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Friday, February 29, 2008

Public humiliation on the social Web

Judging from emails to and posts in the forum, not to mention news about social networking, online public humiliation - harassment, cyberbullying, imposter profiles, etc. is a growing problem for adults as well as tweens and teens (see this week's "Window on cyberbullying").

Social stigma has its place in society, but for its role to remain appropriate and useful, we - society wherever people use the social Web - need to keep the Web version from getting completely out of control. Newsweek gives some examples of these online forms of harassment. What can be done? Well, first, it's not useful to place all the blame on social sites. Newsweek illustrates right at the top how public humiliation of the "starwars kid" long predated social networking. Even the Internet can't be blamed - most Americans have heard of NBC's "To Catch a Predator" on the old medium of TV. Certainly, social-networking sites need to be responsible and responsive to abuse reports, but a pile-on of public blame (mostly in the news media) in a single place only delays problem-solving.

Public shaming is an element of human nature, not technology, and it's going to take a conscious effort on everybody's part - youth, parents, educators, counselors and responsible Internet companies - to help keep this darkside of human nature under control on the Net as well as in the rest of human life.

You may've noticed lawmakers weren't on that list in the last paragraph. Certainly as a part of society they can help too, but laws aren't very effective regulators of noncriminal human behavior, and - as Newsweek reports - "laws on free speech and defamation vary widely between countries [social sites in many cases cover multiple countries]. In the United States, proving libel requires the victim to show that his or her persecutor intended malice, while the British system puts the burden on the defense to show that a statement is not libelous (making it much easier to prosecute)." As well, in US courts so far, the 1996 Communications Decency Act has protected social sites and other Internet services from liability for the speech and behavior of their users.

Just for starters, we all need to be thinking about and discussing - in homes, classrooms, the media - the impact of exploiting the non-face-to-face disinhibition of Internet communication with cruel or destructive communication - how it affects the perpetrator as well as the victim and society, and how good citizenship is just as important online as off. Recent milestone research at the Crimes Against Children Research Center found that aggressive behavior can put the aggressor himself at greater risk (see this commentary at There never was an easy way to stop this base human tendency to seek empowerment through the humiliation of others, and online it's even harder to take harmful behavior back. Let's help our children think about how harmful it is to one's own integrity, as well as to others', to cause and perpetuate their humiliation online.

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Thursday, February 28, 2008

Avatar chat's downside

For some teens it's harmless fun, for others's chat-by-avatar (an animated character that represents you online) can be pretty explicit. How good or bad the experience is depends on the user, and there are some sexually exploratory teens in the site mixing it up with adult users (there has been a lot of discussion about this in our forum). Here's the first news story I've seen about its darkside for teens, a pretty grainy, local story at in Connecticut in which a police investigator logged into a teen user's account and found links to avatars engaged simulating sex. Here's a review of IMVU at the IMSafer blog, which also mentions the risqué clothing on many female avatars, most of which seem to have body shapes that even Barbie would fantasize about. [IMVU is the second site reviewed in the IMSafer post; the first is another site with a definite downside for teens: Webcam site]

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Wednesday, February 27, 2008

National filtering for Oz may happen

It may still happen after all, I mean. After declaring the Howard government's effort to have the Internet filtered for households nationwide a failure, Australia's new Rudd government will persevere with the program. It's now in a test phase, Australian IT reports. "ISP-based filters will block inappropriate web pages at service provider level and automatically relay a clean feed to households. To be exempted, users will have to individually contact their ISPs." The filtering was the centerpiece of the Howard government's $189 million NetAlert program launched last August," the Sydney Morning Herald reported earlier.

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Child ID theft

If your kids start getting credit card offers in the mail, it's no joke. It's quite possible their identities have been stolen. A way to find out is to check with the Social Security Administration, to see if they have earnings reports, in South Carolina reports. Just how can this happen? It's actually not usually an online problem. "Identity thieves can steal a child’s information in a number of ways," according to "Many times a parent will use his or her child’s identity because of their own bad credit. But strangers can also get the information fairly easily by sifting through trash, stealing mail, or taking it from a form that’s not properly protected." A whole group of kids became victims after their pediatrician's office left a patient check-in book with names and social security numbers out on the medical office counter. Check out the SCnow article to see what the Federal Trade Commission says to do if a toddler you know has an earnings report - or go to's page on ID theft or the FTC's index to all its resources on the subject.

