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Friday, September 26, 2008

The ISTTF: Chicken or egg?

"ISTTF" stands for Internet Safety Technical Task Force, the result of an agreement last January between 49 state attorneys general (minus Texas) and MySpace. The emphasis is on the word "technical," because the attorneys general basically charged the task force, of which I'm a member, with reviewing technical solutions to online youth risk - "age verification" technology being their stated predetermined solution of choice. Why? Because they're law enforcement people. They deal with crime - not all these other subjects that have come up in online-youth and social-media research - so they probably feel that this is all about crime and technology, so some technology that separates adult criminals from online kids, or that somehow identifies every American on the Web, is what will make the Internet safe for youth.

The problem is, we now know - via a growing body of research - that young people's use of technology for socializing is not limited to MySpace, to social networking in general, or even to the Web. Youth don't even focus on what technology or device (phone, chat, blogs, IM, Skype, computer, Xbox Live, Club Penguin, World of Warcraft, etc.) they use when they're socializing. They just communicate, produce, and socialize. So the "problem" is not technology. We're dealing with behavior, learning, adolescent development, social norm development, and identity formation, here. What technology is going to give adults (those who want it) control over that, or somehow sequester American youth into American sites that are compelled to verify ages, or separate adults and children across the entire universe of increasingly mobile, device-agnostic communications, media-sharing, and social activity?

Besides, we also know now that only a tiny percentage - well under 1% - of US youth are at risk of being victimized by the kinds of crimes the attorneys general put the Task Force together for, and this minority is, unfortunately, already at risk in "real life." Technology probably doesn't have much of a chance at curing the age-old struggles of troubled youth - certainly not ID verification technology.

The other thing we know, though we adults don't think about it a whole lot, is that the "problem" is changing - fast (it actually won't be that long before our teenagers are parents!). Because nobody's brains are fully developed till their early 20s, teens need our input, but so do we need theirs. For the most part, youth understand what's happening with tech and the social Web, they're the drivers of it, they're changing (growing up), and technology is changing faster than we can keep up with it, so we don't have anything close to a static "problem" to get a fix on, much less to fix.

Which leads me to the chicken/egg question. The first day we heard at least a dozen presentations by purveyors of various technologies, many of them focused on verifying either ages (very hard with US minors, who under federal privacy law have very little verifiable personal information in public records) or identities. By the end of the day I couldn't shake off the unnerving picture of a roomful of baby boomers (digital non-natives, including me) - many of whom barely understand the "problem," much less the full picture of young social Web participants, and some of whom stand to gain a great deal from selling the Task Force on a particular technology for nationwide adoption - trying to assert control over the unruly social Web. The understanding is growing, not least because the Task Force has a research advisory board as well as a technical one, and the former is right now completing a review of all research on youth online safety to date - the first of its kind. This is brilliant! So what's wrong with this picture? Seems to me the research comes first, then - as we understand the problem - we begin to look at what the solutions should be.

The second day we heard from a Rochester Institute of Technology sociology professor with a background in law enforcement. It's an important study (I'll blog about it more next week) because it looks at Internet use by more than 40,000 Rochester-area students all the way from kindergarten up through 12th grade, and it offered the Task Force insights into the peer-on-peer, noncriminal but negative and sometimes unethical and illegal side of the online-safety question. But youth were referred to in an extremely negative adversarial way, first- and second-graders referred to as "perpetrators" and "offenders." For example, the "four types" of middle-school "online offenders," he said, are "generalists, pirates, academic cheaters, and deceiving bullies." As useful as the data is, I don't feel this is productive language to use when trying to change behavior or inspire children about digital citizenship (see my description of an amazing such project at Bel Aire Elementary School in Tiburon, Calif., here).

So there you have one person's (rambling) perspective. There are others available now - that of Adam Thierer of the Washington, DC-based Progress & Freedom Foundation and a more radical one from CNET blogger and Berkman fellow Chris Soghoian. [The Task Force is hosted and chaired by the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School.]

Your views are always welcome - in our forum here, posted in this blog, or via anne[at] With your permission, I love to publish your views for the benefit of all readers.

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Federal judge allows students' suspension

The 10-day suspension of two eighth-graders in Pennsylvania school was in response to their creation of an imposter MySpace profile representing their principal "as a pedophile and a sex addict, among other things," reports. In its coverage of the ruling, the Student Press Law Center reports that US District Judge James "wrote in his opinion that the arguments fell into three categories: 1) Were Snyders’ First Amendment rights violated by the school?; 2) Were the district’s policies unconstitutionally vague and overbroad?; 3) And did the school violate the Snyder’s parental rights?" He answered all three in the negative, saying the oft-used Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District was about the censoring of political speech not the "lewd and vulgar" speech in the fake profile. "Munley instead analyzed Snyder’s speech under three different student speech rulings by the US Supreme Court," according to the Student Press Law Center, in particular "Bethel School District v. Fraser, which said public schools could 'prohibit the use of vulgar and offensive terms in public discourse" and "Hazlewood School District v. Kuhlmeier, which said 'educators do not offend the First Amendment by exercising editorial control over the style and content of speech so long as their actions are reasonably related to legitimate, pedagogical concerns.” An attorney for the ACLU said the judge "failed to recognize that a school cannot restrict a student's speech 'anywhere it is uttered' simply because it's vulgar and targets a school official."

