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March 18, 2005

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Here's our lineup for this third week of March:

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'IM confused': Online social mishaps

Has something like this happened to you?: On a recent Saturday evening, our 13-year-old wanted to ski with a friend the next day (we'll call the friend "Bob"). We were out, so he called me on my cell phone for permission. I asked him if the get-together complied with the usual rule (if we drive you 40 minutes up the canyon, you get a ride home).

"Yeah, we're all set, Mom," was the reply. He's an organized boy, so I accepted this in good faith and drove him up to meet Bob at the bottom of the chairlift the next day, then turned around. Fifteen minutes later, the cell phone rings. Bob hasn't shown up at the agreed-upon place. I advise him to wait a bit longer, then call me. About 20 minutes later, he calls with even more frustration in his voice. No Bob. Was he sure Bob had gotten the meeting place right? "Of course, Mom, he repeated it back to me twice - Payday lift, 1 o'clock."

I call Bob's mom to see if everything is ok. She had had no idea this afternoon of skiing had been arranged. I was in for another 80 minutes of driving.

Long story short: The arrangements had been made via instant-messaging, not phone, as I'd thought. The night before, Bob had also been arranging, via IM, a get-together with a girl for the following Monday, Valentines Day. My son had logged off before Bob did (this is key), thinking he and Bob were all set. Bob's girlfriend had later IM-ed Bob to say never mind, she couldn't get together on Monday after all. Bob somehow confused the two IM screennames, thinking (maybe wishfully) my son had cancelled instead of the girl. The next morning, though, Bob was bummed, his mom later told me, that he had no ski plans that day. So his mom arranged for him to meet friends at a different ski area in another canyon.

The lesson we all drew from this: Multiple conversations via instant-messaging can be confusing - especially if, in the case of Bob, one conversation involves a "date" with one's very first girlfriend. We decided that all get-togethers need to be confirmed or finalized by phone and - if parents are driving - at least one parent is directly involved in the planning, by phone.

Has any of you run into similar inconvenience because kids are digitally "dazed and confused"? It's nothing huge - just a lot of driving one afternoon (though I could've gotten to some work of my own). Our son had a perfectly fine time skiing by himself on a busy ski day at a mountain he knows like the back of his hand - though a sibling had to make some adjustments that weren't really fair.

All this says something worth noting about instant-messaging, as distinct from phone and face-to-face communications. It needs backup. People log in and out at different times, and multi-person conversations don't end when one checks out. Plans can change without one's knowledge. And when lots of people/screennames are involved, participants aren't always sure who said what, and conversations aren't logged (unless parents have installed monitoring software on the computer), so we can't check to see what was said by whom.

What's clearer now is that...

But what are your observations about IM and kids? I would love to hear how you and your child(ren) have worked through IM issues. Email me anytime via!

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Web News Briefs

  1. Real-live parental controls: Study

    More than half (54%) of US households with 12-to-17-year-olds in them filter Internet access - a 65% increase over 2000, according to a Pew Internet & American Life study released this week. Even so, "big majorities of both teens [64%] and parents [65%] believe that teens do things on the Internet that their parents would not approve of," Pew adds. The challenge is that a centrally located, filtered family PC is becoming a thing of the past in the US (see the recent Kaiser study on media in the lives of US teens). Children are increasingly accessing the Net via laptops, mobile phones, and fixed and mobile game consoles (e.g., the new PlayStation Portable, or PSP), not to mention other locations beyond parental control (friends' houses, school, libraries, coffee shops, etc.). Amanda Lenhart, the study's author, said that kids who have Internet rules at home "are also more likely to access the Internet from school, possibly negating the impact of any rules," CBS News reports. Here are some more key Pew findings:

    • 87% of US 12-to-17-year-olds have access to the Net at home.
    • 13% of teens don't use the Net; 47% of these say they did at one time but stopped, and 10% of non-online teens say they aren't online because of a bad experience they had online, parental restrictions, or they don't feel safe online.
    • 67% of parents believe the Internet is "a good thing for their child," up from 55% in 2000 (a 53% increase); 5% believe the Net is "a bad thing" for their child.
    • 65% of parents and 64% of teens say that "teens do things online that they wouldn't want their parents to know about."
    • 81% of parents of online teens say teens aren't careful enough when giving out personal info online, and 79% of online teens agree.
    • 73% of teens say the connected computer is in a public place in the house.
    • 64% of parents say they've set rules about teens' online activities.
    • 62% of parents say they check on teen's Net activity after they've been online, but only 33% of teens say they believe their parents monitor their activity.

