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Friday, April 10, 2009

Undercover Mom in Stardoll, Part 1: Barbie grows up

By Sharon Duke Estroff

Despite my kids’ insistence that I never tell a soul, I’m spilling the truth anyway - I played with Barbies until at least my 13th birthday. And most of my friends did too. We’d spend entire Saturday nights primping our dolls for hot dates with Ken, and showcasing our collections of tiny plastic shoes as if they were precious gems. Now, nearly three decades later, I’m still a girly girl at heart. So it seemed only natural to tap - a wildly popular “virtual paperdoll community” with nearly 30 million members - as the site of my next Undercover Mom investigation. Day 1

It's not that I expected a full-fledged reunion with my old plastic pal. I knew that Stardoll would be its own girl. But I was admittedly stunned by the very grown-up feel of this fashionable virtual world. While I’d pictured Stardolls to be some kind of Barbie/Bratz/Sailor Moon cyberfusion, they were in a different league, altogether.

Unlike the wide-eyed whimsical avatars of many children’s websites, Stardoll avatars seem plucked from the pages of Vogue magazine - sophisticated and edgy; sexy and cool. There are male Stardolls too: some grungy and goateed, others bearing resemblance to Adam Lambert, the metrosexual American Idol contestant - all sporting six-packs and come-hither looks. Sure, Barbie has been criticized for her impossibly perfect proportions and Bratz for their defiant, rebellious streak, but they still manage to maintain a playful childlike quality that is decidedly missing from

Puzzled, I began to question my assumption that Stardoll is a Web site for children. Maybe it’s really designed for middle-aged moms wishing to be 20-somethings with too much time on their hands. But then I noticed the SpongeBob SquarePants and Littlest Pet Shop ads flanking the Stardoll homepage and the “about us” page stating that most Stardoll members are girls 7-17, and I second-guessed no more.

Mom Break: In the marketing world it's known as the KGOY (Kids Getting Older Younger). You’ll find it on the racks of stores like Justice (formerly Limited Too) that sell padded bras for 6-year-olds, at the local cinema where 8-year-olds pile in to see Twilight, and in Barbie’s transformation from middle-school staple to toddler toy.
And you’ll find evidence of KGOY in every nook and cranny of – from the distinctly adult-looking avatars to the mature designer clothes to the sophisticated loft living spaces.

But the silver lining is that Stardoll has made playing with dolls beyond kindergarten once again socially acceptable for 21st-century kids. The same girls who swapped their dolls for cellphones to be cool (but secretly would have traded their last wireless minute for a chance to put on a bona fide Barbie fashion show) can now save face while dressing the Avril Lavigne Stardoll for an imaginary concert or designing a punk-rock prom dress for their grungy avatar. Yes, glaringly imperfect as it might be, Stardoll has in its own way returned a few embers of Girlhood Past to the KGOY generation.


  • Oh so sophisticated avatars
  • Decidedly grown-up 7-year-old
  • "Ken," Stardoll-style
  • To go "goth"
  • Very fashionable physicist
  • Jonas Brothers as Stardolls

    For an index of the complete Undercover Mom series to date, please click here.

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  • Thursday, April 09, 2009

    Wikipedia: A model for digital citizenship training?

    When educators and homework helpers think of, they probably shake their heads over its monopoly on students' encyclopedia look-ups (see "Victim of Wikipedia: Microsoft to shut down Encarta"). But think of it in a different light: as digital-citizenship teaching tool. A recent commentary in the New York Times compares Wikipedia - with the more than 2.8 million collaboratively edited articles in its English version alone - to a vibrant city, with its population density, high drama, diversity of views, and unpredictability. Like a big city, writer Noam Cohen suggests, one of Wikipedia's "founding principles" is "Assume good faith." How can people do that? Consider this:

    "Wikipedia encourages contributors to mimic the basic civility, trust, cultural acceptance and self-organizing qualities familiar to any city dweller. Why don’t people attack each other on the way home? Why do they stay in line at the bank? Why don’t people guffaw at the person with blue hair? The police may be an obvious answer. ["Police," where unruly adolescent behavior is concerned, could be replaced sometimes with "school administrators" or "parents."] But this misses the compact among city dwellers. Since their creation, cities have had to be accepting of strangers - no judgments - and residents learn to be subtly accommodating, outward looking." Good citizens as stakeholders in the smooth functioning and well-being of the community, as signers-on to a kind of social compact. But transparency, or accountability, helps too. Every editorial move an editor makes in Wikipedia is documented and can be looked up at times of controversy. Wikipedia is, of course, a wiki - so just think of the value of wikis to learning all kinds of subjects, including citizenship in real and virtual communities!

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    'Digital Samaritans' and lost 'n' founds

    It's great to see a good news story for a change, so don't miss the one in the New York Times about how more and more people are using social-network and -media sites to get found valuables and critters back to their missing owners (case studies for digital citizenship training?!). New, altruistically minded lost 'n' found Web sites are also popping up, as are some startups who see a business opportunity in all this.

