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Friday, May 12, 2006

'Dollhouses' & other digital games

When you were a kid, did you ever play a role-reversal game with your parents at the dinner table? My brother and I did, and apparently the game hasn't gone away. It has simply gone virtual. The New York Times depicts Francesca, 9, and Richard, 6, "hard at play in Pelham, N.Y., renovating the four-bedroom house they share and picking up after the wayward family they look after." Only that 4BR house is virtual. It's in The Sims. Please check my newsletter this week for more on this and the highlights of all the gaming news from the E3 extravaganza (annual gaming inudstry conference and show).

Teen social-networker 'tethered'

A 13-year-old in Detroit who lied about her age online and ran off with the 25-year-old man she lied to, was charged this week with "home truancy," the Detroit News reports. "Home truancy is considered a "status offense," or an offense where a crime is not committed, but where behavior of a minor warrants court action," the News explains. In this case, the court action includes requiring the 13-year-old to wear a tether (a GPS-enabled ankle strap) and stay off the Internet until her pre-trial hearing later this month. This is the first case I've seen in the news where tethering was applied to a Net-related runaway case. The Indiana man whom the girl "met" in MySpace "was freed Thursday morning from the Macomb County Jail after officials decided he did not commit a crime by driving the girl across Michigan." The girl had given his number to a girlfriend, who got worried and called the girl's mother, who called the police. Here's the Detroit Free Press's coverage. Cases like this certainly contribute to the "culture of fear" Reuters refers to in in "As freedom shrinks, teens seek MySpace to hang out" (also in the Washington Post).

Female screennames riskier

Tell online girls you know that if they choose screennames that give away their gender, they're much more likely to get "threatening and sexually explicit messages," the Associated Press reports. The AP is citing a study by Michel Cukier, a professor at the University of Maryland's Center for Risk and Reliability. "In the study, automated chat-bots and human researchers logged on to chat rooms under female, male, and ambiguous screen names, such as Nightwolf, Orgoth and Stargazer. Bots using female names averaged 100 malicious messages a day, compared with about four for those using male names and about 25 for those with ambiguous names. Researchers logging on themselves produced similar results." Professor Cukier told the AP that writing software code that can tell the difference between male and female online shows the offending messages weren't automatically generated.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Federal social-networking law proposed

Rep. Fitzgerald (R) of Pennsylvania has just proposed the Deleting Online Predators Act (DOPA), a law that would require US schools and libraries to block social-networking sites and would require FTC and FCC involvement in public education and regulation of "commercial Web sites that let users create public 'Web pages or profiles' and also offer a discussion board, chat room, or email service," CNET reports. "That's a broad category that covers far more than social-networking sites such as Friendster and Google's It would also sweep in a wide range of interactive Web sites and services, including, AOL and Yahoo's instant-messaging features, and Microsoft's Xbox 360, which permits in-game chat." CNET adds that the bill "is part of a new, poll-driven effort by Republicans to address topics that they view as important to suburban voters."

The new Netiquette

It's developing organically, has both online and offline elements, and – as you can imagine – is complicated. As you would expect from any representation of multiple relationships. Of course I'm talking about social-networking Netiquette. It is taking shape among millions of teens and 20-somethings as I write, and it's growing out of a formula that looks something like this (thoughtfully boiled down and reported by the Los Angeles Times): "First, name the eight most important people in your life - friends, family, rock stars. These are your Top 8. Now rank those people in order of importance. Finally, send a copy of this list to everybody you know, including people who didn't make the cut. Be careful not to hurt the wrong feelings, or you may end up getting bumped from other people's Top 8s. Go ahead and bite your nails. Realize the magnitude of these decisions." This is the kind of thinking the social-networkers at your house or school are going through. It just might interfere with homework. ;-) But isn't it great to know that etiquette rules are developing? Example: "Number of friends: Too many, you're deemed a 'MySpace whore,' too few, a loser. (Caveat: If you're in a band, or you're a middle-school kid who lied about your age to get on MySpace and are competing with friends to see who's most popular, 'too many' is a good thing [but then that would mark you as underage, right?].)" The article's a great read, and - for people who think "kids have no manners these days" - essential reading. Wasn't etiquette always based on civilization's social realities and necessities? Social-networking is a fledgling but real part of civilization now, and good behavioral thinking is in process.

