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Friday, November 21, 2008

Europe on age verification, social networking

As the Internet Safety Technical Task Force wraps up its year of studying potential tech solutions for youth risk on the social Web, some perspective from across the Atlantic seems timely. The ISTTF's report, which we worked on together this week as Task Force members, goes to the 49 attorneys general who formed the ISTTF at the end of the year. The European Commission last summer held a public consultation on social networking, age verification, and content rating "to gather the knowledge and views of all relevant stakeholders (including public bodies, child safety and consumer organisations, and industry)." More than 6 dozen entities responded (links to their individual comments are included here).

Reports on those stakeholders' 70+ comments were presented at the EC's Safer Internet Forum in September. Here are the EC's conclusions on social networking and age verification, two subjects of particular interest to the US's state attorneys general and the ISTTF (so I'm zooming in on these two):

1. Summary of European views on age verification

  • Bottom line: "There is no existing approach to Age Verification that is as effective as one could ideally hope for.”
  • Flaws a reality: “Each individual method carries its own flaws, as does any combination of methods used.”
  • "Universal" really means "universal": The effectiveness of age-verification systems already in place in the UK and Germany is "largely undermined by the availability of sites offering similar services” in countries where there is no age verification in place. It can only be effective if it is "universally accepted, inclusive, secure and relatively inexpensive."
  • Avoid false sense of security: "Concerns were also raised about the false sense of security that might be provided and the adverse effects on safety this might have."

    2. Conclusions from report on social networking

  • Significant consensus. "There was an important degree of consensus between respondents across most questions."
  • The peer-to-peer risk. "Bullying and other threats which young users inflict upon each other may be more likely to arise than threats from adults."
  • Communication not confrontation. "Parental involvement in their children's online activity is important, but principles of privacy and trust should dictate how parents help children to stay safe."
  • Education > regulation. "Education and awareness are the most important factors in enabling minors to keep themselves safe."
  • Industry self-regulation > legislation. "Industry self-regulation is the preferred approach for service providers to meet public expectations with regard to the safety of minors. Legislation should not place burdens on service providers which prevent them from providing minors with all the benefits of social networking.
  • Mandatory safety minimums maybe. "Available safety measures vary greatly from one provider to another and mandatory minimum levels of provision may need to be established."
  • More research needed. "Much is known about potential risks, but more research on the nature and extent of harm actually experienced by minors online is needed."

    Related links

  • From this week's US news: "Age verification: An attorney general's concern" in the New York Times and my blog post about it
  • "Age verification debate continues; Schools now at center of discussion" at Adam Thierer's tech policy blog

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  • Thursday, November 20, 2008

    *Serious* informal learning: Key online youth study

    Just picture it: Young people sharing their ideas and productions (videos, poems, commentaries, tunes, podcasts), getting nearly immediate feedback from friends near and far. With quick, always available feedback, they can continuously tweak their compositions and thinking. Doing this authentic, literally peer-reviewed, kind of learning is not only exciting and inspiring to a student, artist, and/or thinker, it can also accelerate the development of a person's body of work at a very young age, preparing that person for a profession in a concentrated, enriching way that's unprecedented for youth.

    This is actually what's happening on the social Web - in MySpace, YouTube, Bebo, Facebook, and so many specialty sites and services on the Web, as well as with mobile phones and other connected devices. It's called "self-directed, peer-based learning," and it's part of what's being described in "Living and Learning with New Media," a three-year study by the MacArthur Foundation-funded Digital Youth Project.

    Parents may appreciate insights from the report into the two approaches youth have to using the social Web: friendship-driven and interest-driven (neither approach necessarily ruling out the other in any one person's online experience, however). Friendship-driven, the more generalized form of teen social networking, focuses on socializing with their friends in Real Life (adults not particularly welcome and - if not invited - largely ignored). Interest-driven social-Web users are more focused in their socializing or collaboration. They may have moved on from "messing around" to "geeking out": "Messing around is an open-ended activity that involves tinkering and exploration that is only loosely goal-directed. Often this can transition to more 'serious' engagement in which a young person is trying to perfect a creative work or become a knowledge expert in the genre of geeking out. It is important to recognize, however, that this more exploratory mode of messing around is an important space of experimental forms of learning that open up new possibilities." Learning that's informal, experimental, yes, but also substantive, focused, authentic.

    Tech educators I know will find support in this finding: "Participation in the digital age means more than being able to access 'serious' online information and culture. Youth could benefit from educators being more open to forms of experimentation and social exploration that are generally not characteristic of educational institutions" more intent on filtering the Web at school. [Educators will not want to miss what the report says about "the growing divide between in-school and out-of-school learning" by today's highly skilled information hunter-gatherers," as MIT professor Henry Jenkins describes young Internet users in his book Convergence Culture.]

