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Friday, October 31, 2008

'Social norming' for risk prevention

This story at is not about technology (though very few risk-prevention and online-safety stories really are). It's about a successful program in changing social norms to lower student risk, and it might be a model for 1) lowering risk in young people's online experiences - including the reinforcement of self-destructive behavior such as cutting, eating disorders, and substance abuse - and 2) educating youth about digital citizenship and positive peer support. The program, at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, "relies on peer counseling, social events and solid information to challenge misperceptions students have about drinking" instead of the rules-and-enforcement programs at most colleges and universities. Proof of effectiveness: unlike at colleges across the US, where the number of alcohol-related deaths is on the rise, at UV Charlottesville, "no student has died from intoxication or an accident linked to drinking since 1998" and "the number of students who say they have driven while intoxicated has dropped by more than half since the prevention and education program started."

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Don't just take away the Xbox: Psychiatrist's view

The details emerging from a tragic national story about a missing boy in Canada point to an important observation about videogaming: that taking away a videogame (or device it's played on) does not have the same effect as taking away a toy or conventional game. Fifteen-year-old Brandon Crisp of Barrie, Ontario, missing for more than two weeks, left the house angry after his father took away his Xbox console. His father told the Toronto Globe and Mail that "this has become his identity, and I didn't realize how in-depth this was until I took his Xbox away." His mother "would wake in the middle of the night to hear ... Brandon, speaking into his headset as he feverishly played [the Xbox game] 'Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare'," the Globe and Mail reports in another article, adding that his parents are "sure Brandon had become addicted to the game and link its appeal" to his disappearance.

Portland, Ore.-based psychiatrist Jerald Block emailed me a heads-up about this story last weekend. So I took the opportunity to ask him, one of the US's leading experts on videogame addiction, how this kind of addiction can be treated - what I can tell parents about that. He started and ended with that question, but in the middle of his answer are some very helpful insights for anyone who cares about or works with an addicted gamer - parents, friends, educators, policymakers - into the impact that sudden removal from a videogame's world can have....

Why game addiction's hard to treat

How to treat this addiction is "a good question," Dr. Block wrote me, "and one that I hate because it has no easy answer. I have treated many cases and I am still trying to figure out what works best and for whom. But here's what I've learned about gaming in general and gamers of all ages: Gaming is particularly hard to treat as it is 1) enjoyable, 2) an outlet for despair/anger/sex, 3) readily available, 4) time-consuming and thus fills in otherwise unpleasant 'spaces' in one's life, 5) a social forum with Virtual or simulated people, 6) a source of power, and 7) a portrayal of a fair, equal world.

"When people elect to voluntarily give all that up, they generally struggle with their mood and anger. If they are *forced* to give it up, all those emotions become amplified; any fanciful notions of power or control are trampled when they're disconnected against their will.

"Also, unplugging the computer can vividly demonstrate how intangible and fragile the Virtual is and can lead to existential crisis. This is a complex concept, but I consider it crucial. People are spending 30, 40, 50, or more hours a week powering up and getting success on their computers. They work hard at mastering the games and technology. They make significant sacrifices in terms of time and effort. The mastery becomes representative, in a psychological sense, of one's self-worth.

What is reality?

"Now disconnect the computer or console. You have summarily dismissed those accomplishments - the fantasy, the power, and that alternate life, heavily invested in (and mind you sometimes that alternate life may seem a whole lot better than the Real one). Now take it a step further: If someone could so easily destroy such an important thing that, although Virtual, seemed quite Real, isn't it also possible that our flesh-and-blood reality is yet another deception or illusion? To gamers - given the story lines they 'live' in - this is not as far-fetched as it may sound. Philosophers and religious leaders have discussed this for hundreds of years. It does sound pretty disturbing (or disturbed) - the concept that we might not actually exist but are, instead, merely some other being's dream or, as Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom recently wondered, merely simulations running in a simulated society? Such concepts can sound bizarre, but when in history have people actually been able to live them in very real-seeming environments - on so massive a scale, and at such young ages? More than 10 million people worldwide regularly play World of Warcraft, and that's just one such environment/game. I doubt the concept that life might actually be yet another illusion is hardly foreign to WoW's players. It is actually commonplace enough, the subject of numerous films (e.g., The Matrix) and even parody (The Onion's 'World of World of Warcraft' video).

"What I am getting at, here, is that - whatever your philosophy happens to be about how we define 'reality' - I believe the more one starts to believe he or she exists only as a piece of code running in some meta-computer (as some of my patients have done), the less valuable life becomes - your own life, others' lives, and the ethics by which you live. If one's life isn't real and one is just a puppet in some meta-being's 'game,' then it can come to feel like what one does in Real Life doesn't matter much.

