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Friday, January 27, 2006

A mom on her daughters' blogging

The other day a candid, anonymous comment from the mother of three teenage girls landed in this blog, clearly aimed at getting the word out to fellow parents: "I am a writing this as a concerned parent who has just discovered our children are in danger. I'd like to share what I have recently discovered about…. When it was brought to my attention about … 2 years ago by my preteen girls, I was not concerned. I asked a lot of questions but was assured that it was very clean and well monitored, just like their websites. What I did not do was explore it first. I [didn't] until about a month ago, when my 16-year-old stepdaughter began dating much older boys and behaving oddly. I also noticed the girls (I have three) seemed to be taking a lot of pictures of themselves in a variety of outfits. Of course, all of the [photos] they showed me … were very clean. I decided to visit my teens' 'myspaces,' based on the suggestion of another concerned parent...." For the whole story, please click either to her post or to this week's issue of my newsletter for her story, followed by other examples of teen blog content from news reports in Virginia, Iowa, and Florida.

Classroom wikis & podcasts

Just what is a wiki? you might ask. Same basic concept as a blog, only better when you're talking about a whole class of students, collaborating on research, posting and needing to find information – usually, for student and school security, behind a password. Of course, the most famous example is, which – despite some pitfalls – gets some 60 million visitors a day. But in the school environment, "educators at all levels are finding ways to incorporate wikis into their teaching," reports. "Take, for example, a collaborative writing project. With a simple wiki, students from one class, multiple classes, or even multiple schools can post their writing samples for comment. The wiki structure makes it possible for several students to work on an assignment concurrently. Most wiki software packages track changes to a page so students and their teachers can see when and by whom the writing was edited." Then there are class podcasts, produced by students. The New York Times reports that iTunes lists more than 400 podcasts from classes K-12, and Yahoo nearly 900. "Some are produced by teachers wanting to reach other educators with teaching tips, while many are created by students," such as seventh-graders at Longfellow Middle School in La Crosse, Wis., who have podcast about "a mealworm's metamorphosis" and "improving memory and making studying easier." Those 7th-graders have even podcast "a story about a classroom candy thief" (the Times links to their podcast page).

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Not just Net safety

It's almost the West Coast version of the case Det. Frank Dannahey in Connecticut emailed me about: the story of 14-year-olds Valerie and Stuart and how their online socializing turned into a nightmare for Valerie's family, as told by the Petaluma (Calif.) Argus-Courier. Except that, fortunately, Valerie wasn't victimized by self-created and peer-distributed child pornography. She and her family were "only" the recipients of online threats never acted upon. But the article does a great job of laying out multiple perspectives on struggles over teen cybersocializing, at home and at school. Petaluma City Schools have identified Internet safety as a "major issue," seeing that merely filtering school computers is far from enough and that schools need to help educate parents in this area. The story also illustrates the role that social skills and street smarts are playing in kids' well-being online and how the Internet is demanding these of children at very young ages. For the view from Tennessee, see "Youngsters fuel the online journal boom" at

Net strengthens ties: Study

It's a debate as old as the Web: Do online communications isolate people or support socializing and networking? A just-released study from the Pew Internet & American Life Project says it's the latter. "Instead of disappearing, people's communities are transforming," says the study's summary: 1) They're not necessarily geographically based, but include local friends, relatives, workmates, and neighbors, so social networks are getting larger (you've probably noticed this with teenagers' "buddy lists," but this isn't just about teens); 2) the Net doesn't replace traditional communications, but rather supports regular contact by adding more options, more ways to connect (e.g., texting for confirming a date, IM-ing for gossip, email for more in-depth messaging, blogging for meeting new friends). The study uses the term "networked individualism" – how the Internet helps people move beyond networking with a single community to tapping into different communities (of individuals, not places) for different situations. There were some interesting numbers too: some 60 million Americans say the Net "has played an important or crucial role in helping them deal with at least one major life decision in the past two years," and that number has increased by one-third since 2002. Here's coverage from the BBC and the Associated Press.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Videogame pluses, minuses

One psychologist says gaming can be very effective for stress-reduction in both kids and adults. They're not chemically altering anything, and the sustained focus of attention can be good, Boston College psychology professor Joseph Tecce told the New Bedford [Mass.] Standard-Times (he recommends videogame play for kids with ADD). Indeed, one 30-year-old dad and avid gamer said he doesn't relax by going out drinking or driving drunk, he chooses to stay home with his family (but see "Cellphones disconnect us?" about "absent presence"). Professor Tecce stresses moderation, saying the difference between stress relief and obsession is the amount of time spent. And of course it falls on parents to set the time limits where young gamers are concerned. For a psychiatrist's perspective, see "A Virtual World of Their Own," by Jerald Block, MD. Meanwhile, the state of West Virginia is placing the game Dance Dance Revolution in all 765 of the state's public schools, reports - to fight the "obesity epidemic" among West Virginia youth.

Female fighters in games

Female characters are taking the lead in some much anticipated new games. The downside of this is that they're pretty violent. See USATODAY's review of the much-anticipated "Perfect Dark Zero" for Xbox 360, featuring 2020 bounty hunter Joanna Dark (the game is rated "M" for Mature/17+ - "Joanna has an extensive arsenal of weapons"). Then there's Kokoro the fighter geisha in Dead or Alive 4. Reviewer Matt Slagle of the Associated Press says there's a reason for its M rating: "In learning how to play this game, I felt like Uma Thurman's "The Bride" in Kill Bill: Vol. 2, as she's beaten down by sadomasochistic master Pai Mei. Moving into gentler gaming fare, check out USATODAY's Mark Salzman on three games rated either E (for "Everyone") or E/10+ for the most popular handheld gameplayer, the Nintendo DS: Electroplankton, Lost in Blue, and Mario Kart DS. As for the game version of the box-office hit The Chronicles of Narnia, USATODAY's Ginny Gundmundsen says the E-rated version for Game Boy Advance "focuses too much on combat."

