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December 10, 2004

Dear Subscribers:

Here's our lineup for this first full week of December, featuring some of you:

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On parents' minds: Parent-teacher conferences, the Web in kids' lives, and

  1. Parent-teacher conferences

    Responding to an item on it last week, two comments arrived in my in-box. Subscriber Paula in Wisconsin writes: "I have to tell you that this is a WONDERFUL way to use email. I keep in touch with the teachers of one of my sons on a weekly basis. He is a special-needs kid, and before the availability of email, we would play phone tag, often having difficulty finding time convenient for both of us, etc. I love it, and I think the teachers do, too, because they know they can reach me every day if necessary."

    Subscriber and teacher Carol in Massachusetts writes: "I think that email is a great replacement for the typical teacher-written note: friendly comments, reminders, simple questions, and some kid praise, but I think that it would be a disaster to use email for a parent conference, because email can be misinterpreted. You need to be able to show students' work, and you need that back-and-forth that email doesn't always promise. [P.S. I just had parent conferences at school all day yesterday!]"

    Carol also thoughtfully sent some practical guidelines for real-time email parent-teacher conferences:

    "Anne, If I were to have parent conferences over email, I'd want a whole new set of Parent Conference (PC) Etiquette Rules:

    • Approximate time to stay online or agenda set before conference starts.
    • Computers' preferences set so that the entire message shows when you reply.
    • Agreement between both conferees as to when to sign off.
    • Some sort of confidentiality agreement, since email can be used like a taped message.
    • Some way to make sure you are really conferencing with the child's parents.
    • Work xeroxed and sent home to be discussed during conference, so parents and teachers have copies in front of them."

  2. The Internet in kids' lives

    Rob in Massachusetts wrote: "You've asked for parent opinions about the web in the lives of children. I am a parent of two girls [13 and 16, he later told me]. I am professionally active in Web-oriented educational businesses that publish learning materials and activities. I have been a broadband user since the service became available.

    "I am not an unabashed fan of the Web, but I am convinced that the fundamentally commercial orientation of the media - especially the TV culture - means that every TV, movie, game, toy or Web product or service is more about financial gain than learning or developmental gain. Unless and until there is a service designed explicitly to indulge creativity, expression, the joy of learning, sharing and communication, there will be too many promotions, pop-ups and inappropriate (if not explicitly dangerous) topics and behaviors interwoven with the offering 2-to-8-or-9-year-olds seek, find and revel in. I believe that TV (PBS is at best a tepid success in a 'vast wasteland') will not fulfill the promise of inspiring learning. But if a Web service (most likely a ... 'walled garden' on the Web) were offered carefully chosen, professionally produced and imaginatively presented games, activities, news, arts and adventures with well-researched learning value, I believe a healthy interactive community would flourish."

  3. Beware chat on

    Mom and reader Julie emailed us a "warning for all parents of teen-age/computer literate kids" who spend time at, a very popular kids' site, where - after registering - they can create, care for, chat about, explore, shop for, and play games with animated pets.

    "Neopets is a free game Web site specifically set up for children, and it is subsidized completely by advertising income," Julie writes. "I came to understand this game when my son, who was then 10 wanted me to win him some Neopoints (NP). Before I knew what happened I was way into it and had over 14 million NP when I was kicked off the site for allegedly trying to hack their site.... Your kids can join ... without your knowledge, for free, 24 hours/day from anywhere in the world.

    "This is my warning: Their message boards are not monitored by responsible adults.... These are some of the messages from one day's random 5 minutes on the boards at

    • anyone wanna talk 14 male brown hair blue eyes reply username: final_fantasy_lover
    • hello anyone out there that wants to chat with a 16/F/Ca username ddcccheer
    • Bored 17/F/Oh [age/sex/location]....
    • Hey anybody 14/F/cali [ditto]

    "I am not kidding. Check the boards out for yourself. Nobody monitors them; they rely completely on complaints from other users, most of whom are either other children or teens, and God only knows who or what else.... Please supervise your children's online activities!"