    Related links

  • "Teenagers’ Internet Socializing Not a Bad Thing" in the New York Times
  • "Online time is good for teens" in the BBC
  • "Teenagers learn important social, technical skills online: study" from Agence France-Presse
  • "Internet socialising is good for teens" in India-based IT Examiner
  • "Kids gain valuable skills from time online" in the San Francisco Chronicle
  • ...and more than 100 other news reports around the world.

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  • Tuesday, November 18, 2008

    Enhancements to game ratings

    The people who brought you videogame ratings - the Entertainment Software Rating Board - are making them a little more useful to parents. They've created a mobile ratings site for cellphones (, CNET reports. So parents can now access a rating even at point-of-purchase, when pressure from those kid gamers can be intense and a little right info at the fingertips can help. Both the mobile site and the regular Web one also have rating summaries. "The idea," according to CNET, "is to allow parents to see some of the thought process behind the agency's decision" for each game - "the context and relevant content that factored into a game's ESRB rating assignment." The summaries will soon be available for all new games, as well as those rated since July 1. Meanwhile, USATODAY reports that, despite the tough economic times, it could be a record year for videogame sales.

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    Monday, November 17, 2008

    Key week for bullying awareness

    Bullying needs to be detected and addressed early! "By age 24, 60% of identified bullies have a criminal conviction. Young children who were labeled by their peers as bullies required more support from adults, from government agencies, had more court convictions, more alcoholism, more anti-social personality disorders and used more mental health services," according to research by psychology professor Debra Pepler at York University (here's a sample of her work . That's just one of a group of statistics - some disturbing, some calls to action - that Bill Belsey pulled together and distributed to mark this week, Canada's sixth-annual Bullying Awareness Week. A parent and teacher too, Bill is founder of the award-winning and Here are some other eye-opening numbers from Dr. Pepler and other Canadian researchers (for more info, see

  • Bullying occurs in school playgrounds every 7 minutes and once every 25 minutes in class.
  • 85% of bullying episodes occur in the context of a peer group.
  • Bullying usually stops in less than 10 seconds when peers intervene on behalf of the victim.
  • 25% of kids children say teachers intervene in bullying situations, while 70% of
    teachers believe they always intervene.
  • Bullying is reduced in schools where principals are committed to reducing bullying.

    See also the McGill News on an experience that brought cyberbullying home - literally - for cyberbullying expert and McGill University professor Shaheen Shariff; Tips to help stop cyberbullying; "Cyberbullying better defined"; "Online harassment: Not telling parents"; and "Teaching students to help stop cyberbullying."

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  • Age verification: An attorney general's concern

    The headline chosen by the European Commission's QuickLinks blog certainly cuts to the chase: "No Adults Allowed. (Marketers Welcome)." What it links to is a timely New York Times piece about the potential unintended consequences of the age verification that state attorneys general are calling for (consequences that would not please many parents). What the headline refers to is the alleged business model of some of the 2 dozen+ companies who want to help (and involve US schools in helping) verify American children's ages - apparently for the purpose of protecting them online but also reportedly to make a business out of selling data they gather on kids to marketers. Kids' social sites, virtual worlds, and other services would pay the age-verification vendor a "commission for each [child] member" a school signs up; "the [kids'] Web site can then use the data on each child to tailor its advertising," the Times reports. One of the age-verification companies the Times talked to, eGuardian, says kids are exposed to ads anyway (well, in some, not all, kids' sites), it just makes sure they're appropriate. The question is, how can that "appropriate advertising" be guaranteed? There's a pretty sexualized media culture and a lot of obesity in this society anyway, to name only a couple of issues. One of the remarkable things about this piece is the quote at the bottom from Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, a leading proponent of age verification, saying that verifying kids' ages online to promote marketing to them would be very concerning. This is the first qualifying statement about age verification we've seen from the attorneys general since they started calling for its implementation more than two years ago.

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    Not actually 'extreme teens'

    This bit of pop anthropology in the Financial Times may interest parents: a university student telling an older friend how glad she is not to be a teenager these days. With social-network sites and services, she says, teens are on display 24/7. Sure, they put themselves in that position, but there's a great deal of pressure on them to, she suggests. They not only have to project an image but also protect it by being one-man or one-woman, always-on "PR machines" while also dealing with schoolwork, homework, sports and other extracurriculars, sometimes jobs, etc. "It's driving them all crazy," she told her friend, adding that this is normal. This isn't just "popular kids." But here's what I think everybody (teens, parents, educators, psychologists, etc.) needs to think together about going forward: "And there are so many casualties and nobody talks about it." The casualties of these new norms. And "casualties" doesn't necessarily mean drop-outs from this reality, but whatever impact it has, day-to-day, on young people's emotional and social well-being. [Readers, your comments - here, via email to anne at or in the ConnectSafely forum - would be most welcome!] BTW, here's how someone who actually is an "extreme teen" and social-Web PR master does it, according to the New York Times, referring to 18-year-old star singer/songwriter Taylor Swift, "the most remarkable country music breakthrough artist of the decade." Is her very smart, open PR strategy what many teens are emulating (or vice versa!)?

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