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Friday, June 17, 2005

Dot-kids: Net playground or vacant lot?

Not totally so, but the Web's domain just for kids is more a vacant lot than the popular playground it was meant to be. As well-meaning as its development was, the "" top-level domain, just isn't working. It was set up back in 2002 because of federal legislation sponsored by Rep. John Shimkus (Republican-Ill.), and it still has only 20-or-so sites in it, even though more than 1,700 addresses like "" were registered when dot-kids opened for business, Reuters reports. What happened? Please click to this week's issue of my newsletter for some reasons and Net-mom's view of the dot-kids sites that are worth a child's time ("Net-mom" and librarian Jean Armour Polly wrote six editions of Net-mom's Internet Kids & Family Yellow Pages).

P2P pests on BitTorrent

Families with file-sharers need to know that spyware and adware are showing up in BitTorrent files. "Purveyors of the applications that produce pop-up ads on PC screens and track browsing habits have discovered BitTorrent as a new distribution channel," CNET reports. This is new. Previous-generation file-sharing services like Kazaa were widely known to be riddled with these pests, which hurt PC performance. Now, users of the much more popular BitTorrent are dealing with them. An example CNET gave was a copy of Fox TV's "Family Guy," which arrived on a security researcher's PC "bundled with several pieces of known adware." The researcher said that could really reduce the performance of the average family PC. Usually, when downloading a media file, file-sharers will see on their screens "a dialog box advising that the extra software was about to be installed." It gives the impression, CNET says, that you need to install the extra software to get access to the desired file. However, the security researcher found, if you just decline the adware or spyware license a couple of times, you get the file without installing the pests. See also "File-sharing realities for families."

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Video games: Mainstream entertainment

Gamers are no longer the marginalized geeky kids with highly developed thumb muscles - not in the minds of experts following the gaming industry, anyway. Because that industry, now called "interactive entertainment," last year "topped $7 billion, closing in on the $9 billion film industry," and nearly half of US homes own one game player and 23% own more than three, the Christian Science Monitor reports, gamers are very mainstream. They "are going to be the prime engine of our economy and society," the Monitor quotes Robert Andersen of the College for Creative Studies in Detroit. The crucial question is whether games can keep getting better, more creative, whether they can move beyond first-person shooter versions of Hollywood blockbusters. Look for some great examples in the Monitor piece. See also the BBC on consumers in the driver's seat in digital entertainment. For more coverage, see "Bans on violent video game sales" and "Video games' upside." [NFN covers gaming a lot. The best way to find our latest coverage is to go to our index page and do a page search (hit the Control or Apple key and "F") for "game."]

Prepaid phone service: Getting hot

Cellphone parental controls are on the way, but in the meantime prepaid phone service is it for parental control, it appears (you know, the phone that works like a store gift card - pay a specified amount up front). And teenagers are warming up to this kind of phone. "Two years ago, 17-year-old Brittney Brooks would never have considered carrying a prepaid cellular phone, which shouted its cheap-o status through bulky, unattractive handsets twice as big as most cell phones today," the Washington Post reports. Now, the high school junior "proudly carries around a small Kyocera K9 phone from Virgin Mobile USA, a prepaid phone service. It helps her control the cost, she said, and the K9 is a silver, ergonomic little number that comes with text messaging and an array of accessories." And Brittney told the Post that she thought about 60% of her friends use prepaid service. It accounts for 95% of wireless users in Italy, or 50-55% in Germany and the UK, and only 10% of the US wireless market. But the Post says it's becoming "the next big wireless thing" in this country. For more on this at NFN, see "Young phoners in debt" and "Phone parental controls in the works."

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Kids: Budding spin doctors

It's a skill they'll need to develop, especially if they blog publicly at sites like,, (and that's a question to ask them: Do you know for sure that only your friends can see the posts in your blog?). It's almost impossible to delete the past or rewrite your history online. Stephanie Rosenbloom gives an example in the New York Times: a 10-year-old picture of her as a brunette in sensible shoes is still "the definitive image of me on the World Wide Web, the one that pops up every time my name is entered in a Google search," even though the "real Stephanie" is now blonde and wears stilettos. Then there's the friend of a Washington Post reporter cringing every time she thought about "prospective employers 'Googling' her" and finding "a concise and prominent summary of her dating proclivities" (see this item, 4/22). The solution? Rather than trying to get those Web sites to delete the offending photos and text (and many sites are still in the Internet Archive even after they've been taken down), be your own spin doctor. "The secret to burying unflattering Web details about yourself is to create a preferred version of the facts on a home page or a blog of your own, then devise a strategy to get high-ranking Web sites to link to you," the Times reports. An assistant attorney general emailed me recently: "When one of these kids is running for President one day [or interviewing for college admission or a job], those online pictures are sure to show up." Another daunting thought: party pictures on photoblogs (for future employers to google - see this piece at CNET).

