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January 14, 2005

Dear Subscribers:

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

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Family Tech: Finding filters & other software, Part 1

If they've decided to use filtering or monitoring software, busy parents usually want to know yesterday which one to buy. No hemming and hawing, thank you very much. Though this little nonprofit doesn't have the resources to test all the online-safety products out there, I can certainly point out some very credible sites that do - they specialize in picking the best and making your job much easier.

[For full disclosure, one of them - - is a contributor to Net Family News, Inc., but I recommend it because its business is built on parents' interests. "I engineered everything almost backwards," said S4P publisher Josh Finer about his service. "I heard what parents needed and added it, letting them guide me because I wasn't a parent; I was a 22-year-old entrepreneur!"]

The Washington-based nonprofit gets the prize for comprehensiveness, with its database of just about all online-safety tools available. But the best sites for narrowing the choices down are Software4Parents and A third,, offers a credible 3rd opinion. The neat thing about the first two is that both of their publishers have written software themselves - they know a good product when they see its code.

At Software4Parents, absolutely key to finding a good product is whether it provides solid customer support. "It's not the software itself, it's the whole package. I want parents to have software they can use but also people they can count on, because there are always lots of issues in getting these products set up," Josh told me in an interview. "You'd be amazed how many software companies don't even reply to customer email. Some [online-safety] software was made in other countries, and there's simply no one there after you buy it and try to install it." This site recommends just three monitoring products, two filtering products, and one PC-time-controls product.

Jerry Ropelato, who started mainly because he's a dad, does a great job of picking the Top 10 filters and providing an at-a-glance comparison chart listing multiple criteria. His company reviews filters based on what he feels the average filter user is looking for. "We probably look at 30-40 things," Jerry said in an interview, including "how do users surf the Web and what are kids trying to do to get around the filters?" They also look at whether the product will do what it claims for a week or two on a normal PC any family would use. Jerry added: "We test the filters against certain notorious sites. There is a directory of porn sites that's updated daily. It's a gruesome site. We use that as one of the sites we test against the filters - you'd be surprised at how many filters don't catch that one."

Richard Seng of is a dad as well as a tech support employee at a very large cable company and ISP. He'd gotten a lot of questions about filtering online porn from customers and decided to provide answers in a site of his own, he said in an interview. His main criteria for a filter: "It needed to work - to function smoothly and not crash - and be fairly easy for the average person to get it installed and running." It also needed to work for families of various sizes - have multiple "accounts" with age-appropriate filtering for children of different maturity levels.

Of course, it's important to remember that we're talking about stand-alone filtering products, not ISP-based services like the Parental Controls at America Online and Microsoft Network. These are excellent services, some say they're the best and most flexible online-safety technology available. But there's just one drawback to ISP-based controls: When families have broadband connections using a local provider, kids can bypass the service and its controls (look into what PC-based parental controls these services offer). So, Josh of Software4Parents tells me, some parents want double protection. "They're adding Spector PRO monitoring to AOL Parental Controls. Kids play Quake or Doom and can talk to other players on the Net, so parents want to monitor that chat" [chat that's not in AOL or MSN and that's a part of almost all online multi-player games].

Next week, Part 2: Insights from these specialists on the filtering and monitoring of kids' online experiences.

BTW, I love getting your insights and stories about kids' online times at your house or school. Email me anytime via!

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Kids in K-8: Web design contest!

"They consider themselves technology mavens. They can write HTML as quickly as their book reports. Their creative ideas for Web content are endless. And they aren't even in high school yet," the press release goes. One of these mavens just may be at your house or school. If so, don't hesitate to have them enter their work in a national contest to find "'America's Youngest Web Wizards' - K-8th graders who have designed Web sites with extraordinary creativity." Its sponsor is Hostway, an international Web hosting company. Winners (one student from grades K-5 and one from 6-8) will receive a Dell laptop, a year of free Web site hosting, and national recognition for their Web work. The deadline is February 28, and winners will be announced March 31. For more information, go to Hostway's Web Wizards page.