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Boys & girls on Web 2.0

A thoughtful New York Times piece looks at the social Web's young innovators and reports that "the cyberpioneers of the moment are digitally effusive teenage girls," referring to the Pew/Internet findings that they're the biggest creators of Web graphics, blogs, photos, profile pages, and sites (35% of girls 12-17 have blogs vs. 20% of boys; 32% of girls have Web pages vs. 22% of boys; and 70% of girls 15-17 have social-site profiles vs. 57% of boys 15-17). It's funny that the Times and (everybody else, seemingly) goes on to cite with surprise statistics about the *dearth* of girls in computer science programs - as if all this creativity on their part is somehow about computers and technology! "It is possible that the girls who produce glitters today will develop an interest in the rigorous science behind computing, but some scholars are reluctant to draw that conclusion." Well, of course. Harvard Law School's Berkman Center seems to understand that creativity on the Net is no more about technology than it is offline: "The result of [its] focus groups and interviews with young people 13 to 22, suggests that girls’ online practices tend to be about their desire to express themselves, particularly their originality." As for boys, here's an interesting observation: "THE one area where boys surpass girls in creating Web content is posting videos. This is not because girls are not proficient users of the technology, Professor Palfrey said. He suggested, rather, that videos are often less about personal expression and more about impressing others. It’s an ideal way for members of a subculture — skateboarders, snowboarders — to demonstrate their athleticism, he said." Remember, that's a quote.

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Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Habbo Hotel invader

This alert for Habbo Hotel's young users is actually a heads-up for everyone on the social Web. Users need to be alert about the "tools" they download to enhance their pages. mentions an alert from WebSense computer security firm specifically about "Trojan" keylogger software buried in one of those tools for Habbo users and links to a screenshot of the message. The keylogger software gathers Habbo account users' log-in info in order break in and steal the "Coins" stored in those accounts. Habbo Coins are worth real money (see this page at


Online ed for little tykes has always meant ad-free entertainment for the littlest surfers. Now the US's Public Broadcasting Service has a new educational service for children 3-6: PBS Kids Play "is a subscription-based service that lets children play animated games with characters like Curious George and learn basic skills in reading, listening comprehension, and problem solving," CNET reports. CNET adds that parents have their own area of the service where they can see how their kids are progressing in terms of national educational standards. See also USATODAY's coverage.

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Monday, February 25, 2008

Cellphone planet!

Literally cellphone planet: "The human race is crossing a line. There is now one cellphone for every two humans on Earth. From essentially zero, we've passed a watershed of more than 3.3 billion active cellphones on a planet of some 6.6 billion humans in about 26 years," the Washington Post reports. "This is the fastest global diffusion of any technology in human history," and the projection is 4 billion cellphones by 2010, moving on to 5 billion afte just a few years beyond that. Why? It's very flexible portable sociability (texting, talking, social networking) - even more portable than IM-ing and Web-based social networking, and look how those two technologies have taken off! The Post cites the view of Arthur Molella, director of the Smithsonian's Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, that sociability is "the essence of the human species."

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Window on cyberbullying

For some valuable high school students' views on cyberbullying, see the Paly Voice, the students online newspaper of Palo Alto High School. For example, it tells of how "many students who use Facebook to bully each other do not leave negative comments directly on each other's profiles because their identities would be made public." Instead they leave them in a widget-enabled spot called "Honesty Box," where "students are not afraid to go all out, holding nothing back." Facebook reportedly maintains a neutral position on these little applications that third parties offer to its users, and some are pure entertainment, but others seem to lend themselves more to negative behavior than positive. "In addition to the Honesty Box, other applications such as 'Compare People' allow them to bully their peers." And they do, the Paly Voice says: "In Compare People, photos of two random students are presented with a question and a third peer votes on which friend fits the question more. Anyone who has the application can vote their peers superlatives like 'Most popular' and 'Hottest'."