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    Wednesday, April 08, 2009

    FL teen a registered sex offender for sexting

    Teens do not want a late-night fit of anger channeled into a few seconds' worth of clicks on a cellphone to lead to anything close to what happened to Phillip Alpert, who will be in Florida's sex offender registry until he's 43, CNN reports. He told CNN he had just turned 18, he was tired, and it was the middle of the night "when he sent a naked photo of his 16-year-old girlfriend [for 2½ years], a photo she had taken and sent him, to dozens of her friends and family after an argument." Arrested and charged with distributing child pornography, he was later convicted and "sentenced to five years' probation and required by Florida law to register as a sex offender." Please see the CNN article for how US states handle child porn crimes, which - unfortunately, until US policymakers come up with a better idea - is how sexting is dealt with under US state and federal laws. What makes this complicated for law enforcement is, sexting is not always impulsive behavior by teenagers who know nothing about the law. Sometimes it's premeditated and malicious (e.g., bullying) or even criminal (blackmail or sexual abuse), in which case, Catholic U. Prof. Mary Leary and other legal scholars believe prosecution of minors should not be taken off the table (see "Self-produced child porn").

    I wonder if it would it help to look at how other countries are dealing with sexting. When a Toronto TV reporter contacted ConnectSafely today, I learned that Canadian child porn law is a little easier on juveniles - more reasonable, I think, even though "sexting" has barely hit the public radar there, he told me. He pointed me to a thoughtful Macleans magazine article, reporting that, in Canada, "it’s not illegal for two teenagers under the age of 18 to carry naked photographs of one another, provided it's [consensual activity and] for private viewing only." It becomes child porn when one of them sends it around, and charges are for that distribution not against the minor who took the photo, according to Maclean. I haven't seen reports on UK law where sexting's concerned, but I noted that "90 children in the UK have been cautioned [presumably by law enforcement people] as a result of posting sexual material of themselves or their underage friends online or on their mobile phones," according to The Daily Mail, which indicates to me that those 90 children weren't arrested and that UK law enforcement may be playing the largely educational role that the realities of adolescent behavior and development demand of law enforcement where sexting's concerned. [For some research-based tips on how to deal with sexting in the US, click here.]

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    Tuesday, April 07, 2009

    Social media to be required in UK schools?

    UK kids may soon be taking a big leap ahead in media-literacy training. A proposed overhaul to Britain's elementary school curriculum - the biggest in a decade - was just leaked, The Guardian reports. The draft does include "traditional areas of learning, including phonics, the chronology of history and mental arithmetic" but also requires British students to be "familiar with blogging, podcasts, Wikipedia and Twitter as sources of information and forms of communication." It divides the curriculum into six core learning areas instead of 13 subjects - a little closer, it seems to me, to what education reformer Sir Ken Robinson proposes .The plans, reportedly written by "Sir Jim Rose, the former [UK regulatory body] Ofsted chief who was appointed by ministers to overhaul the primary school curriculum, and are due to be published next month. Could this have anything to do with Birmingham University's plan to offer a master's in social media, as The Telegraph reports (probably not, but the timing's telling).

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    Monday, April 06, 2009

    Social-media use in US schools: Study

    Looking at the findings of social-media researchers, it's clear there's a growing gap between how kids consume information in school and the collaborative, media-rich way they gather and share information everywhere else. Given this, Lightspeed/NetTrekker sponsored some research to take a measure of where schools are with adoption of Web 2.0 tech such as online games, wikis, blogs, and virtual worlds (AKA virtual learning environments). The study found what we'd expect of user-driven media: In schools, too, adoption of these learning tools is from the ground up. Teachers are driving it, and their three top reasons are: to address students’ individual learning needs, engage students, and increase the accessibility of what they're teaching to their digital-native students. The study also found that, in 83% of school districts, very few or no teachers use online social networking for instruction; 40% of districts don't even allow use of social networking (I'm wondering why not Ning-style social sites that teachers create and control themselves?!); but almost half of districts have plans to allow teachers to share their content with Web 2.0 tools such as wikis (like using new-media tools to teach in old-media, top-down fashion, but it's a start). [The study's executive summary can be requested on this page.]

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    Facebook friend saves suicidal teen

    A girl in the US saw a suicidal comment from a UK boy on her Facebook friends list, and within three hours he was found and taken to the hospital for treatment, The Daily Mail reports. "Shortly before 11.30pm [last] Wednesday [the 16-year-old boy] wrote: ‘I’m going away to do something I’ve been thinking about for a while then everyone will find out'." His friend knew the school he went to but not his address, so she told her parents, who contacted the British Embassy in Washington. Police local to the boy "had just a name to go on but narrowed the search to eight addresses in [his] county. Officers were dispatched to each location, and three hours after the boy had filed his Facebook message, he was found at home [conscious] " conscious but suffering the effects of a drug overdose." He has since been released from the hospital and "is recovering at home," The Daily Mail adds. The story bears out what the US's National Suicide Prevention Lifeline told me for a 2007 profile of its work with MySpace and other social sites, that peers are often the first to know when a teen's in trouble, so social network sites are a vital source of referrals to hotlines.

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