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Web News Briefs

  1. New: The lean, clean little Mac

    This time Apple's got us family computer users in mind for sure. Yesterday it introduced the Mac Mini, and it really is mini in terms of both price and size (here are photos at CNET). Priced at $499 and $599 (for an 80-GB hard drive instead of 40-GB), it's "a tiny machine with a processor, hard drive and optical drive - you supply the monitor, mouse and keyboard," CNET reports. According to the New York Times , "while computers have long been sold as machines that can turn a home into an office, most Americans now use them in their bedrooms and kitchens as e-mail terminals; as hubs for playing music, storing and editing photos; and as stations for navigating the Web.... [The Mini] is aimed squarely at the needs of this new digital household." But not just because of its size and price (which, with peripherals will be closer to $1,000 than $500), methinks. They'll just clinch the switch to Apple for a lot of families looking for simpler, more pest-free computing and surfing experiences. I'm seeing very little about this key PC-security aspect of what Apple offers in the mountain of media coverage the Mini announcement got worldwide. For families with care-free young surfers downloading all kinds of stuff, computer security is becoming huge. Here's PC Magazine, and the Washington Post's roundup of many other reports. (BTW: If you buy one of these and don't mind using an old PC monitor you have lying around the house, you can really keep the cost down - a spanking-new Apple mouse and keyboard can be had for about $60.)

    The next day, CNET published a really helpful analysis, comparing (in terms of price) a fully tricked-out Mac Mini to a Dell, Gateway, or HP PC with all the features a typical family would want (e.g., monitor, keyboard, mouse, and speakers). The Mini comes out to about $100 more (but less if you already have a monitor you can plug into it). BTW, this is the only piece I've seen that addresses the Mini's PC security advantage, saying a lot of people who find themselves doing all the family tech support may just go out and buy one (out of their allowance!). ;-)

  2. Microsoft's new patches: Git 'em!

    Microsoft issued two new critical patches today and one of next-to-the-highest level of importance. "A hacker could exploit one of the security flaws if a user directed the Web browser to a specially designed Web page," Reuters reports, saying the patches are part of the company's monthly PC security bulletin. Be sure to download them if you have a Windows PC. Go to the company's Windows Update page to check if you need them. If so, you can click once to download the three patches. Also, here's the new page, available just this week, where you can scan your PC for virus infection, as I reported last week ("Microsoft's free help for PC pests").

  3. Schools lack Net savvy: Report

    American schools have plenty of technology now, but not enough understanding of how to make the most of it in educating students, according to a just-released report from the US Department of Education, "Toward a New Golden Age in American Education: How the Internet, the Law and Today's Students Are Revolutionizing Expectations." "In the realm of technology, the educational community is playing catch-up. Industry is far ahead of education. And tech-savvy high school students often are far ahead of their teachers," DOE says in one of its conclusions, adding elsewhere that "we need to listen to America's students" because of their tech savvy (this is the intro to a section on "Student Voices" that includes a feedback blog). Coverage at USATODAY and CNET cited some arresting stats in the report: "9 in 10 children between 5 and 17 use computers, and even higher numbers of online teenagers use the Net for school-related work"; " 72% of all first graders used a home computer on a weekly basis during their summer breaks" and "the largest group of new Net users from 2000 to '02 were 2-to-5-year-olds, closely followed by 6-to-8-year-olds. In the process, students have become educators' toughest critics" (that last from CNET). The DOE points to ed-tech "success stories" at schools in a dozen states.

  4. Young phoners in debt

    A lot of parents have been there: opened up a cell-phone provider's bill to find hundreds of dollars of charges staring them in the face. One example is the family of Chaz Albert, whose cell-phone bill last month was $400, $320 of it his charges, the New York Times reports. The real culprit: text messaging. At $.10 an outgoing message and $.02 for each incoming one, its cost is sneaking up on kids (and parents) everywhere, now that "texting" is all the rage in the US (it has been among European and Asian youth for years). The Times cites Forrester Research findings that "Americans sent 2.5 billion text messages a month in mid-2004, triple the number sent in mid-2002." The problem is, the cell phone companies' salespeople sometimes fail to tell new customers about the costs of texting. And what a lot of people don't know is, you can call up Customer Service and have them turn texting off altogether for any phone on your family plan. But if you want your kids to learn the hard way, the Times cites an upside: "For some young people, the cellphone ordeals, though painful, have proved valuable. What is left, it seems, after the bills are paid and the family tensions subside is the emergence of a new maturity when it comes to money." Not to mention some kids graduating from high school with cell-phone debt.

