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Saturday, June 06, 2009

Undercover Mom in Poptropica, Part 2: The Apple Jacks of kids' virtual worlds

By Sharon Duke Estroff

Last week I detailed the good things I discovered in this popular kids' virtual world for 5-to-10-year-olds. This week...

What I wasn't crazy about

  • Video Game Overtones. Gallant educational effort aside, my suspicions were correct. Kids aren’t flocking to by the tens of millions out of a quest for learning, they’re flocking there for the highly addictive video games. No sooner had I entered an Aztec ruin on Shark Island than I found myself hopping, flipping, and climbing Nintendo-style to a secret passage (a task that took me a good 30 minutes to nail down as I kept missing my landing targets and being tossed back to Go). Indeed, everywhere I turned on Poptropica held similar gaming challenges. It’s safe to say that for every second a kid spends reading educational tidbits on Poptropica, he spends hundreds more in videogame la-la land.

  • To Cheat or Not to Cheat. Let there be no mistake about it. Poptropica games are HARD. For a prehistoric parent like me, they border on downright impossible. At a loss for how I’d ever manage to sedate that Great White and save Shark Island, I turned to two of my joystick-savvy sons (ages 9 and 14) for assistance. But alas, they too failed miserably. That’s when I began combing the kiddie masses (at school, birthday parties, Chuck E. Cheese and the like) for advice on how to succeed in Poptropica. The consensus was clear and simple: I needed to Google "Poptropica Cheats." My search yielded no less than 36,000 results including this unsettling video on YouTube of two children explaining how to cheat on the site - a great opportunity, I'd say, for family discussion about "cheating" in game and virtual worlds vs. in the real world: Ask your kids the similarities and differences are.

  • Advertising All Around. I’m not naïve. I understand that for a free virtual world like Poptropica to be profitable it needs to feature paid advertisements. The Apple Jacks banners flanking the site didn’t bother me a bit. Nor did the Cinnamon Toast Crunch game that has kids collecting pieces of cereal. But is it really necessary to launch a full-screen pop-up ad every time a kid (or a mom) moves the mouse a millimeter too far to the right or left? Worse yet, the pop-up ads prevented me from returning to the Poptropica page where I’d been previously playing, forcing me to start the game all over again with a brand new avatar – five times. (Hmm, might such repeat registration have something to do with those reported 20 million Poptropica accounts? Hey, I’m just saying.)

    The Bottom Line

    Ultimately, I found Poptropica to be a lot like the Apple Jacks cereal it plugs so aggressively - loops of empty calories dusted with vitamins and minerals. Nevertheless, in a virtual-world cafeteria line full of straight-out junk food, it makes for a pretty good choice.


  • Apple Jacks everywhere
  • Immersive advertising: Embedded Cinnamon Toast Crunch
  • Many, many Poptropica cheats

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

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  • Thursday, June 04, 2009

    Md. students seek cellphone rules change

    Cellphones are banned from Montgomery County (Md.) schools, but there's still plenty of texting going on in the classroom. So, since texting is so inextricable from their lives now, the students - led by Quratul-Ann Malik, a high school senior - are taking a resolution before the county school board, asking it to allow high school students to use cellphones during lunchtime, the Washington Post reports. "A Facebook group to promote her cause attracted 1,200 members in three days." But she faces "entrenched opposition," not only in Montgomery County. There and in nine surrounding counties, cellphone rules are pretty archaic, "written when few students carried cellphones and 'text' was not yet a verb. Today, they are difficult to enforce. The main problem is texting, which has supplanted talking and note-passing as the distraction of choice in many classrooms." I recently talked with some university law professors, who felt there was no way they could ask students to put away distracting technology in their classes. They said they need to embrace it - not as purely social or "distraction" tools, but as learning tools - and they are beginning to. Here are just two professors who are using social media to great advantage, Michael Wesch at Kansas State University and Jason Jones at at Connecticut State University. I know college and high school are very different environments, but progressive thinking occurring at both secondary and post-secondary levels will spread - though not far, maybe, before Qurantul-Ann graduates (if she hasn't already).