    Here's more coverage from the Associated Press and MSNBC.

  2. Drugs in games

    Substance abuse can now be added to parents' list of concerns about video games. In "Narc," to be released next week for both PlayStation 2 and Xbox, players "will - as part of the gameplay - be able to take drugs," the New York Times reports. "Taking an Ecstasy tablet creates a mellow atmosphere that can pacify aggressive foes," according to the Times. And there's a downside too: "Using each drug also leads to addiction, which can lead to blackouts that cost the player inventory and to demotions or even expulsion from the police force, which halts progress in the game. In measured doses, the substances can make a tough challenge easier, but the makers of the game say it is possible to play without using the drugs at all." Narc is rated M (for Mature), but so far nothing is stopping kids under 17 from buying the game, despite efforts in a number of states (see "Anti-violent games momentum grows" and "Video games: The bad & the good").

    Meanwhile, the Washington Post this week offered an insiders' view of producing "Postal," one of the original violent games, and Slate recently published a piece has an insightful piece about online role-playing games' "immersiveness." Get this: "Why are online games so addictive? It's mostly the narcotic appeal of 'leveling.' When you create a new character ... it starts life as a weakling. Completing specific quests and destroying wolves, evil marauders, and mechanical golems jumps you to the next level, where you suddenly have more endurance, more strength, and stronger spells. The sense of accomplishment is incredible but fleeting. To make these games challenging, designers make the mathematics of leveling logarithmic: The higher you go, the longer it takes to reach the next level. Leveling is thus precisely like a drug whose effect weakens the more you use it."

  3. Griefers: Cyberbullies in games

    "Cyberbullying" has been in the news a lot lately, but not yet its subset in online games. Bullies called "griefers" harass fellow players in multiplayer games. For an eye-opener, check out "Confessions of a Gr1epheR" at the Xbox site. In a recent overview on cyberbullying, USATODAY described an experience an 11-year-old had with a griefer: "A fifth-grader in the Los Angeles area, [Michael] stopped using his computer for six months after a brush with a griefer. After he beat another boy in an online game, several of the boy's friends threatened Michael in a chat room. 'If I find you, I will beat you up,' one message read. Frightened, Michael blocked their IM addresses but didn't tell his parents for two weeks." He told USATODAY it was the first time he'd been bullied. Microsoft, which markets multiplayer games for its Xbox console, offers 10 tips for dealing with griefers, also known as "snerts, cheese players, twinks, or just plain cyberbullies." They lurk in games as disparate as Halo 2, EverQuest, The Sims Online, SOCOM, and Star Wars Galaxies, Microsoft says. Of course, Net-based bullying involves girls every bit as much as boys. Instant-messaging and blogs are also venues for all kinds of psychological warfare, regardless of gender (for more, see my series, "The IM life of middle-schoolers" and "A mom writes: Trash talk in online games" and another mom's response). Also, has "A Parents' Guide to Cyberbullying."

  4. Filtering phones

    The cell-phone industry association (CTIA) is pushing its members to adopt controls that prevent children from accessing adult content on phones, Reuters reports. The Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association, representing Cingular, Nextel, and other companies, said it's developing an education campaign and "guidelines that would also call on carriers to classify content either as available to users of all ages or restricted to those at least 18 years old." And not a moment too soon, since many of the latest generation of phones can access the Internet. For an early look at parental controls on cell phones, see my feature a year ago. About 21 million 5-to-19-year-olds in the US had cell phones by the end of last year, according to Reuters. The overall figure is 180.5 million (wireless subscribers in the US), up from 21.7 million in 2003, USATODAY reports. That's small compared to Europe, of course: "Eight of 10 European Union residents have mobile phone numbers while only six of 10 Americans do," Reuters reports separately.

  5. Net pedophiles getting smarter

    Though posing as such in chatrooms, Angie Wilson is not 14 years old. She's a special agent with the Kansas Bureau of Investigation whose job it is to catch sexual predators harassing young people online. At a recent conference of state attorneys general, she helped Kansas Attorney General Phill Kline illustrate how fast children get solicited in a chatroom (in a recorded version of Wilson's chat session it took about 2 minutes). Kline told the group that the "grotesque visuals" kids get sent by pedophiles are bad enough but what he finds "truly frightening" is "the sophisticated nature of these sexual predators and how organized they are," the Associated Press reports. "Kline singled out one Web site that he said explains the age of consent for sex in every state, describes the state-by-state penalties for sexual offenses, and even provides links to attorneys who specialize in defending those caught soliciting sex from children. Articles on the site also discuss how to target children who seem to be loners, frightened, or looking for friends and explain how to establish a pen-pal relationship." He described the site as something like a "pedophile college" for learning how to meet children online. How do we help kids who are lonely or looking for friends to understand that online chat is the last place they should go?! Comments welcome.

