat. "The receptive young girl never existed; detectives had posed as her online, trading sexually explicit banter with the suspect as part of a ruse to catch Internet pedophiles, The Olympian reports. Tech-savvy policework like this is happening more and more worldwide, and if I linked to all the coverage, this news service would just be about that. So I'm linking to this short, clear-cut article in case it's a useful discussion point for family discussions on chatting with strangers online. In many of these stories, 13-14 is the age level particularly vulnerable. This story points to several tactics of predators, including their perusing and using young people's online profiles in blogs, IM, chat, etc. (so kids need to be careful about what they reveal in them). Police also noted two approaches these people take: quick, predatory attempts to meet kids offline and patient "grooming," or relationship-building using various communication modes - chat, email, IM, phone, etc. - over weeks and sometimes months so targeted kids don't feel they're talking to strangers. (Thanks to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children for pointing this piece out.)

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Mobile Net, mobile porn

Everything that our children can be exposed to on the Web will soon be on cell phones. A lot already is. CNET columnist Molly Wood does a great job of laying out the not-so-pretty mobile-phone picture today. What "bigger screens, higher resolution, more colors, and video capability" mean in this context, that mobile porn will be a $5 billion industry by 2010, and that the US market for this content is only playing catch-up to what's happening in Europe, Asia, and South America. Some countermeasures are in the works - see "Filtering phones."

Your house: Bird's-eye view at Google

With satellite images, Google is now making it possible for Web searchers to see at a glance how close the hotel they're thinking of booking is to the beach, the Associated Press reports. Great. But there's a flipside to that convenience: Searchers can also type in someone's address and quickly size up the neighborhood layout. Google's new feature , stemming from its purchase of digital mapmaker Keyhole Corp. six months ago, "will enable its users to zoom in on homes and businesses using satellite images... providing a bird's-eye-view of about half the United States." The Keyhole technology provides "close-up perspective of specific addresses." A Keyhole manager told the AP that there is little reason for paranoia about the satellite images, though, because they're 6-12 months old.

Animal hunting as a video game?

California is considering a law to ban what one state legislator calls "video target practice using live animals," the Associated Press reports. People in the state actually run "computer-assisted hunting sites." "It's a response to a Texas ranch that says it is setting up a system that would allow people to shoot at live game via the Internet," according to the AP. State Sen. Debra Bowen (D-Redondo Beach) called it "pay-per-view video game using live animals for target practice." Pro-hunting groups themselves are calling it unethical and unsporting. We can only hope that young Web surfers and gamers haven't found or used such "services," thinking they were legitimate or "just a game."

So what is phishing again?!

I've covered the phishing phenom in the past, but according to the BBC there are still a *lot* of questions out there about just what it is, exactly. Simply put, it's online fraud - people trying to separate you from your personal financial information, passwords, etc. And phishers are getting more sophisticated, CNET reports, with trickier technology (making the phony Web sites their emails link you to look very much like the real thing) and better "social engineering" (being trickier or more persuasive in getting you to do what they want). It's not just about sending you to what appears to be your bank's Web site anymore. It may be a persuasive IM to your child that appears to be from one of their friends and tells them to download this cool photo or that awesome song or click to this online body-rating site. [This page at CNET has a helpful sidebar, "Many types of phishers in the sea."] Phishing requires increasing alertness on the part of both parents and kids - ideally a family discussion about careful downloading and clicking. There are also tech tools to help, for example FraudEliminator (see my 12/17/04 issue), and Internet service providers are increasingly providing tools to protect their customers.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

From blogging to 'vlogging'

Teenagers will probably be interested in trying this: video blogging, or "vlogging" - what Google just announced it's going to start hosting. Vlogging "is still a new phenomenon but is expected to take off as Web space becomes cheaper - or even free - and digital cameras become ever more sophisticated," the BBC reports. Teen bloggers, who love playing around with various media, undoubtedly will have fun with this. But there's a downside they and grownups need to be aware of, the same one found in moblogs (blogging with mobile phones), podcasting (blogging with Web and iPod), and regular blogs: the unwise way teens represent themselves with images and video, thinking it's all just among friends (for an extreme, not a common, example, see "Self-published child porn"). Back to the BBC: "The move to let people upload video to Google's servers comes as the firm trials a video search service.... Google's interest in blogging - web logging - stems back to 2003 when it bought popular blog site,"