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    Phone bans don't work: Oz expert

    After two girls were suspended from Ascham School - a boarding school for girls in an eastern suburb of Sydney - for harassing fellow students, "the school sent a letter to parents urging them to take their children's mobile phones away from them at night to try and stop abusive messages circulating," ABC News Australia reports. But ABC talked with the general manager of Kids Helpline, a free phone counseling service for Australians 5-25, who said that she's "wary about confiscating phones and warns parents they need to be careful not to alienate their children too much." She said bans can work against the victims as much as against the bullies. She told ABC that the victims could go "further inside themselves," which makes it tougher for caregivers and school officials to know what's going on with them, and "13- and 14-year-olds like the girls involved at Ascham are the most likely to be affected."

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    Wednesday, June 03, 2009

    Teaching about sexting: Social Web lesson plan

    Ever wonder how to teach young people about what can happen to information they post online? Canadian author and journalist Cory Doctorow has a great idea: show them on/with the Web. In a video interview he gave the European Commission's Net-safety program, Insafe, he talks about how we can now literally watch the diffusion of communication, behavior, and information in real time on the social Web - a sociologist's dream come true. So parents and educators might consider this sociology lesson plan:

    "You could sit down with your kids and say, 'Last month this school was in turmoil about some rumor, some terrible thing some student did, or some health risk - someone had cooties or swine flu or something else. Let's watch the diffusion of that information. We have the social network, right? Who wants to volunteer to go through your email box, your instant-messenger record, your twitter stream, and tell me about the first time that rumor or information appeared - when you heard it next, how it mutated? Let's do a big class project and find all the ways that information spread.' And then say, 'Who here was thinking about putting a naked picture of yourself online? Look at this diffusion of information - look at what's happened here.'" He continues: "You can teach an awful lot about epidemiology and social idea diffusion by starting a harmless rumor and then tracking its growth through a network [community of people, not necessarily an online social network] and using a hashtag or distinctive term [e.g., a fake word like "mixoplex" and "come up with a bunch of characteristics it has"] and watch it spread ... 4 cases in Hertfordshire ... it's spreading and what are we going to do about it ... have a daily class project .... and think together about how a flu would spread from person to person, then how an idea would spread from person to person and then a naked picture of yourself and how it would spread from person to person." The simple aim being, he told insafe, to "turn the thing that they're already obsessed with into a tool that teaches them to use it better, rather than telling them they need to stop it. Telling kids that the thing they love is wrong is probably a non-starter.... It just doesn't work very well." But don't trust my transcribing - listen to the whole fascinating video!

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    Tuesday, June 02, 2009

    Sexting: The new spin-the-bottle?

    Speaking at the 78th Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, Canadian professor Peter Cumming of York University said sexting is just the modern version of "spin the bottle," Agence France-Presse reports, and the uproar over it is overblown, UPI reports. He said the reaction "is just the modern version of the outrage in the 1950s about the way Elvis Presley moved provocatively on stage." I agree with the part about how adolescent behavior - and adult reactions to it - haven't really changed. Two things have changed, though: the presence of the fixed and mobile Internet in the equation and the unprecedented predicament in which child pornography law puts adolescents, the one in which they can be both perpetrator and victim at the same time. That puts police and prosecutors in an extremely difficult predicament as well, and we can only hope that they will apply these laws - which have not caught up with what technology allows sometimes impulsive, sometimes mean, always experimental and risk-assessing adolescents to do - with great care and play more of an educational than a prosecutorial role with sexting cases. I hope they'll consider statements like that of Professor Cumming thoughtfully, unlike Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, who "has attacked [Cumming's] contention that teenagers should not face child pornography charges for electronically sending nude pictures of themselves to others," the Deseret News reports. Because the law is extremely unforgiving in these cases, and I suspect that few sexting cases involving minors involve either malicious or criminal intent (I wish an enterprising reporter or researcher could look up all news reports of sexting going back to when it was just called "nude photo-sharing" and report on the motives behind the cases). In a recent sexting case, police in Nampa, ID, were trying to figure out how pictures sent by a freshman to her boyfriend got distributed around their high school, KTVB in Idaho reports. [Here are some of my early posts on naked photo-sharing. See also "Sexting overblown? Yes and No."]