    We surfed around the grownup and registration pages at Neopets a bit, and here are some less-than-optimal things we noticed from a kid-safety perspective: 1) Registration requires a first and last name - kids should never be encouraged to use their real names in public places online. 2) Kids will usually tell the truth, but 9-to-12-year-olds can click on the 13+ buttons to register and thereafter get a barrage of marketing emails targeting teens. FYI, here's the site's Parental Consent page for further info, as well as what the site claims about its communications features: "Various filtering and live monitoring is in effect on the interactive areas of our site such as the message boards and chat rooms. If people are found to have posted unsuitable material, the material is immediately removed and the offending individuals are cautioned. Repeat offenders will have their accounts terminated and will no longer be able to post messages."

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Web News Briefs

  1. Computers harm learning: German study

    Excessive use of them, that is. The study, about the impact of computer use on students' math and reading performance, was huge: It surveyed 175,000 15-year-old students in 31 countries. It found that their performance in reading and math "had suffered significantly among students who have more than one computer at home," Christian Science Monitor reports. "And while students seemed to benefit from limited use of computers at school," those who used them there several times a week experienced a significant performance decline in school too. On the other hand, the researchers "also studied the effects of computer use on test scores, and found that greater use of computers in the home impacted positively on test scores, The Register reported. The key problems cited by the University of Munich study's lead researcher, Ludger Woessmann, were overuse of computers and using them to replace "other kinds of teaching," according to the Monitor.

    Reactions to the study were, predictably, mixed. Some educators felt the findings show how ed-tech research has come to resemble "conventional wisdom about weight loss, which seems to shift with the tide," the Monitor reports. Others see a "maturing debate," from either total rejection or blind faith in tech to better appreciation of where and how technology is useful in education. The Monitor cites journalist Todd Oppenheimer's survey of research in this field for his 2003 book, "The Flickering Mind," which found that "the most thorough studies have found computers to have little effect either way, although some guiding principles are beginning to emerge." Besides it sheer size and breadth, the other distinguishing factor about the study was its effort "to isolate computers as a performance-shaping factor," the Monitor says. My takeaway: Now that we're settling on a less starry-eyed, more balanced view of tech in the classroom, maybe we can get on with what's much more important: helping our kids develop critical thinking about how they use technology and what they find on the Web. This news could be another bulleted item in my feature last week, "Family PC: Backlash coming?". Here's a 10/03 Monitor review of "The Flickering Mind: The False Promise of Technology in the Classroom," when it was published by Random House last year.

  2. From blogging to podcasting

    Does your kid podcast? If s/he's an aspiring DJ or standup comedian, s/he just might. Basically, podcasting is blogging, audio-style. "The idea behind a podcast is simple, yet brilliant," the Christian Science Monitor reports. On the listener end, it's the audio equivalent to TiVo. "Instead of using portable MP3 players such as the iPod only for listening to music, new software called iPodder allows one to download prerecorded [usually home-grown] radio shows onto the devices." The listener can go to a podcaster's Web site, sign up as a subscriber, and each time the DJ/podcaster posts a new "show," it automatically downloads onto the subscriber's PC so s/he can listen anytime s/he wants. Radio broadcasters like the US's NPR and Canada's CBC are beginning to podcast now, the same way print news sites like the New York Times (and Net Family News!) provide RSS feeds people can subscribe to. "For the most part ... the medium's pioneers are do-it-yourselfers" doing the audio version of local-access cable TV, the Monitor adds, pointing out a stay-at-home dad who podcasts his own talk show, "The Bitterest Pill," during his daughter's naptime. "After an introductory tune that sounds like a mash-up between a mariachi band and the funk bass of the 'Seinfeld' theme, the Los Angeles native launches into a breathless, free-form soliloquy" about everything from child-rearing to politics to "an embarrassing encounter with Meg Ryan at a party." For other examples, check out the podcast directories, and

