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Friday, May 16, 2008

Self-injury 'support' online

This is an example of how at-risk teen behavior can get the wrong kind of reinforcement online, but the Internet can also be a means of earlier detection - if parents and friends find out where on the Net a teen is getting that reinforcement. Experts say increasing numbers of teens are discussing self-injury on the Web and forming "cutting clubs" at school. The trend is "prompting many to try it who might not otherwise have known about it," the New York Times reports. "There are no exact numbers for this largely hidden problem, but anonymous surveys among college students suggest that 17% of them have self-injured, and experts estimate that self-injury is practiced by 15% of the general adolescent population." The behavior is a way of turning emotional pain on oneself and can be addictive. "Experts theorize that it may be reinforced by the release in the brain of opioidlike endorphins that result in a natural high and emotional relief," according to the Times. The support or validation found in cutting groups online or at school can also help perpetuate self-injury. Please see the article for information on detection and treatment.


What kids search for

Interestingly, even at school, "games" is the No. 1 search term young people type into the search box. "Animals" did very well too, with "dogs" No. 2, "animals" next, and "sharks" and "frogs" in the Top 15. "George Washington," "Holocaust," and "Abraham Lincoln" ranked 5-7. NetTrekker, a search engine used in 20,000 schools throughout the US, has just started publishing a quarterly index of the Top 15 search terms students use. "The total number of unique search terms for the spring quarter was 1,844,677." Here's parent Thinkronize's press research.

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Thursday, May 15, 2008

What mobile carriers need to do for kids

US cellphone companies have made impressive headway with parental controls lately. That's great in terms of preventive measures, but this country's mobile industry has quite a ways to go, compared with those of some other countries, on support for kids and families after bad stuff happens.

I'll tell you what I mean in a moment, but first here is what's in place right now. According to the mobile industry's Wireless Foundation, all the major carriers - Alltel, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon Wireless - offer:

  • The ability to turn off Web access on children's phones (under a parent's account)
  • If Web access is allowed, basic filtering, as well as blocking of phone-based purchases at no extra cost
  • The ability to turn off text messaging on kids' phones, or "sub-accounts"
  • The ability to block text messages or phone calls from specific numbers on some of the phones each carrier offers
  • The ability to monitor kids' minutes and text messages (the bills they're running up) via the carriers' Web sites
  • The ability to limit the times of day children can use their phones (in some cases at additional charge).

    So why is technology not enough? Because for the same reason tech controls on a single computer are no longer by themselves enough protection on the everywhere, anytime, user-driven, multimedia, multi-device fixed and mobile social Web, tech controls aren't enough on phones. Certainly technology can be a help on any platform - like bandaids in a family First Aid kit - but kids find workarounds both technical and non-technical, including using their friends' phones and accounts.

    Even more key is that - for young people - devices are just means to an end. Socializing is the focus, not its enablers. Solution development increasingly has to be as holistic, cross-platform, and collaborative as the "problem." And what ultimately protects the vast majority of teens is the software between their ears, with parents providing backup.

    No matter how much support and good sense they have, however, teens take risks - because risk assessment, child development experts say, is a primary task of adolescence, along with personal and social identity exploration. In the midst of all that, sometimes things come up, and those things most frequently fall in the huge gray area that is noncriminal and beyond the scope of law enforcement, as much as law enforcement needs to be in the mix.

    One example of behavior in this gray area is peer harassment, often called cyberbullying (a term that's less than meaningful to teens - see this). It has been happening a lot on phones, longer in other countries. In the UK, "bullying" is the single biggest issue mobile companies get abuse reports about concerning kids, a colleague there told me. Britain's major carriers have worked on this a lot, and one of them, O2, has a team of more than 100 staff people specifically trained to deal with bullying and other children's phone abuse issues. Vodafone has done a lot of work in this area too.

    In New Zealand, I recently spent an afternoon at NetSafe, the country's premier online-safety organization. NetSafe works with New Zealand's two major carriers, Vodafone NZ and NZ Telecom, which have customer-service staff trained to detect and send these gray-area issues on to NetSafe for quick dispatch to the expertise most appropriate for each case. This approach illustrates the "holistic, cross-platform, collaborative" approach I mention above: NetSafe works with young people, parents, educators, legal advisers, law enforcement, psychologists, and policymakers; these people know that solutions to cyberbullying, domestic violence, nude photo-sharing, teacher defamation, or any problem kids experience almost always requires more than one skill set to work through.

    This is the kind of support - customizable, holistic, collaborative, and remedial as well as preemptive - that is most realistic for young people whose everyday lives are increasingly blended with technology. Social-networking services have already implemented, have *had* to implement, measures with those characteristics: preemptive ones such as consumer education, PSAs, and training videos for parents; reactive, back-office ones such as customer-service staff trained for child protection, dedicated helplines for educators and law enforcement, and dedicated customer service for parents; and collaborative ones such as lobbying for more effective legislation and developing technology for law enforcement. Now the mobile carriers need to too. Not that I'm singling them out: Online games, gaming communities, and virtual worlds are on the next frontier for kid-tech safety.

