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Friday, December 09, 2005

A mom on monitoring

The more I hear from parents, the more convinced I am that there are as many "right" ways to parent online kids as there are kids online - even within a single family. There are so many factors, from age and maturity levels to a family's own values. Which means, of course, that, in this Digital Age, more is demanded of parents all the time. So it's great to hear from you and - with your permission - to publish your stories and comments. Whether or not parents agree on approaches, the discussion is extremely valuable.

Heather in California, parent of four, emailed me recently about how well monitoring software has worked for her. I asked if she'd be willing to elaborate a bit, and she generously emailed the hands-on strategy she used with her oldest daughter. Heather certainly has an answer to parents' question about kids' privacy on the Net. I'd love to hear other parents' views (email me anytime, or post in this blog). Here's Heather (in this week's issue of my newsletter).

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Teacher-bullying in blogs

Is it appropriate for teachers and administrators to discipline students because of their blog posts? Even students who disagree with some threatening posts about teachers by three peers at Taft High School told the Chicago Sun-Times that it was the students' right to make those remarks. The three are 7th- and 8th-grade students in the Advanced Placement program at Taft. One wrote this about a teacher in a Xanga blog Nov. 3: "She'll see oh yes, there will be blood'' and "no, I won't kill her ... yet," according to the Sun-Times. "Chicago Public Schools lawyers Wednesday approved disciplinary action against the students after a long review over whether outraged Taft administration officials were wading into First Amendment waters by seeking suspensions." The three were suspended, the Sun-Times added, "one for as long as 10 days." Another Chicago public school handling a student-blogging case last year did not suspend a student for discriminatory remarks, but a spokesman said this recent case was different because posts referred to specific individuals and physically threatening. The incident "has divided students and teachers" at Taft, according to the Sun-Times says, and debate over student First Amendment rights continues nationwide. The article comes with a sidebar reporting that, especially since the Columbine High School shootings in 1999, "the majority of courts [dealing with these cases] around the country … have held that school officials are well within their rights to discipline students for what they post off-campus on the Internet." For more legal info, see the Electronic Frontier Foundation's guide to student blogging.

Meanwhile, the Middletown (Ohio) Journal published an editorial today about two cases of Ohio students posting death threats in their Xanga blogs. See also "School nixes blogging" and "Student wins free-speech case." Email me *your* experiences with student blogs anytime (or post just below)!

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Rockstars of videogames

One is 24 and made more than $800,000 this year in tournament winnings and computer-parts endorsements, the other is 69 and works for MTV as a "senior" correspondent and game reviewer. Well, grandmother and gamer Barbara St. Hilaire may not exactly be a rockstar-type figure, but gamers obviously think she's pretty cool. "Grandson Timothy chronicles her Xbox, Playstation 2 and GameCube adventures in his blog,," the Washington Post reports (see the online discussion with Barbara, Timothy, and people around the US at the Post - it dispels a few myths). As for the 24-year-old almost-millionaire gamer, "Fatal1ty" Wendel has won 5 videogame championships playing various games and is profiled in the New York Times and will be featured on CBS's "60 Minutes" (this Sunday, 12/11). He and other videogame "rockstars" are helping marketers reach the ever more elusive 14-to-21-year-old market, which is "consuming traditional media at lower rates every single year." Here's the San Jose Mercury News and the Associated Press on the growing power of product-placement ads in videogames.

Talking IM worm

Talk about social engineering (you know, when people are tricked into downloading worms, etc.)! Tell your kids, now there's a worm that chats with IM-ers, and they do not want to "go there." CNET reports that a new worm in AIM called "IM.Myspace04.AIM" comes in an instant message that says "lol that’s cool" and contains a link to a malicious file called "clarissa17.pif." "When unsuspecting users have responded, perhaps asking if the attachment contained a virus, the worm has replied: "lol no its not a virus," IM security firm IMlogic told CNET. Clicking on the Clarissa file opens a "backdoor" to your PC, disables security software, messes with system files, and sends the worm to everybody on your child's buddy list. Be sure every IM-er knows that, before clicking or downloading on any message supposedly from a buddy, they need to open a new window if the buddy's online and ask him/her if s/he sent that file or link. If s/he's not online, just don't click! For more, see "Tips from a tech-savvy dad."