  3. Musicians ok with P2P

    In ethical discussions about music file-sharing (to borrow from Jack Black's line in the film School of Rock), kids will often explain their guilt-free file-sharing as a way of "sticking it to The Man" ("he" being the recording industry, which has sued thousands of file-sharers to date). Ethics aside for the moment, we've heard a lot from the recording industry so far, but very little from musicians (and kids will tell you the artists get only a small percentage of each CD's price). The Pew Internet & American Life project actually got musicians' views; it surveyed 2,793 of them, mostly with "day jobs," MediaDailyNews reports, in what turned out to be the week's biggest tech story. "The vast majority [of these musicians] do not see online file-sharing as a big threat to creative industries," the study found (as quoted in the Washington Post's round-up on this story). "Across the board, artists and musicians are more likely to say that the Internet has made it possible for them to make more money from their art than they are to say it has made it harder to protect their work from piracy or unlawful use," according to the study, which also found that "two-thirds of artists say peer-to-peer file sharing poses a minor threat or no threat at all to them." MediaDailyNews reported that "the Recording Artists Coalition, which represents musicians signed by major studio labels, sharply condemned [the Pews] report," condemning its methodology (only 8% of Pew's sample said they supported themselves entirely with their music). And so we have a more detailed picture now: Emerging musicians and garage bands have a very different view of file-sharers than that of established, high-profile ones. Now Pew needs to survey file-sharers and ask them what kinds of music they're using the likes of BitTorrent and eDonkey to find!

    Meanwhile, BNA Internet Law's Michael Geist took the time to figure out the real impact of file-sharing, at least on the Canadian music industry (he writes for the Toronto Star): The record companies' "loss claims are greatly exaggerated and ... P2P is only marginally responsible for sales declines." In a second article, he reports that Canadian artists have not suffered financially from P2P.

  4. Help from ISPs expected: Survey

    Do you feel your Internet service provider should protect your family PC from viruses and other Net-borne nasties? That's what UK Net users apparently think. UK market research firm MORI found that 58% of consumers surveyed feel that ISPs need "to work harder to protect their customers," ZDNET UK reports. And 54% even said they'd pay more for worry-free service. As we reported earlier, AOL already figured this out and is trying to deliver on this expectation - its new version 9.0 just needs a little work, according to a Washington Post review.

  5. Cell-phone cheating in Korea

    This cheating incident looks more like an epidemic and probably has a lot to do with South Korea's high-pressure university entrance exam. "Police questioned 350 South Korean students [last week] and more were under suspicion in a widening probe into cheating that has uncovered a link between two national obsessions - education and mobile phones," Reuters reports, adding that the exam is seen by many young Koreans as the single most important, future-deciding event in their lives. Hundreds of the some 600,000 students who took the exam are alleged to have cheated with their phones (75% of the country's 48 million people have at least one mobile phone, according to Reuters). "Others are being questioned for paying college students to take the exam in their place using forged identification." [For redundancy, here's a link to the same report at CNET.] As for the US, 62% of 12,000 high school students surveyed "admitted to cheating on an exam at least once," according to a Detroit News report on what US educators are doing about it.

  6. Threat center for IM-borne viruses

    If you haven't already, tell instant-messagers at your house to look out for IM-borne viruses. They're now a big enough threat to family PC security to have their own threat center (a clearinghouse where "a consortium of instant-message and antivirus-software companies ... gather and disseminate intelligence on the viruses), the Wall Street Journal reports. What should your kids know? To be suspicious of anything that a stranger tells them to download, click on, view, or listen to (especially if it has a .exe extension), but also that their friends send them, because these viruses utilize buddy lists' screennames to self-propagate. Here's an example of a mild virus that went around the popular MSN Messenger early this year, as reported by CNET (see also my "Instant-messaging risks & tips").

  7. Search engines: Getting to know you

    We mentioned Jeeves-the-search-butler's makeover, as he gets increasingly cozy with those he serves. Well, it's a trend, the BBC reports. "Not content with providing access to the millions of Web sites, many [search engines] now offer ways that do a better job of remembering, cataloguing and managing all the information you come across. In addition to Jeeves, there's Blinkx, which builds on the desktop search feature that builds on search engine technology. In other words, it, like other search-engines-cum-desktop-search tools, are trying to become the new productivity software. For example, Blinkx desktop search "watches" what you're working on - document, email, etc. - and "suggests" sites, video clips, blogs, or documents on your own PC that are relevant to your task. "In the latest release of Blinkx, the company has added what it calls smart folders. Once created the folders act as persistent queries that automatically sweep the web for pages related to their subject and catalogues relevant information, documents or incoming emails, on hard drives too." The BBC also points to Google, Apple, Copernic, Enfish, and X1 as part of the trend (it appears the last three all charge for their products).