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

The real story on filtering

The latest news isn't so much about filtering software on desktop computers plugged into household wall sockets. What parents need to be aware of is how hard it is to depend on technology to "filter" kids' experiences on an increasingly mobile Internet that can be found on a rapidly growing number of devices: handheld game players, cellphones, MP3 players, DVD players, laptops, palmtops, etc. Filtering software for desktops and laptops is still flawed but improving, according to CNET, in an update that doesn't break much new ground but does a great job of pulling together all we currently know on filters and their use by US families. It's just that filtering is less and less any kind of a solution for protecting online kids. The article is a followup to last week's news that the US Justice Department is seeking search-engine data as it gathers evidence for its next defense of the Child Online Protection Act of 1998 in federal court next fall (see last week's "COPA revisited"). The most interesting part is the info on p. 2 about how kids find work-arounds for filters: e.g., proxy servers and proxy sites. For example,, which opposes filtering, offers a free software program that "takes just minutes to set up," CNET reports. It "lets Web users turn their desktop computers into Web proxies that fly under the radar of filter programs. Users can invite friends with computers protected by filters to use their machines to override" filters. Some two dozen copies of it are downloaded every day, its publisher, Bennett Haselton, told CNET.

Young hacker pleads guilty

We hear about "hackers" who take control of zillions of home PCs and use them to send out spam, but they're pretty shadowy figures. This week's news puts a "face" on one of these guys: 20-year-old "Jeanson James Ancheta, of Downey, Calif., pleaded guilty in a Los Angeles federal court to four felony charges" of hijacking hundreds of thousands of computers," the Associated Press reports. He faces six years in prison and a fine and will have to turn over his profits and a 1993 BMW he apparently bought with is earnings. Those earnings came from infecting people's computers with a virus that opened a "back door" allowing him to take control of them, then renting out the use of them to spammers. Hijacked computers are called "zombies" that are grouped together into "botnets" (zombie or bot networks) to do certain tasks like spamming or launching denial-of-service attacks that shut down large retail sites for the purpose of extortion or "protection" money. Working with an even younger malicious hacker in Florida (ID'd by his screenname "SoBe" because he's a minor), Ancheta advertised their botnets on Internet relay chat (IRC) channels. They reportedly made $58,000 during their "14-month hacking spree." Prosecutors say Ancheta wrote in IRC chat that he was hoping this could help him delay getting a job.

Coming soon: MySpace UK

I hope UK parents have been reading news coverage of risky teenage blogging, because MySpace is crossing the Pond. A British version will launch within 30 days, the BBC reports. Parents everywhere should know that MySpace now supports video, so "home movies" will join the millions of still pictures of teens at MySpace. The two-year-old US-based site now has 50 million registered users, among them about 32 million active ones, with about 1 million in the UK. [See also "Teen photos & a police officer's story" and some "Give & Take" on blogging between 14-year-old "Susan" and her mom at (Susan talks about why she likes to post photos on p. 2).]

Monday, January 23, 2006

Virtual book talk

It's just another sign that the line between the "real" and virtual worlds is blurring. Author and Stanford law professor Larry Lessig gave a book talk in the virtual world, Second Life to promote his book Free Culture and talk about the government's approach to copyrights, CNET reports." He took the form of an avatar that looked like him, and he told CNET that, as far as book talks go, it was a freeing experience because, in a discussion about "complex legal, social and technological issues," he could actually read people's questions and type out the answers (probably in the comfort of his own home or office). The talk took place in "a digital amphitheater in a section of [Second Life's] virtual world known as Pooley. The audience [of about 100 avatars] was no normal book tour gathering. Instead, it comprised avatars such as a giant Gumby, a huge white cat, a lion and many other bizarre and unusual characters," CNET adds. Professor Lessig's audience was primarily adults, but think how much more appealing information delivered this way would be to kids, and think of the educational applications (I'm sure many educators already have)! BTW, Second Life is not really for kids. See also "Lively alternate lives" and "Second Life for teens."

iPods & privacy

Most people use iPods and other MP3 players to store music, and in some cases video. But did you know car thieves have used an iPod to store all the information that makes up people's identities? And used those identities to steal very Jaguars and BMWs? That's the true story told by CNET security writer Robert Vamosi. A few months ago, after Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, the New York Times ran a helpful how-to piece on the benefits of keeping household financial records, including account numbers and three years' worth of tax returns on an iPod or flash drive in case our homes are flooded or burned down. It's a great idea, but – if one happened to lose that little pocket-size repository of our personal info – where would we be? Just another thing for families to be aware of in this age of supreme "convenience." It's not about kid safety, really. A lost cellphone would be more of an issue where teens are concerned and how it could be used to find its owner. [Meanwhile, a panel at the Sundance Film Festival looked at the future of "cinema on the go," CNET reports, and the Washington Post told the story of iPods sold pre-loaded with movies and TV shows (find them on eBay, USATODAY reports.]