FTC's social-networking advice

The US Federal Trade Commission this week unveiled its "Safety Tips for Social Networking Online" for parents and tweens and teens. If all your kids do is absorb and act on the "Quick Facts" right at the top, they'll go a long way to doing their own good protective work online. Because the Web is now so accessible in so many places and on so many devices, increasingly we need to empower our kids to think for themselves online – stay alert in public social sites and situations, think before they post, and protect their privacy and reputations. Here are our own 6 tips for teens at BlogSafety.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Mobile uploads

Just as social-networkers soon won't need computers to use MySpace, video and photo uploaders won't need computers either. Now young video producers can upload their homemade films to with their cellphones, CNET reports. "A growing number of handheld devices are capable of recording video. YouTube wants to disconnect users from their Web cams and computers," according to CNET, which is likely to spell "greater numbers of spontaneous and candid clips." Something for users and their parents to think about. Spontaneity is a two-edged sword, with a big potential downside for the subjects of spontaneously uploaded video clips. The Register in the UK mentions a fairly graphic example involving a phone-distributed still photo: "Teachers at a school in Newcastle upon Tyne are being balloted on strike action after a pupil who snapped a picture of a female teacher's cleavage on his mobile phone was allowed to return to class. The snap was taken as the teacher leaned forward, and subsequently sent to other pupils." It's not a great leap to think about videos posted to a Web site.

Next social-networking issue

To my mind, the big three concerns where young online socializers are concerned are predation (by adults), bullying (peers), and marketing (marketers and peers). Predation has the highest fear factor, of course, but probably the lowest across-the-board impact; it's also where most of the media attention is stuck at the moment. Bullying, which covers everything from gossipy meanness to harassment to threats of school violence, is definitely on schools' radar screens (so it's the No. 2 SN topic in the media) and needs more parental mindshare. The media are only just beginning to look at the marketing piece. Today, CNET gives a great example of what social-networkers can expect on the viral marketing front. "Viral marketing" is the very cost-effective practice of marketers using users as "co-marketers" (instead of one-to-many mass-marketing, it's peer-to-peer, much more personal – a message from a friend is much more influential, the theory goes). The potential, in other words, and what we'll be hearing more about from psychologists and watchdogs, is impressionable kids being used to promote products. "Using special tools, marketers and people seeking fame on MySpace [for example] can game the system and take advantage of what experts call 'unintended features' allowed by the Web site," CNET reports, referring to techniques like data-mining people's profiles (to target ads and users) and automating messages to "Friends" lists. See CNET for details. Of course, politicians get this, too. California gubernatorial candidate Phil Angelides has a MySpace page, the San Francisco Chronicle reports.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

More Mac attacks?

Of course, it seems to be a bit of a conflict of interest when a computer security company says computers are at risk, but Macs are reportedly increasingly vulnerable. Antivirus provider McAfee "claims that Macs are 'just as vulnerable' as Windows PCs, but admits there is no significant risk to Mac users at the moment," ZDNET reports. McAfee now sells VirusScan for Mactel. To back up its announcement, "McAfee cited the release in March of a patch that fixed 20 vulnerabilities in OS X. But although a proof-of-concept worm that targeted the OS X platform was also discovered earlier this year, many more flaws were discovered in Microsoft products over the same period," ZDNET adds. Here's coverage from Internet News. Adding this May 12: Later in the week, Apple issued a patch that fixed "some 25 different vulnerabilities," Internet News reported.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Safe search for kids

The Washington Post says "the next target for fed-up parents" after parental-controls software is "Internet search engines such as Google and Yahoo," but I think parents have been thinking about what young Web researchers can stumble on with search engines for a long time. Before social-networking and blogging came along, that was a big reason why there were (and are) parental controls – especially for kids and tweens. Certainly it's true that "the upside of the modern-day search engine - an index of Web sites on the Internet - is also the downside": the bad stuff that's accessible along with the good. The Post features NetTrekker, "a child-safe search engine featuring 180,000 sites that are regularly reviewed by 400 volunteer teachers" and being used in some 12,000 schools. A home version is now available. The Post doesn't mention Kidsnet parental controls (described in this newsletter a couple of years ago), also drawing on a database of only human-reviewed Web sites and with its own kid-friendly search engine, But there's also something to be said for a simple, one-task product like NetTrekker that can work with any filtering software (the company says). For other options, see "Kid-friendly search engines."

For kids who just want to get their homework done – find some sites that describe black-footed ferrets or list all the native American tribes in English a 4th-grader can understand - these safe search engines' biggest selling point is relevance. Even filtered Google turns up *way* too many results irrelevant to kids in K-6.

MySpace passe?

Hardly. But young interests do move on, and here's an early sign: "MySpace is just so last year" in the Wichita Eagle. The Eagle leads with the experience of high school sophomore Lula Larios, who has moved on to, a more closed social-networking site along the lines of The key is that her peer group appears to be at Bebo too. Teens don't switch services individually, it appears – it's a group migration, which makes any social-networking site, including MySpace "stickier" than your typical Web site. The Eagle looks at other such sites, including (though for people 18+, its Terms of Service say) and (which looks more like an online party, or social, game than mere social-networking). Further evidence, too, of how amorphous social-networking is – it's sprouting all kinds of offshoots, and getting grafted into media-hosting and social-bookmarking or -tagging sites like and (which the Eagle also mentions). The one concern about the more closed sites that's just beginning to surface is whether they provide a false sense of security – I'll address in more detail soon.