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October 15, 2004

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Here's our lineup for this second week of October:

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The IM life of middle-schoolers, Part 3: Home tech options

"How can we track their instant-messaging?" was a question parents asked school counselor Amanda in the middle of a school community IM crisis. That's a question not many people can answer.'s Larry Magid tackled it for the New York Times, saying parents' monitoring and protection strategies depend on the IM system their kids use.

And that, I'd add, usually depends on the system everybody else in their peer group uses. It would be nigh impossible to get a kid to switch systems - AIM, Yahoo, MSN, ICQ, whatever - if all her friends use something different and can't reach her on the parent-imposed one. (To use a techie term, IM systems, regrettably, are not "interoperable.")

The most control, Larry points out, is available to MSN and AOL subscriber parents ("EarthLink and some cable and DSL providers also offer parental controls" - check with your Internet service provider). He explains how so.

Larry also mentions some parental control products that either block IM altogether or monitor and record online conversations. "Although to some people, recording a child's conversations constitutes an invasion of privacy, others believe that it is justified in the interest of protection," he writes, wisely adding that it's wise not to let these tools "lure you into a false sense of security." All the basic online-safety rules need still apply at your house, right?: Never give out name, location, phone number, or any other info that IDs personally and never meet someone face-to-face you've encountered online (and certainly not alone). Some examples of software that detects, monitors, and records IM conversations are Spector PRO & eBlaster (see, Guardian Monitor (see, and p2pLog (see WinPlanet). Filters such as Kidsnet and NetNanny can also block instant-messaging altogether.

However, "control" must be qualified. Blocking, monitoring, etc. don't help a bit if the child establishes and uses his/her own IM account at, say, a friend's house or anywhere they can go online (these accounts are free). Then there's cell-phone IM-ing/texting, which happens a lot in schools that don't have rules against it because it's stealth communications - this generation's version of passing notes, only the conversing parties can be in the same classroom or anywhere else. I noticed that it's available on most reasonably new cell phones now; Verizon's version costs 2 cents for each incoming message, 10 cents for each one your child sends (read all about it at Those charges can add up, and will keep doing so unless you have the phone company block the service. Verizon blocked it for me, but I had to call and ask them to - and they didn't volunteer that info.

Fifteen percent of the 53 million IM users have sent messages via cell phone, hand-held, or wireless laptop, according to Pew Internet & American Life figures cited by the New York Times, and one-quarter of 18-to-27-year-olds have used IM wirelessly; younger people are even earlier adopters.

The bottom line is, if IM-ing is a key part of a child's social life, real parental control can be tough, at least it's certainly not all about technology. It's also about how involved we are in their online experiences, what policies we've established for PC and cell phone use, their level of compliance with such, and how much they're online outside the home. Keeping in touch with fellow parents on our kids' buddy lists can help a lot too (see "A mom writes: IM impersonations," 10/1).

Related resources

Email me about your family's experiences with instant-messaging! Your comments and stories can be very helpful to fellow readers. The address:

Here are Part 1 (home front) and Part 2 (school's role) of this series.

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Web News Briefs

  1. Get the 7 new critical patches!

    Microsoft told all Windows PC owners to download patches to 21 new flaws it found, USATODAY reports. The announcement came in the company's routine monthly security advisory, but "the number of serious flaws was higher than expected." Microsoft advises all home PC users to go to this page and - if they haven't already - sign up for its free Windows Automatic Update service.

  2. Desktop search: Big new thing

    Google announced it, then AOL immediately announced it was testing one, a feature in the stand-along Web browser it's developing (for everyone, including non-AOL subscribers). Ask Jeeves will soon announce its desktop tool too. What it means is searching for stuff on your family PC as easily and quickly as you search on the Web. But WAIT, there's an important caveat: privacy and PC security in this "new era of search," as SearchEngineWatch put it. "It's not new that computers have sensitive data that needs to be protected. What is new is how desktop search centralizes that data and makes it more accessible. This is only an issue if someone gets physical access to your computer, of course. If you log off and use a secure password, that will be a huge deterrent." Unfortunately, a lot of people don't know enough to do that. I'll keep you posted as I learn more about how worth it this "convenient" new tool really is. Here's the Associated Press on "How Google's Desktop Search Works," the Washington Post's thorough article on it (adding that desktop search is coming to MSN too), and CNET on AOL's project.

  3. Supreme Court nixes RIAA case

    For a while, in its effort to make it as easy as possible to sue music swappers, the music industry had a practice, with subpoenas, of forcing Internet service providers to reveal their customers' identities without notifying the customers. Verizon was the first ISP to refuse to comply. Last December a federal appeals court said ISPs didn't have to comply with the bulk subpoenas (for which the RIAA argued, citing the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act, DMCA), so the RIAA took its case to the Supreme Court.

    This week the Supreme Court upheld the lower court's rejection of the RIAA's tactic, Internet News reports. The RIAA's response was that the decision "will not deter [its] ongoing anti-piracy efforts." It's a big story this week. According to the Dow Jones Newswires, the decision "could impact other pending copyright litigation efforts by the music industry." Here's Reuters too. Interestingly, this week a UK court did just the opposite - it ordered British ISPs to reveal their file-sharing customers' identities at the request of the British Phonographic Association, the RIAA's UK counterpart, CNET reports.