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    Bing: Microsoft's new search engine

    It's not just a search engine, it's "a decision engine," Microsoft says. So it's not trying to replace Google, just offer a different kind of service, one requiring fewer clicks, in some cases. "For example, if you type in the name of a city you get local weather, hotel prices and other information without having to click anywhere," reports co-director Larry Magid in the San Jose Mercury News. "Bing is not only visually more attractive, it's also more informative," he adds. In "Bing it on," USATODAY reports that "you can also search for images and video, with a 'smart video preview' that lets you peek at 30-second clips (hula dancing, Don Ho) by scrolling over the video. You can play the video from the Bing results page, no matter where on the Web it is coming from."

    To try it, just go to For filtered search, click on "Extras" in the extreme upper-right-hand corner, then on "Preferences." "SafeSearch" is at the top of that page. "Moderate" filtering seems to be the default. After you've chosen "Strict," "Moderate," or "Off," be sure to click on "Safe Settings" over on the right (and if this is on your child's computer, you'll probably need an accompanying rule that no one changes the setting without permission). You may want to extend the setting and rule to all search engines and household computers, but if kids (or their friends) aren't compliant, you may need a backup plan (which sometimes means turning on filtering at the operating-system level or installing filtering software).

    : After I wrote the above about SafeSearch, Larry Magid, my ConnectSafely co-director tested it with Bing's video search, and parents probably won't be pleased by what he found: In video search, but with SafeSearch filtering set to "Strict," he typed a word sure to turn up porn in the search box. "I was first warned that it 'may return explicit adult content' and told that 'to view these videos, turn off SafeSearch.' One click later, SafeSearch was off, and I was looking a page of naughty thumbnails. And, as advertised, hovering the mouse over a thumbnail started the video and audio. Even when playing in a small thumbnail, it was unmistakably hard core porn," Larry writes in CNET.

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    Monday, June 01, 2009

    Texting at meals: Usually *really* not cool

    "Husbands, wives, children and dinner guests who would never be so rude as to talk on a phone at the family table seem to think it’s perfectly fine to text," the New York Times reports. A therapist told the Times that texting while eating has become a major topic between spouses in marital counseling. It's as if the issue - for old and young cellphone users alike - is sound levels rather than attention to the people present. One dad admitted that, though he never texted at the table, he did read emails. "A few months ago, a family meeting was convened. The ... 7-year-old twin daughters made their feelings known. Their father agreed to cease using his iPhone during dinner" and told the Times he was 95% there. The Times adds that, among adults, men are the worst mealtime phone users, while among teens, girls are). [See also "House rules for teen texting" and "Cellphone etiquette."]

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    When does texting get unhealthy?

    The teen texting rate keeps climbing. US teens sent and received an average of 2,272 text messages a month in the fourth quarter of 2008, the New York Times reports, citing Nielsen figures. That's "almost 80 messages a day, more than double the average of a year earlier." The Times cites one psychotherapist as saying that adolescents' huge interest in what's going on with peers plus huge anxiety about being out of the loop spell the potential for "great benefit and great harm" from excessive texting. Other healthcare professionals pointed to potential "anxiety, distraction in school, falling grades, repetitive stress injury and sleep deprivation." As interesting to me, if not more, were comments from MIT psychologist Sherry Turkle, who wonders whether all the texting allows teens the "peace and quiet" they need to do their jobs as adolescents: separate from their parents and figure out who they are and will be. Turkle makes two other important points: that parents often don't set the right example with their cellphone use, and adolescence is a time when people need the kind of undivided attention from their parents that cellphone-addicted parents aren't giving them. "I believe the 'cure' doesn't lie so much in hand-wringing or policing usage as much as it does in having honest dialogues about the scientific and emotional side effects of tech dependence as experienced by both generations," writes Ypulse managing editor Meredith Sires in response to the Times piece. Well put. See also "'Continuous partial attention...'."

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