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Friday, May 29, 2009

Disturbing teen behavior not prosecuted: Good

Sixth graders posting a "cartoon" on YouTube about "six ways to kill" another girl in their peer group. The girl's mother was understandably horrified and called the police. The police later said they won't pursue charges, the Tacoma (Wash.) News Tribune reports, because they don't believe malice or hate were involved, also telling the News Tribune that "the girls called the victim’s mother crying and upset after the incident." Wise police. Technically, this could be considered criminal behavior, but this is also adolescence. The executive part of the brain that understands the implications of actions isn't developed until people's early-to-mid-20s. Kids "just don't think" a lot of the time, so parents need to be engaged and asking questions about why, for example, a child's spending so much time in an animation program - what kind of animation is she creating? Lines of communication must be kept open so kids are less reluctant to answer those questions, which can help prevent cruel behavior from happening. From the coverage I've seen of this incident, both law enforcement and school handled it as a teachable moment for the benefit of individuals and community - to their credit, if that was the case. I love how middle-school principal Nancy Flynn in Minnesota handled a cyberbullying incident, turning it into a teachable moment for all the girls involved (note, too, the helpful, informed comments below her account). See also "The Net effect" - how the Internet affects age-old adolescent behavior. [Thanks to Anne Bubnic in California for pointing Flynn's post out.]

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Undercover Mom in Poptropica, Part 1: Virtual World with educational elements

By Sharon Duke Estroff

I chose as the site of my latest undercover mom investigation because of its first-place ranking in the 5-to-10-year-old bracket. With 20 million unique accounts and counting, it is indeed a heavy hitter in the burgeoning children’s virtual world market.

But I was also intrigued by the Poptropica's educational spin. The site's parent company is Family Education Network (FEN), developers of one of my favorite teaching resources, As worthy a site as Funbrain may be, however, it’s not the kind a kid would visit voluntarily without the urging of a parent, educator, or academic tutor. Could a children’s Web site as hopping as Poptropica possibly be on the same educational plain as Funbrain? I was determined to find out what kind of fare this populous virtual world was really serving up.

What I Liked About Poptropica

  • Underlying Storylines. In contrast to some children's virtual worlds that are essentially animated chatrooms, Poptropica consists of a collection of uniquely themed islands with equally unique underlying storylines. Shark Tooth Island, for example, has a distinctly reggae-like feel and is being tormented by a vicious shark. Time Tangled Island is set 50 years in the future (complete with a wrinkled, decrepit version of your avatar) and revolves around a malfunctioning time machine that has distorted history.

  • Overlying Purpose. Whatever the island's particular problem may be, it's up to you, the kid, to find the solution. Such active quests engage children from the get-go while minimizing boredom-induced troublemaking behaviors such as cyberbullying. I was also pleased to find a virtual world where kids' ultimate purpose was something besides getting and spending money.

  • Helpful, Directive Avatars. Logging onto a virtual world for the first time can be a confounding and oddly isolating experience. Poptropica takes good care of its "newbies" by sending out resident avatars to greet kids and give them the skinny on the particular mission at hand. These avatars also provide players with clues and props to assist in their mystery-busting endeavors.

  • Drop-Down Q&As. Unlike many virtual worlds that offer the option of free (albeit monitored) chat, Poptropica conversation is limited to a series of pre-selected drop-down questions and answers. While such constraints might feel like a straitjacket in more schmoozing-focused virtual worlds, it works nicely in Poptropica. Kids’ interactions remain positive and upbeat while the pre-set choices teach children how to engage in socially appropriate conversation in virtual worlds at large.

  • Educational Undertones. I was happy to discover that Poptropica does indeed boast an admirable educational dimension. Kids travel back in time and meet historical figures like Leonardo daVinci and Thomas Edison. They traipse through Aztec Ruins and learn about the dorsal fins of Great White sharks. Children who want to learn more about a particular subject can click a button that links them directly to more info at FEN's

    Next week: What I'm not so crazy about in Poptropica.


  • Online chat, Poptropica-style
  • Me 'n' Leonardo Davinci
  • Solving mysteries for the betterment of mankind (kinda)

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

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  • COPPA 2.0 isn't kids' privacy 2.0

    Remember COPPA, the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998? It was designed to protect the privacy of children under 13. According to Berin Szoka and Adam Thierer, who just completed a paper for policymakers on current efforts to change COPPA, "the law was intended primarily to 'enhance parental involvement in a child’s online activities' as a means of protecting the online privacy and safety of children." What's happening is, lawmakers in five or six states are considering extending COPPA's requirement for obtaining verifiable consent from parents of under-13s to parents of all minors, as Thierer explained in an audio interview at CNET with ConnectSafely co-director Larry Magid. There are significant potential problems with that, Thierer suggests, not least of which is that a law intended to protect children's privacy could, with such revision, actually put it at greater risk. Under-13s and people 13-17 are very different developmentally, so there is also the important question of whether it's appropriate or even constitutionally sound to require verifiable parental consent from everyone up to the age of 18 to be allowed to register in any site with social-networking functionality? Do check out the CNET interview for more on this.

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    Thursday, May 28, 2009

    A student and a principal on books & tech

    Take a 2 min. break from whatever and consider this cute video snapshot of how a book might look to a digitally fluent teen. The students in the video are at Philadelphia's Science Leadership Academy, a three-year-old "inquiry-driven, project-based high school focused on 21st century learning and formed by a partnership between the School District of Philadelphia and The Franklin Institute. Note what its principal, Chris Lehmann, recently said in a brief interview right after he spoke to this year's convention of the National Association of Secondary School Principals: "In too many schools we have this idea that we have the school we've always had plus some computers.... Technology needs to be like oxygen - ubiquitous, necessary, invisible. It's got to be everywhere ... just part of the day-to-day work that we all do." Hmm, kind of like books? [Books are media too, and both tried 'n' true and new media need to be in school. Here's what I last wrote about that.]