Cable TV, family-style

A family package of TV programming is in the works for Comcast and Time Warner customers, USATODAY reports, saying the cable operators are bowing to pressure in Washington. Comcast and Time Warner are the US's No. 1 and No. 2 cable companies, serving some 33 million subscribers. The "family tier," which would include the Disney and Discovery Channels would be "free of sex, violence and rough language." The pressure USATODAY refers to is "the Federal Communications Commission's increasing concerns about offensive cable content and surging rates." Last week FCC Chairman Kevin Martin said "cable companies should make channels available on an individual, or a la carte, basis, so people only have to pay for what they want to watch."

'Podcast': 'Word of the Year'

Looks like FamilyTechTalk got going just in time, since "podcast" has just been declared Word of the Year by the New Oxford American Dictionary. The BBC reports that the word will be added to the dictionary's online version early next year. Its editor-in-chief told the BBC that they thought about adding it last year, but not enough people were listening to podcasts yet. What else has been under consideration? One contender was "lifehack," interestingly referring to "a more efficient way of completing a everyday task. The other was 'rootkit,' defined as software installed on a computer by someone other than the owner, intended to conceal other programs or processes, files or system data. The term hit the headlines when Sony was found to have included a rootkit as part of the copy protection system on some of its music CDs. Other words that did not make it include bird flu, sudoku and trans fat."

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

The new

Rhapsody has moved onto the Web, the Seattle Times reports. Aiming for a bigger presence in blogging communities like MySpace (with 40 million users) and Xanga (with 21 million users), RealNetworks "s rolling out a Web-services platform that will allow third-party Web sites to link directly to albums and songs on Rhapsody. A blogger writing about a new song, for example, could post a link to a track that, when clicked on, will begin playing in a pop-up window." Before this, people had to download a software program (like iTunes) to use Rhapsody. Now anyone with a browser can download 25 songs a month for free, but the Times says the Rhapsody software will still have more features than the Web version.

File-sharing unabated

File-sharers may think I'm talking about Kazaa, whose parent Sharman Networks has complied with an Australian federal court order in an interesting way. Instead of adding a filtering system that blocks copyrighted music, as ordered, Sharman has only "cut off Australians' access to the Web site from which the file-swapping software Kazaa can be downloaded," CNET reports (for more detail and file-sharers' discussion, see P2P news site Slyck ). But what I'm really talking about is a USATODAY column that pretty much nails the current reality where piracy's concerned. An illustration: Columnist Andrew Kantor cites the big news last week that BitTorrent creator Bram Cohen has agreed with the film industry to "go legit" - no longer let people search for pirated content (via "torrents," or "pointers to files available for downloading) on his site. The only problem is the workarounds, the many BitTorrent-indexing sites, among them Torrentspy, where "141,651 torrents available. Each represents a song or a movie or an image or a piece of software. And Torrentspy isn't the largest" (Kazaa traffic was long ago surpassed by BitTorrent and eDonkey, and there's speculation in Slyck the company no longer even has the resources to do the software upgrade the court ordered). Anyway, the music industry now views CD-burning to be a bigger threat (see my 8/19 issue).

Ill. videogame laws struck down

Two state laws banning sales of violent or sexually explicit video games to minors have been blocked by a federal judge in Illinois, Reuters reports. US District Judge Matthew Kennelly said they would "have a 'chilling effect' on the creation and distribution of video games." The laws were due to go into effect January 1. Gov. Rod Blagojevich said he would appeal the decision. Please see the article for an update on similar legislation in other states.