    Related links

  • The Federal Trade Commission has been looking into what sorts of rules and regs there might need to be to protect kids on cellphones, Internet News reports - from whether there should even be ads (around premium services such as wallpapers and ringtones) aimed at youth to age challenges for people making transactions with their phones. On the latter, right now kids could just lie when a screen pops up requesting their age, so the wireless industry is looking into technology like that on the Web where a "cookie" installed on a site visitor's computer can stop a user who is denied entry from going back and entering a different age.
  • "Students cautioned to avoid cell phone, Web pitfalls" in the Minneapolis area's Pioneer Press
  • In the UK, "21 million UK mobile phone subscribers - of a total of almost 48 million - belong to a social-networking site. Out of this 21 million around 5 million" people use their phones to access their social-networking profiles at least once a month, The Guardian reports.
  • The Wall Street Journal looks at the range of parental-control features available from both carriers and third-party providers.
  • Check out the newest plague in the pipeline for mobile users - text spam on phones. The New York Times reports.
  • See how far we've come: I first wrote about parental controls on phones back in 2004.

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  • Anyone can have a social site now

    This has actually been true for a while. A year ago I wrote "Mini-MySpaces: Social Web's new phase" about how anyone could create his own social-networking site on Last month I blogged about competitors to Ning offering would-be social site owners more options. This week Google further upped the ante in announcing Friend Connect, allowing people to add social-networking features to any existing blog or Web site for free. So now it's really true that there could be as many social-networking sites in the world as there are Internet users. Because we've arrived at where creating a blog, a Web page, or a social-networking site is as cut-'n'-paste a proposition as using Word. This is fabulous for artists, retailers, hobbyists, etc. who want to involve their friends.

    But let's think about the child-safety implications too. You could say that as opportunities for self-expression grow, so unfortunately do opportunities for pranks, harassment, defamation, etc. in the social Web's mirror of "real life." Have the US's state attorneys general thought about age verification for every young Web site owner or blogger and somehow making them as well as MySpace and Facebook impose it on every visitor to their sites? The other issue hardly anybody in the US talks about is how international the social Web is. Do US attorneys general think any law or technology could require social networkers in other countries to be carded at the door of US-based social sites - or overseas sites to verify the ages of US-based users? Here's the Washington Post on this development.

    Wednesday, May 14, 2008

    Age verification not the 'killer app', a site and forum, Larry Magid and I co-direct, was invited to join the Internet Safety Task Force that is part of MySpace's settlement last January with 49 state attorneys general. The Task Force's first meeting last month - attended by Internet companies including MySpace, Facebook, Bebo, AOL, Google, and Yahoo, age- and identity-verification companies, and online-safety organizations - caused Larry to feel "a bit of a disconnect," he wrote in a commentary at Why? Because one of the Task Force's main goals is to see if age verification technology can be used to protect minors from bad stuff in social sites and," yet, at its first full meeting ... the experts who addressed the task force painted a picture that causes me to wonder if such technology would be helpful even if it could be employed." Pls check out his piece to see why. See also "Verifying kids' ages: Key question for parents" and "Social networker age verification revisited."

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    MySpace, Facebook, et al: Data portability

    "Data portability" is kind of a techie term, but it's something a lot of avid social networkers have been waiting for - being able to have their "credentials" (user name, password, profile info, etc.) move around the social Web with them, rather than having separate IDs and log-ins all over the place. It's great if you're just you online, but if you're trying out different personas or playing to different publics, it's just another step toward transparency and could make it hard to remember who you were where! "Welcome to the social mess," quips a CNET blogger, though she's referring to all the various 'n' sundry interoperability projects - OpenID, OpenSocial, Flux, MyBlogLog, OAuth, etc. - that have been in the works and which approaches will win out. MySpace made its announcement first, about its Data Availability (among Fox Interactive sites and partners eBay, Yahoo, and Twitter - see The Telegraph's coverage). Next was Facebook's, with its own project called Facebook Connect, CNET blogger Caroline McCarthy reported separately. Google's Friend Connect is different (see "Anyone can have a social site now" this week).

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    Tuesday, May 13, 2008

    Global SN growth: New study

    The Philippines has been dubbed "the social networking capital of the world" by a CNET blogger citing a new 29-country survey by Universal McCann called "Wave 3." The country only has 15% Internet penetration, but 83% of those Net users have social-networking accounts, adds in the Philippines. The vast majority of those social-networking accounts are at Following the Philippines are Hungary (where 80% of Net users use social sites), Poland (77%), and Mexico (76%). In other key findings, "the Philippines also has the highest percentage of users (86%) who have uploaded photos in these social networks, ahead of China (73%), Mexico (72%) and Brazil (70%); and 98% of Filipino Net users have watched videos on YouTube, tops in this category too, ahead of Mexico and Brazil. The world's top 5 social sites, according to the Universal McCann survey, are MySpace (with 32.3%), Facebook (22.5%), Blogger (15.7%), Baidu (15%), and QQ (14.6%). [There is no direct link to the Wave 3 survey in the Universal McCann site, so click on the study in the upper-right-hand corner.]

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    Monday, May 12, 2008

    'Curmudgeon's' guide to widgets

    Not everyone loves widgets, those little applications supposedly adding fun and a sort of animation to social-networking profiles. Parents, here's the perspective of someone who finds some of them a little annoying (words such as "insidious" and "invasive" are used), including Facebook's No. 1 app, the FunWall. Another, bigger, reason to be wary of widgets is in the privacy-protection area. Note this from the Associated Press: "People often think Facebook profiles and sometimes MySpace pages, if they're set as private, are only available to friends or specific groups, such as a university, workplace, or even a city. But that's not true if they use applications [aka "widgets"]. On Facebook, for instance, applications can only be downloaded if a user checks a box allowing its developers to 'know who I am and access my information,' which means everything on a profile, except contact info. Given little thought, agreeing to the terms has become a matter of routine for the nearly 70 million Facebook users worldwide who use applications to spruce up their pages and to flirt, play and bond with friends online."

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