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    Facebook *not* bad for grades: Study

    I'm "guilty" too - NetFamilyNews added its headline and a brief post to the mountain of media coverage last month about "a draft manuscript suggesting that Facebook use might be related to lower academic achievement in college and graduate school," as three social-media researchers put it in the latest issue of FirstMonday, an online academic journal. The authors - Josh Pasek, Eian More, and Eszter Hargittai at Stanford University, University of Pennsylvania, and Northwestern University, respectively - published a much more definitive report on this subject, looking at a large sample of undergrads at University of Illinois, Chicago; a "nationally representative cross-sectional sample" of US 14-to-22-year-olds, and a "longitudinal panel" of US 14-to-23-year-olds. "In none of the samples do we find a robust negative relationship between Facebook use and grades," the report. "Indeed, if anything, Facebook use is more common among individuals with higher grades. We also examined how changes in academic performance in the nationally representative sample related to Facebook use and found that Facebook users were no different from non-users" in terms of academic performance.

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    Kids' virtual-world numbers: Update

    Some 8 million US kids and teens spent time in virtual worlds on a regular basis last year, according to eMarketer, which expects that figure to grow to 15 million by 2013. The market research firm estimates that 37% of kids 3-11 play in virtual worlds at least once a month, and 54% will by 2013. According to conference organizer Virtual Worlds Management, as of this past January, there were 112 virtual worlds aimed at people under 18, with another 81 in development. Here's a comprehensive look at a new one aimed at that full under-18 age range, Free Realms, by master moderator of kids' virtual worlds, Izzy Neis.

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    Porn attack on YouTube

    YouTube, which just announced its users upload 20 hours of video every minute, was attacked by an anime community that uploaded hundreds of videos that looked like they were aimed at young people but had porn edited into them, the BBC reports. "The material was uploaded under names of famous teenage celebrities such as Hannah Montana and Jonas Brothers. YouTube owner Google said it was aware and addressing the problem." The BBC says it spoke with one of the raiders, a man whose YouTube profile (since disabled by YouTube) said he's 21 and lives in Germany. The man said the attack was by an online group called 4Chan focused on Japanese manga and anime. He said he uploaded some of the porn videos as part of a 4Chan raid "because YouTube keeps deleting music." As for the 20 hours of video upload every minute, YouTube announced that in its blog on May 20. That's up from 15 hours of video a minute in January, which YouTube says equates to "Hollywood releasing over 86,000 new full-length movies into theaters each week." To understand the YouTube phenomenon a little better, see "Watch this video, parents" and other YouTube coverage at NetFamilyNews.

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    Wednesday, May 27, 2009

    What does increase teen girls' risk online

    A new study in the medical journal Pediatrics found that "a history of childhood abuse and use of a provocative online identity increase the risk that girls will be victimized by someone they meet on the Internet," CNN reports, and a key factor in reducing risk is "the presence and influence of caregivers." and a key factor in reducing risk is "the presence and influence of caregivers." Nothing unprecedented about these findings, but they confirm what the full body of online-safety research, gathered by last year's Internet Safety Technical Task Force, shows. This study, led by Jennie G. Noll of the Cincinnati, Ohio, Children's Hospital Medical Center, is one of the first I've seen to add avatar appearance to screennames as a way people can intentionally or inadvertently indicate sexual interest to people they "meet" online. As CNN put it, "girls are more likely to experience online sexual advances or have offline encounters if they have previously been abused or have a provocative avatar." The study "looked at 104 abused [those who had suffered neglect, physical abuse or sexual abuse] and 69 non-abused girls ages 14 to 17," 54% white and 46% minorities. Among these girls, 40% "reported experiencing sexual advances online" and 26% "reported meeting someone offline after getting to know the person on the Internet. Abused girls were much more likely to have experienced both, the authors found." Pew/Internet senior researcher Amanda Lenhart later commented that the study in Pediatrics confirmed previous research but left out some other risk trouble spots we need to be aware of - that kids with histories of mental illness and family conflict are equally at risk online. Thanks to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children for pointing this study out.

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    Tuesday, May 26, 2009

    Predators: Parents really can worry less

    Be alert, certainly be engaged, but let's be realistic, is my takeaway from an interview Lenore Skenazy - syndicated columnist and author of Free Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts With Worry - gave I'm going to quote a chunk about predators in full because it's good to hear a prominent voice correctly citing the research for a change. Her comment could be mapped to the findings of last year's Internet Safety Technical Task Force.

    Salon asked her, "What's your take on Internet sexual predators?" Skenazy: "The world online turns out to be not very different from the world offline. There are some really seedy neighborhoods where you wouldn't want your kids hanging out, especially if they were wearing high-heeled shoes and fishnets stockings at night. If your kids don't go there, then your kids are not going to be stalked by predators just looking up prom pictures on Facebook. David Finkelhor, the head of the Crimes Against Children Research Center, has discovered pedophiles don't want to waste their time just flipping through MySpace pages or Facebook pages. It's as futile as trying to call up random numbers from the phonebook and trying to get a date. It's just a waste of time. They would rather go for the low-hanging fruit: young people hanging out in sexually suggestive chat rooms presenting themselves in a sexual way.... If your kid is just texting his friends, or posting pictures on Facebook or AIM'ing, it's no more dangerous than them talking to each other as they walk down the sidewalk, or at the mall." But don't miss the whole interview about raising kids in an alarmist society. [For more on the latest research from Dr. Finkelhor and colleagues, see this.]

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