  5. For youngest cell users

    Disney is clearly anticipating younger and younger cell-phone customers - or maybe teenagers will find it very cool to have Mickey say "answer your phone" when someone calls. Instead of a "brrrring" or a tune, soon phone users will be able to download the voices of Disney characters as "ringtones," to the tune of $2.50, CNET reports. For example, Goofy will say, "Hello? Is anybody there?" and Mr. Incredible, "Hello? Yeah, I'm Mr. Incredible." Other voices will include Minnie Mouse, Donald Duck, Pooh and Tigger, as well as Stitch, Woody, and Buzz Lightyear. And musical ringtones (from Finding Nemo and Aladdin) and phone screensavers are also in the works. The phenomenon is not unlike the "skins" and other customizing features kids love to use to customize the look of their IMs and instant-messaging services.

  6. Online games: Wising up to 'tweaks'

    More and more parents are on the look-out for kid-friendly games, the Associated Press reports, citing one mom who in her professional life promotes games like Doom 3 but in her family life is always looking for good E-rated games for her 7-year-old. Her quest and that of other parents is a sign of much-needed growing sophistication where kids and video games are concerned. And not just because of violent content. More and more video games are going online and multi-player, which means that hackers both harmless and malicious can gain access to these virtual worlds. The Washington Post reports that, hackers' "tweaks" to these games are beginning to affect the game experience - in terms of content and PC and console security. "Some modifications can shift the basically PG-rated [Sims] game closer to an R: Teenage Sims don't ordinarily hook up in the game, but one download installs a sudden interest, among younger Sim-folk, in sex," the Post reports. Usually, the tweaks are just "digital tomfoolery" that Sims publisher Electronic Arts has encouraged because it adds to the creativity of the experience. But now the one-person's-tweak-is-another's-harm may be kicking in, unfortunately. And some tweaks are beginning to travel to other players' computers "in a fashion similar to a computer virus" (and game consoles as they become connected to the Net). So far, most tweaks are "more amusing than malicious," Sims creator Will Wright said, but parents may want to know that line can be crossed. Here's the BBC on games that will be released in 2005.

  7. Spam law: How's it doing?

    First we hear the US's year-old anti-spam law isn't working very well, then days later we get an example of how it is. The FTC this week "struck the first blow against porn spammers by using provisions in the federal CAN-SPAM Act to convince a Nevada judge to freeze the assets of several companies and five men accused of spewing pornographic emails," reported. The law requires porn spammers to label their emails as such (so people wouldn't open them by mistake), and these companies had failed to do that. Here's an earlier article from the Washington Post explaining the law and why it's had mixed results. [See my 5/21 issue for a report on how much UK kids are exposed to porn spam at school.] Meanwhile, according to AOL, anyway, we're getting less spam overall now. "AOL also said [it] received 2.2 million spam complaints from its subscribers in November, down from 11 million for the same month a year ago," the Washington Post reported.

  8. Oz teens arrested in Net scam

    Four Sydney high school students aged 15-17 have been charged with participation in a Russia-based Internet scam, the Associated Press reported. The scammers stole "stole people's banking passwords and siphoned cash [$457,000] into accounts in eastern Europe," according to the AP. "The four students were promised a cut of the profits for letting their bank accounts be used for laundering money stolen from Internet bankers via a computer virus that dropped a program for secretly recording passwords." The students were among 13 Australians arrested in connection with the scam by the time AP filed. Australian police said the students were targeted "because they were naive."

  9. Blogs booming (teens' too)

    A sure sign that blogging has arrived was the news that a blog called Tsunami Help was among the Top 10 most visited humanitarian sites by January 1. According to Web traffic monitor, it was No. 10 in a list that included,,, and That's on top of news from a new Pew Internet & American Life report that - even though 62% of US Net users don't know what a blog is - 27% (or 32 million Americans) read blogs, a 58% jump in less than a year, and 27% have created blogs (we suspect a lot of them are teenagers). As for the Web as a whole, here's the New York Times on how Lisa Bauman, a nurse in Austin, Texas, used the Net to search for relatives traveling in Indonesia when the tsunami struck - a search that illustrated both the Net's "extraordinary reach" and its limitations ("Finally, on Thursday night, her mother reached Mr. Bauman by telephone and learned that all in the family were fine," the Times reports).