Trouble for Net cigarette sales

This is timely for the Tobacco-Free Kids Campaign's 10th-annual "Kick Butts Day," April 13: "Two weeks after credit card companies announced they would no longer accept payment for tobacco products bought online, scores of Internet cigarette merchants have effectively lost the means to do business profitably," the New York Times reports. They are "either limping along or have shut down their operations altogether." Kick Butts Day is when "thousands of young people are expected to speak out against tobacco use," according to's latest newsletter. "The initiative empowers young people to become leaders in stopping tobacco use." Connect for Kids cites figures from the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids showing that "more than 2,000 children and teens become addicted to tobacco every *day*, one-third of whom will die prematurely." The Times cites the 2004 online cigarette sales figure to have been $1 billion. The US federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms says online merchants "had not done enough to comply with age verification practices," among other requirements, according to the Times.

Tell IM-ers about new worm!

Watch out, parents of IM-ers, a nasty email-carried worm that started going around on April Fool's Day is now pestering MSN Messenger users. Posing as Microsoft, Trend Micro, and Symantec, the Chod.B worm "sends out messages to contacts from the infected user's address book, warning them that they are about to receive a file," CNET reports. "The virus then sends a file designed to infect the recipient's system." Tell your kids it looks like it's coming from someone on their buddy list and "sounds" like a friend, saying, "'Check out what I just found on the Internet." The cardinal IM rule they need to have memorized is not to click on *any* file sent them, even from a "buddy" before starting a new, *separate* conversation with that buddy, or screenname, and asking him or her if s/he sent that file. (The worm grabs screennames from people's address books on PCs it has infected in order to pose as buddies.) Also tell them to be wary of clicking on links friends tell them to go to. For more, see the CNET piece. Another little nasty is the fake BlueMountain e-greeting going around, disguising a virus. How to tell? BlueMountain told the Washington Post that "unlike authentic BlueMountain greeting card invites, which come from the email address of the person sending the greeting, the scam messages use a spoofed BlueMountain email address." As for the big picture, ZDNET reports that the quantity of IM threats like these to PC security "increased 250% in the first quarter of 2005."

Monday, April 04, 2005

Copyright law & our kids

Our children - whether they're listeners, downloaders, composers, or digital-music mashers - are affected by the copyright-law decisions being made these days, including the one the US Supreme Court is expected to announce in June. "When people are willing to line up for nearly 24 hours to hear a copyright case, something far bigger than accessing free music is taking place," writes Internet law specialist Michael Geist in the Toronto Star. "That something is a dramatic shift in the production and distribution of creative work by millions of individuals who are both creators and users and now see copyright reform as relevant to them. The success of future reform depends upon recognizing this evolution and ensuring that reform processes properly accommodate the largely unrepresented constituency." Children, parents, educators, artists, entertainment companies, tech innovators - everyone who works with intellectual property, which is basically all of humanity - has a stake in this debate. And it's wonderful fuel for family discussion and helping our children develop critical thinking and moral reasoning. See also the Christian Science Monitor on this and "Bigger picture on file-sharing," 1/30/04. Thanks to Michael Geist for zooming in on its importance.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Anytime, anywhere connecting for kids!

That's what you call the "mobile Internet," and it's one explanation for the *other* digital divide - the one between grownups and kids. It's the "fixed Internet" (having a connected desktop PC wired to a wall somewhere) that we're used to and to which our household rules and so much online-safety research to date apply. The mobile Internet is enabled by the "wi-fi hot spots" proliferating throughout the world - places where anyone can connect wirelessly with anything from a cellphone to a game player to a "walkie talkie"). What 24x7 connecting capability means to families is less and less parental control over young people's access. This puts the onus on all of us - parents and kids - to work harder at developing the most effective filter there will ever be: the one that lies between children's ears, as my colleague Larry Magid of first put it in an online-safety seminar years ago. Their own critical thinking and media literacy will be children's best protection, along with engaged parenting. The Digital Age calls for a solid parent-child partnership: They can help us with their tech literacy and we can help them with our life literacy, and that's a tremendous opportunity for parent-child communication and mutual respect. For more detail on what the mobile Internet looks like, see