    BTW, another new search engine just covered by CNET is - a slightly business-focused one that allows you to "super-target" your search by prioritizing the words you type into the search box.

  8. New Delhi, New York: Students' jam session

    It's the kind of networked-students project that would defy any backlash against the Internet. Some 450 high school students in New York and 200 in New Delhi communicated directly (online) with their peers, comparing northern and southern music in both countries and watching and listening to each other play pieces on giant screens in both locations. "The finale was a jam session over the oceans," the New York Times reports, describing an event in Carnegie Hall's annual Global Encounters series. "The musicians in New Delhi established a rhythm, the bluegrass band in [New York's] Zankel Hall gradually matched it, and eventually the brass band worked its way into the mix. Soon everybody was playing 'Sweet Georgia Brown.' A troupe of dancers in New Delhi twirled to the familiar refrain, their hands in the air, and the principal of Delhi Public School, Dwarka joined them as the American students clapped in time." Partly responsible: renowned Indian drummer Sandeep Das, who has worked with Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Project. The Times says he "wanted Indian students to see that there is more to American music than MTV."

  9. A teacher on video games

    It's pretty amazing when you can read a commentary, then read a dialog between its reading public and its writer. That's the case with a Washington Post commentary by Patrick Welsh, who sounds like a very good, caring English teacher at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va. It's a fairly predictable but thoughtful observation about his students (mostly male, he says) as gamers. Then there's the discussion with what readers, many of whom appear to be parents, some of whom play video games themselves. Try to make it down to the comment of a 35-year-old IT director of a multinational company and that of a reader whose "63-year-old mother is addicted to role-playing games (RPGs), like Final Fantasy" and finally the one (+ Welsh's response) at the bottom by a programmer, who says, "Halo 2, like Halo, is an awful game.... They are the Danielle Steele novels of computer games. Try a game called 'Out of This World' for something stylistic, immersive, and compelling, yet fun to play." With these, the kids-'n'-video-games picture gets a little more granular. Readers, I'd love to get your reactions, at least to the discussion, especially if you have gamers at your house (via

    For context: As if to illustrate how pervasive video games are becoming (Halo 2's premier last month rivaled that of any Hollywood blockbuster), the Washington Post reported yesterday that musicians are flocking to video games - it's becoming big money to get their songs onto game soundtracks.

  10. Teens can blog at MSN too now

    Move over LiveJournal, Blogger, Xanga, etc. As of today, Microsoft hosts blogs and online journals too - at MSN Spaces. As at Google's Blogger and so many others, it's free (if those who have free Hotmail or MSN Messenger accounts), the Associated Press reports. The Washington Post says that, "in our testing, MSN Spaces performed so-so at best. The photo publisher choked over a dial-up connection and wouldn't accept any images," and text entries occasionally disappeared. The blogging community says Spaces censors people's posts, and CNET reports that the service "has sparked a new game for some of its users: trying to circumvent its censorship controls." More concerning is MS's legal fine print, which suggests that, once posted, bloggers' content is not their own. The legal verbiage says they're transferring it to Microsoft to "use, copy, distribute, transmit, publicly display, publicly perform, reproduce, edit, modify, translate and reformat," as quoted by

  11. Finding a sitter online

    More and more parents are turning to the Net for a night out, the Washington Post reports. Pointing to sites like,,, and Chicago-based (the largest of these, boasting a database of 15,000 sitters in 15 cities), the Post says parents pay an average of $10/hour for child care offered by sites like these. That is, $10/hour plus a membership fee (monthly or quarterly ones of $5-10 or annual fees of between $25 and $40 (rates are typically lower than those of traditional child-care referral agencies). "Parents can log on to the site, specify when and where they need a sitter and identify transportation and other preferences. SitterCity, for example, offers 40 criteria from which parents can choose, including whether the sitter smokes, knows certain languages, or is available on holidays (New Year's Eve and Valentine's Day are the most popular)." The sites provide contact info, references and, as with sellers on eBay, feedback from other sitter seekers on specific sitters' quality of care. "Parents arrange their own interviews and negotiate pay with the sitter (some sites have minimum rates, others have suggested amounts)."

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


Anne Collier, Editor

Net Family News

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