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Friday, January 09, 2009

Data breaches way up

Whether or not age verification would help keep kids safe online, as state attorneys general suggest, it would require the collection of children's personal information into some database(s) somewhere. Consider that possibility against the news of where we are with the security of personal information in databases right now. "Businesses, governments and educational institutions reported nearly 50% more data breaches last year than in 2007, exposing the personal records of at least 35.7 million Americans," the Washington Post reports, citing a report from the Identity Theft Resource Center of San Diego. Nearly 37% of the breaches happened at businesses and about 20% at schools, the Center found. See also "Social networker age verification revisited" and "Europe on age verification, social networking."

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Top 10 'social media sites'

That's what TechCrunch wisely calls them, as it looks at the latest available comScore traffic figures (November) for "social networking sites." ComScore includes blog-hosting, media-sharing, and pre-social-Web community sites in that category, though, so "social media" works much better. Google's Blogger - which hosts blogs, of course - is No. 1 (with 222 million unique visitors in November, up 44% from '07). The rest of the top 10 are: Facebook (200 million); MySpace (126 million); Wordpress blogs (114 million); Windows Live Spaces (blogs - down 22% to 87 million this year); Yahoo GeoCities (69 million); Flickr photo-sharing (64 million); Hi5 (No. 1 social site in Latin America - 58 million); Google's Orkut (social-networking site that's huge in Brazil - 46 million); and SixApart (blog-hosting - 46 million). Two China-based sites, Baidu Space and, were in the 11th and 13th spots, respectively. [See also "Latin America's social Web."]

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Thursday, January 08, 2009

More and more state cyberbullying laws

At least 13 US states have passed laws requiring school districts to develop policies on cyberbullying, the Washington Post reports, and "a handful of other states" are considering the same. Arkansas, Delaware, Idaho, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, and Washington are among those with laws already in place, and California just joined them at the turn of the year, San Francisco's KCBS radio reported. Developing cyberbullying policy is not easy for schools because of the need to balance students' protection with their free-speech rights. Such policymaking becomes a problem, civil liberties advocates say, when schools "try to control what students say outside of school," the Post reports. Where they can step in, courts have said, is when what students post off-campus disrupts the learning process at school or causes peers to avoid going to school out of fear. "John Halligan, whose son Ryan took his life in Essex Junction, Vt., after many years of bullying, some online, applauded the national movement to enact cyber-bullying laws. But, he said, laws alone cannot stop the problem," according to the Post. See also "Cyberbullying better defined," "Teaching students to help stop cyberbullying," and "Anti-cyberbullying teachable moment."

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Czech government takes on cyberbullying

An online clip of a teacher slapping a student is what sparked a nationwide debate about cyberbullying in the Czech Republic, the BBC reports. "The clip, which appeared on the Internet in June, showed a teacher telling a boy off for having a messy desk and then smacking him when he answered back," according to a Radio Prague report. It's not clear from the BBC piece whether the Czech public felt it was the teacher or the student who posted the clip who was doing the bullying, but the Education Ministry told the BBC that "some Czech children have attempted to blackmail teachers or classmates by posting video clips of them on the Internet." The Ministry has now issued cyberbullying guidelines for teachers that go beyond "simply confiscating mobile phones or banning their use during classes."

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Sexual bullying in UK schools

Some 3,500 students were suspended and 140 expelled from school last year for sexual misconduct - "anything from sexualised name-calling to spreading rumours about someone's sexual behaviour, to criminal offences such as assault and rape," the BBC reports. The problem is on the increase, the Times Online reports, citing the experience of Kidscape, a British nonprofit organization that operates a bullying helpline. The helpline has gone from three calls a year about sexual bullying to the current average of three calls a week, Kidscape says. The government has "asked the Anti Bullying Alliance to draw up guidance for teachers on tackling sexual bullying," The Independent reports. "The guidance will tackle inappropriate language, advise teachers on how to manage cases of harassment, and encourage healthy friendships between teenage boys and girls amid concerns of misogynistic attitudes linked to gang culture.

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Japan's mobile bullying problem

Mobile phone bullying is on the rise in Japan, where some 96% of high school students own mobile phones, and the country's Education Ministry is proposing a nationwide ban on cellphones at school. "Nearly 6,000 incidents of mobile phone-related bullying were reported in schools last year, a rise of more than 1,000 compared with the previous year," The Telegraph reports, citing Japanese government data. "The panel also proposed mobile phone companies install public payphones in schools and introduce function limitations on mobile devices while parents establish domestic rules regulating phone usage." An 18-year-old student in Kobe committed suicide last summer "after classmates posted a nude photo of him on a Web site alongside his name and telephone number before sending emails demanding money," and the governor of Osaka has already banned mobile phones in his prefecture's schools. "Japan has the largest mobile phone market in the world, with annual sales of 50 million phones," according to The Telegraph, which adds that about a third of all elementary school students own mobile phones. As for bullying in general, in the US, every day some 160,000 students miss school for fear of being bullied, The Coloradoan reports in "Positive relationships end bullying." In the UK, 48% of 10-to-15-year-olds have been "verbally or physically abused in the last year," The Telegraph reports, citing findings from a survey of 150,000 kids by education watchdog Ofsted. See also USATODAY's "Bullying victimization devastates lives ... until victims find ways to heal."