Do young bloggers care about privacy?

The good news is, the big blogging services are getting better about providing their bloggers privacy protections. The bad news is, kids aren't using the big services at MSN, Yahoo, and Google. They seems to prefer the littler guys, e.g.,,,, etc. I've yet to see a study on this, but the only blogging spaces I hear about from concerned parents are the latter. Still, even if they can't persuade their kids to move to AOL's RED blogs, MSN Spaces, etc., parents can get some good insights into how blogs work from the Wall Street Journal's Walt Mossberg this week. He and his assistant Katie Boehret created blogs at Google's, MSN Spaces, and the yet-to-be-launched Yahoo 360 and do a readable job of describing the experience. They report that Yahoo and MSN's services offer varying degrees of privacy, Blogger does not. [BTW, have you, too, noticed that blogging is like IM-ing for kids? No matter how great the bells and whistles (or privacy protections) are at any other service, they just use the service their friends use. End of story. It'll be interesting to find out how AOL's RED Blogs does. In terms of protecting privacy and maybe even "coolness," it sounds like one of the best services going (see my coverage ), but will kids switch for those reasons? I need to call AOL soon about that. Do email me (or post just below) if you know someone young who cares enough about privacy to switch services - I would love to interview him or her, with your permission.]

Fresh patches needed!

Microsoft just issued 10 new patches for Windows PC users, three of them critical. "Microsoft's rating system deems a security issue as critical - its highest ranking - if it could enable a worm to spread without any action from the PC user," ZDNET reports. The rest are important, too, though, because they fix flaws that "could compromise people's data or threaten system resources." So, family PC owners, go get 'em! Just click to in the Internet Explorer browser (Windows Update doesn't work with FireFox, which is one reason why I use both). Here's more on this from the BBC.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Students, laptops & life lessons

A high school student who lives on her own and works 20 hours a week is about to graduate - until the school finds out that she lost her school-issued laptop. No laptop, no graduation, the principal tells her - unless she comes up with "a down payment of $300 on the $700 computer," the Boston Globe reports. The principal told the Globe, "These are the tough lessons in life." The student will graduate after all, though, because "a 'good Samaritan' called [the school] at 7:20 this morning and donated a laptop to replace the one that [was] lost," the Washington Post later reported in an article about school "bureaucracy gone silly." But this is also about the various costs, human and financial, of providing students with technology - especially students who can't afford it at home. Not that schools should ever stop loaning students laptops. A commentary in today's San Francisco Chronicle suggests that "we don't need a research study to point out the real difference in quality of life between an individual who has 24-7 broadband access and a person who has no Internet access at all or has to wait in line at the public library to get it."

Family PC security = kid online safety

A heads-up for parents is buried in this post by the Washington Post's Brian Krebs in his PC security blog: "I remain awestruck by the juxtaposition of those two offerings," writes Brian, referring to system spam on his friend's infected PC that was selling drugs and kids' games in the same sleazy ad. "Somewhere out there, a diabolical marketing machine is reaching through cyberspace offering wide-eyed kids all kinds of goodies, including their very own custom-made smileyfaces or 'emoticons,' for use with AOL's chat program, AND their choice of highly addictive narcotics and sexual-performance enhancement drugs, with a selection of adult Web sites to boot!" It alerts us parents to the fact that having anti-virus and -spyware software installed isn't just about PC security, it's more and more about online kids' well-being. The line between online safety and PC security is blurring, if not dissolving. And we can enlist our tech-literate kids to join in a family mission: to be ever alert about the latest PC protections and about not downloading junk - no matter how great the games, software, emoticons, sweepstakes, polls, and other "cool stuff" sound to family PC users of all ages. BTW, Brian spent about 7 hours cleaning up his friend's PC so it would function again, and he names/links to a number of software products (some free) that helped with the process; his piece is both meaty and fun to read.

Monday, June 13, 2005

High-frequency viruses

Family computer users, get ready: Our anti-virus software is in for a challenge. "Instead of releasing Windows viruses intermittently, many creators of worms and trojans are pumping them out with increasing frequency," the BBC reports. "For a while new variants of one virus, called Mytob, were appearing every hour." The BBC cites computer-security experts as saying that if anti-virus companies could produce patches within three hours of a virus's first appearance, we'd be fine, but they typically take 10 hours to do so. What this means is that families can no longer unthinkingly rely on their anti-virus software and services. Ideally, whoever hears about a new virus circulating needs to tell the rest of the family, and make sure everybody remembers not to click on attachments in either email or instant messages. Meanwhile, ZDNET reports on another budding trend in online pests: recon, or vulnerability assessment, worms. They're sent out to "check computers for security flaws and relay the information back to the author." All we can do about these is follow the three cardinal rules of PC security: anti-virus software, firewall (e.g., Outpost or ZoneAlarm, both free), and keeping up-to-date with Microsoft's patches (there's a major one coming this week).