Understanding the gamer's needs

"These are some of the risks of abruptly stopping computer or videogame use. As for treatment, one option is to cut someone off in the context of an extended (2+ weeks) camp where he or she is left physically or mentally exhausted. In doing so, you are wisely substituting rewards in the Real for those being lost in the Virtual. For example, at a well-structured camp, there are not an extra 30 hours to fill each week after work or school, and people form relationships with others who are enduring the same hardships. If it sounds something like boot camp in the military ... well, depending on your age, that is a therapeutic option worth considering.

"The alternative to 'cutting the cord' is to talk with the person and try to understand his perspective. Maybe he thinks his gaming is more helpful than harmful, maybe not a problem at all. So, first come to understand what the patient feels. If you feel the computer use is counterproductive and she doesn't, discuss why the two of you seem unable to understand one another's perspectives. Nothing will happen until she becomes motivated to change herself. If, eventually, the patient comes to believe as you do - that the computer or game use is excessive and destructive - then you can try to agree on goals to cut back on it. Part of that discussion will entail trying to address what needs the computer was satisfying and what one can do instead.

"The process tends to be very gradual - progress is measured in weeks or months - and it is therapy-intensive. Obviously, it is not the 'quick fix' that we want and need. What do I suggest parents do? I don't honestly know. If it were my child, I would first start by setting limits. I would avoid cutting him off from his technology for more than a few consecutive days and would avoid using computer restrictions punitively. If limit-setting failed and the compulsive play got worse, I would punt and take him to see a therapist."

Related links

  • "Virtual games, real addiction" in the Toronto Globe and Mail
  • "$50,000 reward for helping to find missing Ontario teen" in the National Post
  • "Missing teen hooked on Xbox game" at CNET
  • "Missing Ontario teen may not be in Canada: Police" at CBC News
  • Dr. Block's site
  • "West slow to take on Net addiction"
  • "'SIGNS' of Net addiction"

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  • 45% of UK online youth want supervision?

    I wonder if an 18-year-old reporter would've worded the lead this way: "Almost half of all children want adults to supervise them when they use the internet," the Times of London reports, citing a study of 686 "children" by UK education regulator Ofsted. It'd be interesting too to see if those who do want supervision represent the full age spread of the survey, some of whom are not minors: 4-20. The percentage of those who "think adults should sit next to or near young people when they are on the internet so they can monitor what is being viewed" was 45%. Ofsted's own lead focused on a narrower demographic: "Children living away from home, or using social care services, want to feel safer online, be protected from unsuitable sites and have adult supervision," the press release reads.

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    Internet = 'giant popularity contest'

    The social Web is, in essence, a huge popularity context, Digital Natives blogger Sarah Zhang points out, with even Google search rankings based on how many people visit and link to the sites in your search results. We can't afford to assume "that what is popular is also most worthy" or we stand to miss a whole lot of quality material that hasn't yet hit the public radar. Sarah writes about how people and organizations try to game the system to appear to have widespread grassroots popularity ("astroturfing") - and also how Web users can often tell and be put off by said. But how can we and our children assess the quality of the information we're seeking? That's where media literacy comes in - why it's so important and why its top practitioners, librarians, are so important in the current and enduring information glut. But media literacy is not only about content we consume. It's also about intelligently handling communication and behavior via email, IM, phone texts, or one's profile) - what's going out as well as what's coming in. Constantly reworking the algorithms is great, but critical thinking is essential.

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    Thursday, October 30, 2008

    New Facebook worm

    Tell Facebook users at your house to be very alert when social-network friends seem to say they've just got to check out this or that video. That scenario happens all the time - which is why it's used by social-engineering hackers to infect social networkers' computers. Where the new worm comes in is an extra step for which users need to be on the alert. The way it works is, they get a link supposedly to a video, CNET reports. That takes them to a Google page where they read that, in order to view the video, they need to click to download some code or an app. Clicking on that link installs Trojan software. The link on that page, however, isn't really a Google link. CNET explains why and how Google pages are being used. Though the problem will probably be fixed by both Google and Facebook shortly, this is a good illustration of why social networkers should never blindly click around - especially when there's a cool video in the offing.