  6. P2P family-PC security flaw

    It has been fixed, but this PC security flaw alerts parents of file-sharers to a key potential risk of P2P activity to the family PC: the privacy one. Researchers at Cornell University found that the flaw in the very popular LimeWire P2P service "could allow an intruder to read any file on the hard drive of a person running LimeWire, whether or not it has been deliberately shared with others using the software," CNET reports. (File-sharers do have to download LimeWire's latest version to get the fix.) This is just the latest heads-up on the PC security issue. A 2002 study of Kazaa at HP Labs in California found "the majority of the users in our study were unable to tell what files they were sharing, and sometimes incorrectly assumed they were not sharing any files when in fact they were sharing all files on their hard drive." After that study was released, the US Congress held hearings on this problem to get the word out (see "Overexposed: The Threats to Privacy and Security on the File-Sharing Networks"). The bottom line is, if kids' file-sharing is allowed, parents need to be involved and at the very least need to configure the software's preferences with their children after it's installed on the family PC. Other P2P issues are the widely reported legal risks, the spyware that comes bundled with some of the services (not LimeWire, incidentally), viruses that can be downloaded, and the pornography (both legal adult content and illegal child pornography) that's all over the networks. Some files on the networks with descriptors, or labels, as innocuous as "Winnie the Pooh" turn out to be pornographic, so children can download them inadvertently. For more, see "File-sharing realities for families" and "A tech-literate dad on file-sharing."

  7. Your personal info in Google

    A mom emailed me recently saying she was amazed that people could "Google" her family members' names and turn up their home address in the search results. She's not alone - a lot of people are dismayed by this, but no doubt even more have no idea what Google searchers can find out about them. No need to panic, but that's why parents need to know what their kids are posting in their blogs, Web sites, and online journals (see "A dad on kids' blogs," 3/4/05). I sent her the URL to a brief article I wrote on this back in April 2003, including how to remove information from Google (here again is Google's Phonebook Name Removal page. Google has this caveat, though: "Removing your phonebook listing will not remove your personal information from other pages on the web or from other reverse phone listing lookup services." It lists and links to six such services. And that's only the beginning of what people can find out about other people with a little "Google hacking," which - Reuters reports in the latest coverage of this phenomenon - "doesn't require special software or an extensive knowledge of computer code."

  8. When music's like fanfiction

    This is a fascinating example of the upside of file-sharing: Chuck D and the Fine Arts Militia release a 3-minute song and invite everyone to pass it around the Net and "view, copy, mix, remix, sample, imitate, parody and even criticize it," the Washington Post reports. The result - as with fanfiction, where people write their own stories about famous authors' characters - "has been the creation of a flood of derivative work ranging from classical twists on the hip-hop piece to video interpretations of the song. The musicians reveled in the instant fan base. They were so pleased that they recently decided to publish their next entire album, due later this spring, the same way, becoming the first major artists to do so." This is a great illustration of why, just on this one case pitting media companies against P2P services, the US Supreme Court has its work cut out for it this month (see "P2P Update"). It's not black and white; P2P services are used by both seasoned copyright "pirates" and innocent fans who just want to experiment with music - sometimes embodied in the same individual viewed from different perspectives. BitTorrent itself is a fascinating test case, Washington Post tech writer Rob Pegoraro points out in a separate piece. He explains how this extremely popular, newest-generation P2P tech works.

    Meanwhile, the litigation beat goes on worldwide. Several major Dutch ISPs agreed to help in a crackdown on customers suspected of file-sharing, the Associated Press reports. And France is sending mixed signals: While a French teacher accused of sharing 300GB of music files has been fined $13,200, The Register reports, a French court of appeals released a 22-year-old file-sharer "after he was sued for copying nearly 500 movies ... burning them on CDs and sharing them with friends." "Sharing with friends" (for non-commercial use) was the reason cited for his release, the blog reported. [Thanks to BNA Internet Law for pointing these cases out.]

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


Anne Collier, Editor

Net Family News

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