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Saturday, January 17, 2009

The 'weak ties' that bind

Of course, young social networkers at your house already know all about "weak ties" - they just call them something else: their social-network "friends." Some of them are friends in real life, some just friends of friends, kind of second-tier friends, or somebody they met at the last away game. It's just helpful to have a fellow adult explain what friends in social-network sites are like from a sociologist's perspective. That's what Julia Angwin at the Wall Street Journal does. These weak ties can really come in handy in these crazy economic times, as well as when one's looking for a summer job or a prom date for her visiting cousin. "Weak ties are particularly good for job searching," Angwin reports, citing the view of a Stanford sociology professor, "because acquaintances can expose a job candidate to a much wider range of possibilities than his or her close friends can." Check out the article for more on the value of weak ties. But remember this is a very adult discussion, wherein the "friends" in social sites are viewed in a different, more casual and detached, way than among young social networkers. For a sense of that greater intensity, see "The pain of 'unfriending'" in the Digital Natives project's blog at Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet & Society.

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Thursday, January 15, 2009

For kids, gaming over music

A new study by market researcher NPD Group found that 85% of children aged 2-14 use game consoles, and 82% of 2-to-5-year-olds play games on one or more devices, while 60% use digital music players, Gamasutra reports. NPD's Kids & Digital Content III report, which surveyed more than 3,500 kids who use electronic devices, also found that a third of the 2-to-14-year-olds watch videos such as movies and online video clips on laptops or other electronic devices, and 22% download ringtones on their cellphones. Here's more on the NPD report from Gamespy. Meanwhile, in a keynote speech at CES, Mike Griffith, CEO of Guitar Hero maker Activision, "proclaimed that video games are 'poised to eclipse all other forms of entertainment in the decade ahead'," the BBC reports. "He quoted US market statistics which showed that between 2003 and 2007 sales of movie tickets fell by 6%; the number of hours of TV watched dropped by 6%, sales of recorded music slumped 12% and purchases of DVDs remained flat.

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3rd Guitar Hero 1st to beat $1 billion

Not only has the Guitar Hero videogame series surpassed $1 billion. Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock itself has, GameDaily reports. It, too, reported on Activision CEO Mike Griffith's keynote at the giant CES show in Las Vegas last week, citing his statement that "the videogame industry has had a profound effect on other entertainment sectors, and that Guitar Hero in particular has been hugely important to the music industry." Evidence: Griffith cited Nielsen data showing that "artists whose music was playable in Guitar Hero had seen download sales increase 15-843%." The newest Guitar Hero game allows players to compose their own songs. Activision data claims that in the game's first 10 days, 141,000 songs were posted by players, and the Guitar Hero community site has more than 600,000 members. "To date, there have been 21 million user-song downloads."

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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

AG says ISTTF 'creates false sense of security'

Attorney General Henry McMaster "has withdrawn from a group studying the problem of Internet predators on social-networking sites after a report downplayed threats that children face online," reports. It says McMaster withdrew, presumably from the group of attorneys general that formed the Internet Safety Technical Task Force, because the ISTTF report's findings "create a 'false sense of security on the issue of child Internet safety'." The report, "Enhancing Child Safety and Online Technologies," can be downloaded from Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society's site. One of the criticisms voiced by the attorneys general in this interview in the Wall Street Journal is that the research cited by the ISTTF report is dated. In fact, the Research Advisory Board pulled together all online-safety research published through this past year, when the ISTTF report was being written. If data is not in there, especially the information on criminal activity the attorneys general are calling for, it's data that the research community is waiting for law enforcement people to make available. Let's hope the attorneys general will help fill in whatever gaps in the research they're referring to.

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Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Key crossroads for Net safety: ISTTF report released

Online safety has reached a major crossroads, here in the US. The Internet Safety Technical Task Force's report is being released tonight, and to me (a Task Force member), it represents a stark choice all stakeholders have going forward: continue down the road of fear-based online-safety education or together match all messaging to what the research says - be fear-based or fact-based.

Having observed and participated in this field for more than 11 years, I think it's understandable how we got here. The US's public discussion, fueled by mostly negative media coverage, has been dominated by law enforcement. Starting in the mid-'90s, police departments representing the only really accessible, on-location expertise in online safety, filled an information vacuum. They and members of the growing number of state Internet Crimes Against Children Task Forces were the people who spoke to schoolkids and parents about how to stay safe online, and their talks, naturally, were largely informed by criminal cases. When online-safety education is carried out by experts in crime - those who see the worst uses of the Internet on a daily basis - fear is often the audience's take-away. That's not to say there aren't amazing youth-division officers who really understand children and technology giving online-safety talks - there are, we have one, Det. Frank Dannahey in Connecticut, on our Advisory Board - but their voices have so far been drowned out by the predator panic the American public has been saddled with.

Meanwhile, over the past decade, a broad spectrum of research has been published about both online youth risk and young people's general everyday use of all kinds of Internet technologies, fixed and mobile. And now it's all reviewed and summarized in this report (downloadable here), one of three major accomplishments of the Task Force, the other two being the national-level discussion it represented, involving key stakeholders, and that it acknowledges the international nature of the Internet, essential to any policy discussion about it.

One of the researchers' most important findings - information really helpful to parents, finally - is that a child's psychosocial makeup and the conditions surrounding him are more important predictors of online risk than the technology he uses. Not every child is equally at risk of anything online, including predation. The research shows 1) only a tiny minority of online youth are at risk of sexual exploitation resulting from Net activity, and these are at-risk kids in "real life," and 2) online risk of all forms - inappropriate behavior, content or contact, by peers or adults - has been present through all phases of the Web and all interactive technologies kids use; it doesn't show up only in social-network sites. It's rooted in user behavior, not in crime.