    For insights into the teen version of the blog culture, see "Teens' blog life," "Xanga & other teen hangouts," and a mom/subscriber on her daughter's online journal, or blog.

  10. A distance-learning teacher's view

    "Some educators are aghast when I explain how delighted I was to receive my world-literature student's proposal to film a documentary instead of the standard analytical essay on 'The Epic of Gilgamesh.' The ancient Sumerian legend of a man devastated by the death of his closest friend resonated deeply with my student, who had recently witnessed the murder of her best friend. Her work on this documentary ensures that she'll never forget the Sumerian king and his sorrow, so like her own," writes Melissa Hart in the Christian Science Monitor. This is just a taste of the extraordinary rapport Melissa - an English and history teacher at Ojai, Calif.-based Laurel Springs [online] School - seems to have developed with her distant students, contrary to the pronouncement of one educator of elite young athletes that virtual school "offers endless possibilities," but "you will never have that wonderful teacher who inspires you for life." If you click to Melissa's commentary, be sure to get all the way to the bottom. BTW, she has taught championship figure-skaters, young Hollywood actors, Olympic hopefuls, and world travelers, as well as recovering drug and alcohol addicts, victims of bullies, and children who are in bereavement and chronically ill - "students for whom a traditional five-day-a-week school is impractical."

  11. Phone texting & disaster relief

    As popular a leisure activity phone texting is in Europe and Asia (and increasingly among teens in the US), it has become an important tool in dealing with natural disasters. "The messages can get through [and did in the tsunami's aftermath in Asia last week] even when the cell phone signal is too weak to sustain a spoken conversation," the BBC reports. And SMS (for "short message service" or phone texting) networks can handle a lot more traffic than cell-phone or land-line networks, it adds. Plus, even where there's no Internet cafe and land lines are down, there's almost always someone who has a mobile phone to get word out (or in). The BBC tells the story of Sanjaya Senanayake with Sri Lankan TV (also a blogger). "He was one of the first on the scene after the tsunami destroyed much of the Sri Lankan coast. Cell phone signals were weak. Land lines were unreliable. So Mr. Senanayake started sending out text messages. The messages were not just the latest news they were also an on-the-ground assessment of 'who needs what and where'." Read the BBC piece to see how Sanjaya and Dan Lane, "a text message guru" in the UK are creating the "Alert Retrieval Cache," a system to "link those in need with those who can help." [This is a little off topic for Net Family News, but age isn't an issue, here - your child could well be the next Sanjaya Senanyake or Dan Lane (next week, not necessarily when s/he's grownup, certainly!).]

  12. Virtual tourism

    Have you taken a virtual tour of a university with a high school student at your house? If so, you're in good company. In a recent Pew Internet & American Life project report on Americans' online activities and pursuits, it found that 45% of US adults online (54 million people) have taken a virtual tour - 2 million people on a typical day. Popular destinations include museums, tourist and vacation locales (e.g., the White House and the Taj Mahal), colleges and prep schools, real estate, historical exhibits, parks and nature preserves, and hotels and motels. Here's the San Jose Mercury News on this. Other recent Pew findings about Americans' online activities include:

    • 53 million US adults use instant-messaging. How people use IM "varies widely across the age groups. Of interest to parents: Younger people use IM "not only as a way to expand and remain connected their social circle, but also as a form of self-expression, through use of customized away messages, profiles and buddy icons." They use these expressive tools "more frequently than the protective tools that allow them to block unwanted communications. Buddy list management also occurs relatively infrequently, with users reporting adding or deleting buddies from their list no more than a few times a month."
    • 26% of US adult Net users (33 million people) have rated a product, service, or person using an online rating system.
    • 84% have used search engines (107 million people), and 87% of those say the find the info they want most of the time.

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


Anne Collier, Editor

Net Family News

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