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Thursday, September 25, 2008

Research: Great cross-pollination

This really makes sense: a new research lab that brings together experts in technology, sociology, physics, economists, psychologists, and social media - even digital ethnography - doing both quantitative and qualitative research. Microsoft is establishing this research lab in Cambridge, Mass., at a time, I think, when interdisciplinary work has never been needed more. So far the facility "has a team of 33 researchers, students and interns ... from MIT, Harvard, Stanford University and Hebrew University," Computerworld reports." One project lab director Jennifer Chayes describes is the development of "math models that account for [digital ethnographer danah boyd's] observations [through thousands of interviews with teen social networkers] about the way social networks are layered, and that there are different kinds of friendships." We can only hope Microsoft will share findings that would advance public discussion and understanding.

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Landlines out the window?

Well, not quite, but the number of people abandoning landline phone service is rising, especially among youth. JupiterResearch found that 12% of Internet users don't have fixed phone service and almost two-thirds of the 12% are between 18 and 34, the New York Times reports. Another 12% "indicate their intent to replace home phone service with exclusive cellphone use during the next 12 months," the Times adds. Still, fixed phone use is still pretty high: 70% of Net users still have fixed lines in their homes provided by a phone, 15% have fixed phone service from a cable company, and 3% from an Internet service provider.

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Flight attendants want filters

US flight attendants really don't want to become the porn police of the sky. Leaders of the US's flight attendants' union (representing some 19,000 airline workers) including American Airlines flight attendants, asked AA "to consider adding filters to its in-flight Wi-Fi access to prevent passengers from viewing porn and other inappropriate Web sites while in-flight," CNET reports. Several airlines are testing wireless access right now. CNET adds: "The truth is that it hasn't been a major problem on flights thus far. In fact, American Airline's spokesman Tim Smith told Bloomberg that the 'vast majority' of customers already use good judgment in what's appropriate to look at while flying versus what's not."

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Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Battle of the MMOGs?

With "MMOGs," I'm referring to massively multiplayer online games, and the "battle" that's shaping up is between 10 million-member World of Warcraft and just-launched Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning. USATODAY says the newcomer might "siphon off" some of WoW's success, but there's probably room - if not in players' schedules, then - in the huge and growing MMOG market for a lot of new games. A few facts about MMOGs in general and WoW in particular: The US market alone (WoW has players in many countries) is "expected to amount to about $800 million this year," up from $700 million last year and $332 million in 2004," USATODAY reports, citing data from market researcher DFC Intelligence. WoW players spend $40-60 up front to buy the game's software, then $15/month to play. Warhammer is published by Electronic Arts and was created by Mythic Entertainment. [See also this item about when WoW passed the 10 million mark (about a quarter of those players are in North America).]

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More bloggers in hot water

Bloggers are getting more attention from lawyers, these days. They're "starting to receive legal letters when they upset someone with enough money to hire a media lawyer," the Financial Times reports, and "defamation, offensive messages, incitement, compromising intellectual property, linking to illegal websites, and inaccurate reporting can all get you into hot water, regardless of whether you are a blogger, journalist, publisher or an e-mail user." This is an opportunity for all of us - parents and young people - to learn more about their free speech rights. "Just 5% of internet users are clear on their legal rights and responsibilities when posting comment online," the FT cites a law firm's research as showing. The study found that 77% of bloggers are "uncertain or unaware of where the law stands."

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Tuesday, September 23, 2008

A teacher on texting

High school teacher Allison Cohen asked 90 of her students about their texting practices where school and academics were concerned and then wrote about it. But in this insightful article at bNetSavvy, you'll not only find her students' views but also hers and those of fellow teachers as well. If parents have concerns about cellphone abuse at school, do check this out.

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Monday, September 22, 2008

Tweens are into phones

If you want some data to back you up when your middle-schooler tells you that "Everybody has a cellphone," has some. Citing Nielsen Mobile research, it reports that "46% of US tweens (ages 8 to 12) use cellphones, but only 26% own them" and about 20% are using parents' hand-me-down phones. The 20% who don't own them borrow them from Mom or Dad. "About 50% take their parents' phones more than three times a week." Nielsen says that 8.5 is the average age when kids start borrowing parents' phones, and 10 or 11 is when they start owning their own. Ages 13-17 is when "phone use soars," with about 77% ownership in that age range. And how is the bill footed? Family plans: 65% of tweens. Prepaid, pay-as-you-go plans: 30%. "By age 18 to 24, most pay for their own mobile usage."

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