As an online-safety advocate who talks to parents all the time, I kept wanting to say to the attorneys general - since they announced their online-safety prescription, age verification, 2.5 years ago at a DC conference on social-networking I attended - that focusing solely on predation, or crime, doesn't help parents. Parents need the full picture - all the risk factors and danger signs, the positives and neutrals, too, not just the negatives - in order to guide their kids.

I think any parent gets why the full picture is needed. Most parents know they can't afford to be like deer in the headlights, paralyzed by the scary evidence coming from those focused on crime (and those covering them in the media). Kids sensing irrational fear want to get as far away as possible. They know it can cause parents to overreact and, based on misinformation, shut down the perceived source of danger. That sends them underground, where much-needed parental involvement and back-up isn't around. How, I kept wanting to ask the AGs, who are parents themselves, does that reduce online kids' risk? To young people, taking away the Internet is like taking away their social lives, and there are too many ways kids can sneak away - to overseas sites beyond the reach of any US regulation, to irresponsible US sites that don't work with law enforcement, to and with other technologies, devices, and hot spots parents don't know about it - including friends' houses, where their rules don't apply.

Certainly the attorneys general have played an important watchdog role, here in a country where a discussion about industry best practices hasn't even begun. Now, with the release of a full research summary maybe that discussion can start. That's possible because, with a national report that says the most common risk kids face is online bullying and harassment - bad behavior, not crime (and their own aggressive behavior more than doubles their risk of victimization) - and with the Task Force's technical advisers concluding that no single technology can solve the whole problem "or even one aspect of it 100% of the time," we're moving closer to a calm, rational societal understanding of the problem - the Task Force ended up working toward a diagnosis rather than filling a prescription for one of the (certainly scariest) symptoms.

With the release of the Task Force report, online safety as we know it is obsolete. The report lays out more than enough reasons to take a fact-based approach to protecting online kids - to stop seeing and portraying them almost exclusively as potential victims and work with them, as citizens and drivers of the social Web, toward making it a safer, more civil and constructive place to learn, play, produce and socialize.

Related links

  • The ISTTF report download page - with links to PDFs of the full report, executive summary, research summary, and all other appendices
  • "Net threat to minors less than feared" from my co-director Larry Magid at CNET
  • "Report Calls Online Threats to Children Overblown" in the New York Times
  • "Internet Child Safety Report Finds No Easy Technology Fix" in the Wall Street Journal
  • Over in the UK, "Bullying biggest online threat to children" at the Financial Times
  • "Teen frustrated that parents restrict access to social-networking sites" in the Lawrence (Ks.) Journal-World
  • Past blog posts on age verification in NetFamilyNews

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  • Mobile devices 'key to 21st-century learning'

    Kids' use of games, cellphones, and smartphones (next-generation, Web-browsing, media-sharing phones), "if carefully managed, could significantly boost their learning," Education Week reports, citing a just-released, 52-page study by a research center based at the Sesame Workshop (formerly Sesame Street) in New York. "Mobile devices are part of the fabric of children's lives today: They are here to stay,” said Michael H. Levine, executive director of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, in a statement about the report. "It is no longer a question of whether we should use these devices to support learning, but how and when to use them." Among the report's recommendations are "investments in research and development aimed at understanding the impact of mobile technologies on children’s learning and development, including brain and behavioral functioning" and "a digital teacher corps that would train other teachers and after-school caregivers to use digital media to promote 21st-century literacy." Here's the Joan Ganz Cooney Center's blog, with links to the executive summary and full report in pdf format.

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    Porn on iPhones

    "If one thing is clear, porn on iPhones is going to be huge," reports CNET blogger Daniel Terdiman from the Adult Entertainment Expo in Las Vegas (which runs simultaneously with the giant Consumer Electronics Show there). He qualified that slightly by saying that, although "there don't seem to be any porn-related apps available for the iPhone, there is a plethora of adult entertainment available on the Web, and a growing amount of that content is being optimized for Apple's hit device." A Google search for "iPhone porn" returns millions of results. Executives from Digital Playground, a leading international porn producer, described their latest technological advances to Terdiman, adding that the iPhone is "a very big piece of the puzzle." So far, Digital Playground told the CNET blogger it has made 300 full-length films for the iPhone.

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    Monday, January 12, 2009

    UK students suspended for defaming teacher

    Nearly 30 students were suspended for joining a Facebook group that disparaged a teacher at their school, a highly rated Church of England girls school, The Telegraph reports. A teachers' union called for their expulsion. The school's head teacher "said the vast majority of parents who had been to see her about the incident were supportive and understood why she had taken firm disciplinary action. But some of the pupils who received temporary exclusions have claimed that the punishment was too harsh." The Telegraph quotes students as saying members of the group had apologized but that the school took the comments about the teacher more seriously than they were meant. The group has been deleted from Facebook, but The Telegraph reports that "disparaging comments about the teacher remain posted on another website." At the end of the article it quotes several students and a former student as saying the teacher treats students demeaningly. In the US, incidents like this don't always end with school discipline. They sometimes lead to lawsuits about students' First Amendment rights, the latest such reported last month: "Student sues principal on free-speech grounds." See also a law professor on students' free-speech rights and "Free speech and student blogging."

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