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Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Toward fixing teen risky behavior in social sites: Study

A professor of pediatrics said she was a little surprised by how much information about risky behaviors teens post online - information for all to see but that their doctors struggle to get out of them. In a random selection of 500 MySpace profiles of people who say on their pages they're 18, Dr. Megan Moreno at University of Wisconsin, Madison, and her co-authors found that "54% of the profiles contained information on risky behaviors" - 24% of them about sexual behaviors, 41% about substance abuse, and 14% about violence, the Washington Post reports, citing a just-released study in Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine.

"The good news," the Post says, citing a second study by the same researchers, "is that a simple intervention - in this case, an email from a physician - made some of the teens change their risky behaviors" - a significant number, in fact. For their second study, described in the same medical journal article, the authors sent emails to half of the owners of 190 randomly selected MySpace profiles of people saying they were 18-20. They were signed by Dr. Moreno. "She called herself 'Dr. Meg,' identified herself as an adolescent medicine doctor and researcher, and urged them to check out her academic Web page," the Boston Globe reports in its coverage of the studies. "'You seemed to be quite open about sexual issues or other behaviors such as drinking or smoking,' the message said. 'Are you sure that's a good idea? After all, if I could see it, nearly anybody could.' The message invited them to consider revising their profiles to protect their privacy. It also raised concerns about sexually transmitted diseases and pointed them to a Web site offering free testing."

And the response was? "Three months later, 42.1% of the ones who received the email had changed their profiles, dropping references to sex and substance use or moving their profiles from public to private," the Globe reports. So does the New York Times in "A Note to the Wise on MySpace Helps."

That's great news. Besides rules and tools, which not all teens respond to positively, other means of changing risky behavior are emerging, such as this kind of targeted, relevant educational messaging and social norming (peers' positive influence, as illustrated in a substance-abuse-prevention program at University of Virginia, Charlottesville). I think, as did Dr. Moreno, we need to get past the surprise adults have at teen risky behavior online. It's not new, it's just more public (which is a problem these studies help address), and it's actually developmental behavior, since neurologists tell us that the part of the brain that understands cause and effect and the implications of actions, the frontal cortex, isn't fully developed till people are in their early-to-mid-20s. Which is why, child development specialists say, risk assessment is a primary task of adolescence (and why adult guidance needs to be in the picture).

There's a lot more good thinking expressed or linked to in the Globe article, including:

  • The view from Dr. Michael Rich of Children's Hospital Boston that "social-networking sites [are] venues where young people channel their images and ideas, connecting with peers as they try on different identities - the way their parents might have done on the telephone. Where they can get into trouble is believing what they put on their profiles remains anonymous, outside their circle of friends," the Globe paraphrases him as saying. See also related articles in this same (January '09) issue of Archives, including It also links to an editorial in the same issue of Archives by the study's other authors he said.

  • The view that "using such sites [e.g., MySpace] to promote health messages is promising," in "Social Networking Sites: Finding a Balance Between Their Risks and Benefits," an editorial by Dr. Kimberly J. Mitchell of the Crimes Against Children Research Center and Michele Ybarra of Internet Solutions for Kids (in this same latest issue of Archives).

    More than 90% of US teens have Net access, and about half of those use social-network sites, USATODAY reported in its coverage of the studies. Citing background information in the Archives article, the Post added that "MySpace boasts more than 200 million profiles, according to the studies, and about one-quarter of those belong to teens under 18."

    Related links

  • "Teenage Brain: A Work in Progress," National Institute of Mental Health , and "The Teenage Brain," Frontline, PBS .

  • The Internet effect: What about the Net is actually changing the equation now, what distinguishes socializing online through sharing comments, photos, and videos about ourselves from the old-fashioned, less public socializing we've done for a long time? Social media researcher danah boyd sums it up in four factors: persistence (it's hard to take down); searchability (people you don't know can find it); replicability (it can be copied and pasted elsewhere, without our knowledge); and invisible audiences (what's most prominent in the above studies) - see this interview with danah in

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  • Tuesday, January 06, 2009

    Sex offender registries inaccurate: Study

    It makes one wonder how accurate the email part of a federal sex-offender database, required by a new federal law, can be. As they are now, "sex offender registries are often inaccurate and incomplete," the Idaho Statesman reports, citing a recent study by the US Justice Department. "The national sex registry is missing information on 22% of state-level sex offenders, the federal investigators found. Driver's license information, Social Security numbers and basic addresses are regularly absent," the DOJ's Office found. The FBI maintains the national sex offender registry. "As sex registry information becomes more widely accessible via the Internet, investigators sound alarms about the databases used to monitor the nation's 644,000 registered sex offenders," according to the Statesman. "The concerns coincide with more fundamental questions about whether the stigmatizing registries go too far." The new federal law requiring that sex offenders provide their email addresses in addition to other contact data was signed last October (see this Wired blog).


    Monday, January 05, 2009

    Rate all English-language sites?

    Believe me, it's been thought of. But the idea of rating Web sites the way movies and videogames are rated is being revisited by the British government. British Culture Secretary Andy Burnham said his government "plans to negotiate with the US on drawing up international rules for English-language Web sites," the BBC reports. It adds that Britain's NSPCC (National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children), which has already called on "computer manufacturers and retailers to install security to stop children finding violent or sexual content," said it welcomes Mr. Burnham's suggestions but acknowledges that it would be hard to enforce them. Here's Reuters's coverage.

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