'Net addiction': More 'patients'

Some mental-health professionals are calling it "Internet addiction disorder," others are calling it a fad. Whatever, it's increasingly in the news. Citing Dr. Hilarie Cash's practice in Redmond, Wash., the New York Times reports that she and other specialists treating this problem (e.g., Dr. Kimberly Young in Bradford, Pa., and Dr. Maressa Hecht Orzack in Belmont, Mass.) - which skeptics like Prof. Sara Kiesler at Carnegie Mellon U. contrast to actual physiological addictions - are estimating that 6-10% of the US's some 189 million Net users "have a dependency that can be as destructive as alcoholism and drug addiction." Even more key, it appears to me, is the view that "a majority of obsessive users are online to further addictions to gambling or pornography or have become much more dependent on those vices because of their prevalence on the Internet." The Net's downside in this area is summed up in these key phrases: affordability, accessibility, opportunity for anonymity, and an alternative reality. The Times cites an inpatient program at Procter Hospital in Peoria, Ill., that treats cocaine and Net addicts in the same therapy groups. [Parents might want to know that Dr. Cash and other therapists told the Times they're seeing a growing number of young people as patients.] For further discussion, see the Christian Science Monitor, citing research showing that "40 million Americans regularly view Internet pornography, which accounts for $2.5 billion of the $12 billion US porn industry"; the Boston Globe's "The secret life of boys"; and the Times of Oman reprinting a pay-to-view article in the UK's The Independent on "Internet addiction."

Monday, December 05, 2005

Digital paperdolls

I loved paperdolls, but that may not be a totally fair description of imstar* because, to the teenagers it targets, it must be infinitely more compelling than its 2-dimensional predecessor. This is paperdolls of the digital generation - very multimedia, more personalizable by an order of magnitude. Imstar lets instant-messaging users design their own avatars (the "animated" character that represents them in their IMs), as well as their virtual clothes, and change them and their apparel anytime they want. What I mean by "design" is everything from the shape of the avatar's face and body to eye, skin, and hair color to the way she moves to various kinds of music. This takes online role-playing to a new level. What I mean by "animated," which is so Minnie Mouse-sounding, is PS2 or Xbox 360-style animation (there will soon be guy avatars too). The fashion-conscious IM-er can use "Imbucks" to try on and "buy" clothes at the "Galleria" for her avatar to put in her "Closet" (right now, Baby Phat is a partner, with more fashion brands to be added). She can also just swap clothes with people on her buddy list. But one of the biggest selling points, VP marketing Pamela Quandt told me in a phone interview, is "less misunderstanding." I thought this was interesting. "In testing, we saw that girls were sometimes nervous about how they were perceived by the user at the other end," Pam said, referring to the anxiety a lot of digital communicators have because body language and visual feedback don't exist in cyberspace. Instead of mere emoticons (e.g., smiley faces), "imstar gives you facial expressions *and* body animations," Pam said, "so users can really showcase how they're feeling." I suspect imstar parent Bandalong has started a trend, and this armchair IM anthropologist will definitely be watching animated IM-ing developments! [Imstar is free and has some parental controls. So far, it only works for Windows XP and 2000 users, but Bandalong says it's working on a Mac version.]

'Lost' & critical thinking

What has quickly become a cult TV show, ABC's "Lost," is a great tool for teaching media literacy. Take a Lost-related site a Washington Post article leads with,, and compare it with, say, or Then surf through the other Lost links the Post provides, and make a list of ways you can tell which sites are what they say they are and which are bogus, and how you (or your kids or students) can tell which have accurate information and which have content worth some skepticism. Net-mom has a really useful page of links for critical-thinking development: "Who Says? Developing Web Literacy Skills." And if something tells you you've been fed a line on the Web or in email, there are sites that expose online hoaxes, such as,, and the one by US government's Office of Cybersecurity. [See this item about some research on critical thinking done at Wellesley College in 2003.]