  4. P2P-ers gone underground

    Have all the RIAA's lawsuits really helped reduce file-sharing? A little bit, but they've also sent lots of tune-swappers underground, PC World reports. By "underground," the article means to smaller, lesser-known services than Kazaa, whose numbers have gone from a peak of 30 million to about 18 million (e.g., BitTorrent nearly doubled in users between 11/03 and 5/04 and eMule almost tripled between 2/03 and 2/04). Besides lower risk of detection for their users, these smaller services are more attractive than Kazaa because they offer faster downloading. They "use an advanced technique called 'swarming,' in which portions of files are downloaded from multiple sources and immediately offered to the network." File-sharers have also moved to the good ol' Usenet newsgroups that were around long before Napster, the first P2P service, arrived on the scene. Newsgroups are "a vast reservoir of music, movies, and software, at connection speeds that can put the better-known P-to-P services to shame," according to PC World. Fueling Usenet's new-found popularity is free and easy-to-use software like the Xnews reader (see if it's on your family PC), which makes newsgroups file-sharing more reliable than the P2P services. The downside is, Usenet's more public and trackable than, say, BitTorrent.

    Your kids will probably tell you which service they're using to download tunes, if they are at all, and (if it's a P2P service) ideally you'll go into the software together to see how it's configured to protect the other files on the family computer. If not, some monitoring software - e.g., Spector Pro, Guardian Monitor, and Media Fence - detects file-sharing activity and identifies the P2P programs being used on your PC. As for the risks involved (privacy, PC security, porn, legal, etc.), see "File-sharing realities for families," 5/28/04.

  5. Teens on screens

    Sixteen-year-old Cassie Leap hated "these stupid online journal things" when she first started blogging two years ago, the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times reports. But for some reason she's stuck with it. Because research data is scarce, I link you to every article I run into on kids' cybersocializing, because each offers insights and at least anecdotal evidence of a scene still very unfamiliar to parents. One bit of data I wish we had is on whether teenagers are aware of the safeguards available to them in most blogging communities. Most of them - LiveJournal, Blurty, Xanga, Teen Open Diary, etc. - are public, but bloggers don't have to use their real name (most do use screennames instead, I suspect), and usually they can create a password that peers have to know in order to read their journal and/or post comments. Of course, some teens probably establish passwords more so their parents can't read the journal, but that's better than everybody in the surfing public being able to read their closely held secrets (or finding them via a search engine). "Cassie's parents know their daughter spends $25 a year for a page hosted by," the Times say. "But she rarely shows it to them. It's for her and her friends, she says, like a phone call or an Instant Message." Do they go there every now and then? Yes. Her dad said he looks in on the online part of Cassie's life every now and then.

  6. Teens, chat, predators: 2 cases

    It makes for tough reading for parents, because at the time of the crime the victim was 10 years old, but the details help us understand how these relatively rare cases of online predation happen. In most cases the child thinks s/he's going to meet someone who cares about him or her. According to the Toronto Star, the girl in this case "met" the perpetrator, Sergio Arana Martinez, 35, in an online chat room, saying she was 13. Within a month, "the relationship between the two evolved from chat rooms to emails to phone calls" to an encounter in Martinez's apartment, the Star reports. Arana Martinez was found guilty on three counts, faces two more unresolved charges of sexual assault, and will be sentenced later this month in Ontario Superior Court. In Covington County, Ga., this week, a 15-year-old girl was allegedly sexually assaulted in her own bedroom by a man she'd "met" days before in an online chat room, the Newton Citizen reports. She had invited him to her house and let him in but reportedly "had no idea of his intentions."

    For context on these cases, see "Rethinking 'stranger danger'," the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children's take on this in "Non-stranger danger", and a link to the University of New Hampshire's Crimes Against Children Research Center's latest research on the subject. Thanks to BNA Internet Law for pointing the Toronto story out and to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children for the Covington County, Ga., story.

  7. Japan's Net suicide tragedy

    Japanese police have found the bodies of nine people, some of them teenagers, believed to have committed suicide because of suicide-pact Web sites. "Japan has recently seen a wave of Internet-linked suicides, as people seek companions to die with," the BBC reports, adding that more than 34,000 people committed suicide in Japan last year, a small increase from the 2002 figure. According to the New York Times, "Japan has a suicide rate about twice the rate of the United States, and there are Web sites where people discuss suicide and suicide techniques. Some Web sites even sell kits offering 'painless' suicide."

  8. 'HIPSchools' helps students, etc.

    HIPSchools is a program founded by a former Pittsburgh Steeler to get parents involved in their kids' education and, Wired News reports, it turned around Brooklyn's Walt Whitman Middle School 246, which had been deemed a failure by the state of New York. "The school has seen distinct improvement in the performance of its 1,300 students, as well as regular attendance, which has risen to 98% (an increase of over 10%) in the last two years," according to Wired News, and it is now off the state's list of "Schools Under Registration Review," which it was on for three years. Now used by more than 60 US schools, the HIPSchools system lets teachers post homework assignments and announcements on a Web site, where they can be viewed anytime. It also sends parents individual messages (via email, phone, fax, test-messaging, whatever the preference) about anything from kids' tardiness to meeting times to school projects.

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


Anne Collier, Editor

Net Family News

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