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    Early view of ed's future

    Speaking as a parent and online-kids advocate, not an educator: Increasingly, education will have both online and offline components as it does now, only the online pieces will get more and more fluid, media-rich, and supportive of the P2P (person-to-person) offline part. In fact, online tools - such as Howard Rheingold's "collaboratory" - will make the classroom part more meaningful to teacher and students. School will actually become relevant to today's fluent young information "hunter-gatherers," as MIT professor Henry Jenkins describes them. Author and (Stanford and U. of Cal. Berkeley) professor Howard Rheingold has just launched his Social Media Classroom, a free, easy-to-use "browser-based environment" for digital and real-life collaboration that includes learning tools such as a wiki (for collective writing/editing), blog with commenting, forum (boards or many-to-many discussion), chat, microblog (like Twitter), RSS (newsfeed/online distribution), social bookmarks (collective bookmarking), photos, video, etc. All it needs is virtual-world avatars (like those in Lively or Second Life)! As the winner of a MacArthur Foundation HASTAC award, the Classroom's designed "to supplement, not replace, existing course and learning management systems" and - more importantly, I think, to help teachers go beyond teaching digital tools and skills to teaching history, literature, citizenship with the tools in a way that makes learning these subjects more immersive and compelling (because of the role-playing and collaboration the tools allow). Whew! That was a mouthful, but there is probably no more exciting prospect for education. Now we need to just move it all into a virtual world (or at least turn the chat feature into avatar chat in rooms as customizable as real-world classrooms). [Here is Rheingold's own video introduction of the Social Media Classroom, and here's info on the HASTAC competition (the acronym stands for Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory).]

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    Wednesday, October 29, 2008

    Webcams in teens' cars

    One hundred families in southern Maryland are participating in a study with Webcams installed in the cars their teenagers drive. "Last year, crashes involving drivers ages 16 to 20 killed 112 people in the state," the Washington Post reports. "Such accidents, including one this week in Montgomery County, are often caused not by alcohol or overt recklessness but by simple driver inexperience." So the state's trying to figure out where inexperience takes its toll. The camera doesn't capture everything - only 20 seconds of footage after it "senses" unusual movements like sudden braking or swerving. "Saved footage is transmitted back to [the camera maker] DriveCam via a cellular network. DriveCam experts review the videos, add tips for the young drivers and post them to a Web site where parents can see them a day or so later. Parents receive an email alert when the videos are posted." Not all the teens involved hate it, apparently. "Many teens admit that as much as they might loathe the camera, it does force them to pay closer attention to their driving." The year-long study's only a few weeks old.

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    Video sites: Diminishing distinctions's more about user-generated video and about TV-pro-generated video. That's the current characterization of the two, but it's clumsy and it's changing. As USATODAY points out about the fast-growing Hulu (from 107 million streams in August to 150 million in September, it cites Nielsen figures as showing) gets that it needs to be about pretty much whatever its users want it to be. So even though it doesn't have revenue-sharing deals with ABC and CBS, Hulu links to their shows anyway, gaining nothing in the process but the flexibility and multiple options users seek on the user-driven Web. It also has a channel on video-sharing giant YouTube (at 5.3 billion streams in September). Users can watch whole TV shows on Hulu. In fact YouTube "gets it" too, because it just scrapped its 10-min. cap on the length of videos people can upload to the site. "YouTube also has been making a push to premium content, with full shows from CBS and full-length independent movies," USATODAY adds.

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    Tuesday, October 28, 2008

    Growing no. of teen hackers (or wannabes)

    The number of teenagers dabbling in high-tech crime is on the rise. "Computer security professionals say many Net forums are populated by teenagers swapping credit card numbers, phishing kits and hacking tips," the BBC reports. Kids as young as 11 and 12 are being found in these forums using credit card numbers to pay for packaged exploits, computer security experts say, some of whom seem to view searching for videogame cheats as a kind of "gateway" activity (I'd say only for those who've never been told the difference between legal and illegal). In any case, these hacker wannabes' age and low skill level make them relatively easy to catch and arrest, the BBC sources' say, and they need to know that nobody wants to be in the position of trying to get into college with a criminal record! The BBC says some are going for thrills, some for a certain kind of fame or validation (even making videos of their exploits and posting them on YouTube), some for money, and others some combination of all the above.

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    Monday, October 27, 2008

    EU to tackle cyberbullying, grooming

    Interesting that they're being lumped together: The European Union is moving its Safer Internet program will be training the spotlight on "cyberbullying and cybergrooming," German tech-news site Heise reports, the former being about peer-to-peer behavior and the latter about adult-to-child aggression. So far only two EU countries have enacted legislation dealing with these forms of aggression. Maybe the program puts them together more as behavioral issues as distinguished from inappropriate content. Heise reports that 34% of the Safer Internet program's €55 million 2009-'13 budget (about $69 million US) will be allocated to "illegal and harmful content."

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