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December 13, 2002

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Family Tech: Calibrated filtering: New study

There have been many studies on Web filtering. What's different - and uniquely helpful - about the new one in this week's issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association is that it looks at degrees of filtering. Setting filters at their most restrictive level - as most schools do, the study found - can make the Internet a much less useful tool for students. Though that goes for the home front too, US law requires filters on Net-connected computers at schools receiving federal e-rate funding.

Commissioned by the Kaiser Family Foundation to determine whether Web filters can effectively block pornography without keeping kids away from useful health information - found that "setting the filters at their least restrictive level can block most porn sites and still provide access to the vast majority of health sites," reports's Larry Magid in this week's syndicated column. Interestingly, for health information, the difference between most and least restrictive settings was huge: only 1.4% of health sites were blocked at filters' least restrictive settings, compared to 25% at the most restrictive. For pornography the difference was minimal: 87% was blocked when filters were least restrictive, compared to 91% at the most restrictive settings. That's a 23.6% difference for health information vs. 4% for sexually explicit material. The difference between least and most restrictive settings was even greater for safe-sex information - 9% blocked and 50% blocked, respectively.

"Restricting access to health sites is perhaps the most glaring example of what is called 'over-blocking,' Larry writes, "the tendency of filtering programs to keep kids away from sites that they ought to be able to access. In previous studies, an overwhelming majority of 15-to-17-year-olds said that they have used the Web to look up health information, including searches on such topics such as pregnancy, birth control, HIV/AIDS, sexually transmitted diseases, and issues regarding drug and alcohol use.... Another concern is under-blocking - failing to keep kids away from pornography and other objectionable sites. Filters that under-block can give parents and educators a false sense of security."

One conclusion of the report is that "how a specific filtering product is configured is more important in avoiding inadvertent blocking of health information than is the choice between different products," its authors write. But possibly the most memorable conclusion is Larry Magid's metaphor (which a staff member at the Kaiser Family Foundation told us is the best one she's seen): "Filters are a bit like neckties. When used properly, they can make you look respectable. If you make them too tight they'll strangle you."

Relevant links (the study received a large amount of coverage):

Send us your views (and family policies) on filtering! Do you use it? Does it work for your family? Or do you use monitoring, and why? We appreciate getting your perspective (via!

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Web News Briefs

  1. The lexicon of 'Gen IM'

    Are you among "the anxious grammarians and harried teachers," as the Christian Science Monitor puts it, worried about "the linguistic ruin" of a whole generation - the one that has had the Internet since birth? The Monitor cites the view of one source that IM lingo - like "sup" ("What's up?"), "n2m" ("Not too much"), and "j/c" ("Just chillin'.") is just an extension of what teenagers have always done - make language their own. For parents worried that teens who carry on 20 IM conversations at once (it's true) could run into trouble (a fair concern), another source who's studied the multitasking phenomenon tells the Monitor he's found that, though that happens, teens are generally "quite aware of that issue and know how to protect themselves." One such multiple messager proves the point as he "begins chatting with someone he hasn't talked to in awhile, and when that person attacks him and uses profanity, he quickly ends the conversation ... and then uses the software to block all incoming messages from that screen name." Good solution! Parents might consider using such a scenario as the subject of a family discussion about safe IM-ing practices (have the young experienced one teach you how s/he avoids the bad stuff).

  2. Dating with IM

    This was almost IM theme week for online news. In any case, parents of instant-messaging aficionados may want to note that "IM is becoming a popular aphrodisiac in the world of online dating." Expanding on that, CNET reports that dating sites and their members are using IM as a "tool for flirting and weeding out potential partners quicker." IM just speeds up what can be done via email, CNET adds. For example, "Yahoo, the online hub for personals advertisements, attests to IM's allure. At least half of its Personals couples had around 25 IM conversations, but exchanged only 5 phone calls and up to 10 e-mails in the first three weeks of meeting, the company said." Yahoo added the IM feature this past summer. Dating-specific cites that have jumped on this bandwagon are,,, and

  3. Dot-kids: The crucial critical-mass Q

    The online-safety case has certainly been made, but this week the Washington Post raised an equally important question: whether there is a good economic case for establishing a safe playground for kids in cyberspace. If the space can't attract a very large number of kids' Web publishers - from old-timer Disney to newcomer - can the law requiring dot-kids be more than an exercise in good will for legislators who might not understand the medium very well? "Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.), who authored the legislation, said in an interview that he would use his position on the House Energy and Commerce Committee to encourage companies to register addresses in the domain, which he likened to the 'children's section of the library'," the Post reports.

  4. Teen phone-chat: Risky

    At best, it seems, teen phone chat services are gossipy or raunchy. At worst, they're dangerous. One example (of both and probably some innocuous chat too) is The Loup, a telephone network targeting 13-to-18-year-olds that "operates in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Seattle, and Phoenix and says it has more than 700,000 users," the New York Post reports. The article adds that The Loup, an alternative to Internet chat, says it's signing up New York-area teens at a growth rate of 15-20% a month. They use a toll-free number and make a recorded greeting that includes an ID number. That anonymity is supposedly a protection, but - despite warning messages from the service up front - there's nothing to stop users from giving out personal information or arranging to meet in person. The Post reports that two New Jersey men were just indicted for sexual assault against 12- and 14-year-old sisters they met via a phone-chat service.

  5. Kiddie cell phones?

    At least according to one report, "the hot item on many 8-to-12-year-olds' wish lists this holiday season isn't Barbie or a Hot Wheels car, but a cell phone." Twenty-one percent of this age group, in the US already owns one, Wired News also reports. The article goes on to provide some fun anecdotal evidence of both the positives and negatives of preteen cell phone use in the US, including cost and safety ("Great Britain issued a warning that cell-phone use among children could possibly be harmful to their developing brains," and Bangladesh has banned them for people under 16, Wired says).

  6. TiVo: Toward better TV for tots?

    It might be a trend: grownups buying TiVo and ReplayTV for their children, ZDNet reports. The article then throws useful light on how these PVRs (personal video recorders) help parents shape kids' TV experience in constructive ways. Examples are the parental controls they include, the ability to choose the best (and kids' favorite) TV programs for replay just after school, "the power of the pause [button]," and "TV as reference tool" (searching for and recording programs by subject matter, perhaps for a school report).

  7. Tech help for food help

    This is just plain good news for this time of year: Because billions of pounds of food end up in landfill each year, America's Second Harvest, a hunger relief organization, is using technology to make it easier for food manufacturers to donate food rather than dump it, Wired News reports. The organization "solicits donations from the food and grocery industry and distributes the goods to food banks around the country. These food banks supply smaller organizations like homeless shelters and soup kitchens that feed those in need." The helping technology, called Aid Matrix, streamlines the donations process by having each food company provide a product master file that America's Second Harvest puts into a database. The company can then log on to a Web site to identify products in the database that it wants to donate.

  8. Computer games for small fry

    To get the most out of "educational" computer games at home, focus more on the "tainment" than the "edu," an educator suggests in the New York Times. "It is possible for a game to capture a child's attention and still be educational," writes contributor Alice Keim, "but you need to keep your expectations in check." She then provides thumbnail reviews of "Alphabet" (for 3+), "Liberty's Kids" (8-12), and games featuring everyone from Bob the Builder to Barbie to Harry Potter.

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That does it for this week. Have a great weekend!


Anne Collier, Editor

Net Family News


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