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April 8, 2005

Dear Subscribers:

It's good to be back - last week's Childnet Academy and conference in Jamaica were a great success (see Web News Briefs below). Here's our lineup for this first full week of April:

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Tips from a tech-savvy dad, Part 1: Fan sites of a different sort; 'Cross-over sites'

Eleven-year-old "Rachel" "is a horse freak," her dad told me, "her true passion is horses." In a recent phone interview, "Tom," a technology company executive in California, asked me to change their names to protect his daughter's privacy. I called him because I knew he and Rachel were very cutting edge in their respective uses of technology, and I wanted an update on what parents of tech-literate kids might want to know.

Of course, just about every Net-connected child from around 6th grade is using instant messaging, and I'll get to that next week. This week, two less well-known developments you might want to know about:

  1. Sites about young people's interests

    Back to Rachel's love of horses. You can sub in anything kids are passionate about, because they'll probably find a Web site covering it. Tom's main point on this was that, when kids are deeply interested in a Web site's subject, they're likely to be less alert to being manipulated either by other people in the site's community areas or by the site itself, and that can lead to problems. Rachel's favorite site is "a virtual horse-care and -show site that's all about caring for horses, prepping for and going to shows, winning ribbons, etc. - primarily text-based and has chat," Tom told me. (He didn't want me to publish the URL because he thinks it's a good site created by a well-intentioned family that loves horses too.) "Site users have their own virtual horses. You can establish a free account, but with a paid, premium account, you can save all your info [track your horses' show record, ribbons won, etc.] and have a whole stable of horses," he explained.

    "Rachel got to chatting with someone on a regular basis in the site," Tom said, someone who seemed to be an old hand at the site's ins and outs. "One day the person told Rachel you could configure an account to get even more out of it and convinced her to give him her password - so he could get into Rachel's account and supposedly set it up for her," Tom told me.

    "Rachel broke our family rule - she gave out her password," he said, "and within 10 seconds she was locked out of her own account. The person took her account and posted it for sale."

    Fortunately, they had monitoring software on her computer, he said. "I went to the log file and pulled the conversation [he told me he usually just looks through the log files randomly not religiously]. I emailed it to the site's sysadmin, and he called me first thing the next business day. He'd figured out who the guy was and shut down his account and reactivated Rachel's."

    The upshot of all this, Tom said, is that one family discussion is not enough, particularly where Web activity involving kids' passions are concerned. They get "desensitized," he said, because they're so focused on the subject. "Regular discussion is needed."

  2. 'Cross-over sites'

    "Another experience we've had at our house," Tom said, "was with what I call 'cross-over sites' - Web sites that appear to be somewhat innocuous in their content but are really geared toward desensitizing kids to porn and all the elements of porn sites." I'd heard of threshold drugs, so I said, "You mean like threshold sites?"

    "That's exactly it," Tom replied. "Because Rachel and I talk on a regular basis, she never feels she has to hide anything. So she told me about this. She was chatting with a friend on IM, and the friend said, 'Hey, there's a site you can go to and take this survey.' It's an 11-year-old kind of survey," Tom added, "like, 'What kind of a friend are you?' She did the survey and she was about to send the link to another friend to take the survey, when she noticed that also in the list of quizzes on that page were other surveys that were sexual in nature. They were almost buried, strategically placed. When you click on those, you don't just get a survey but also graphics that go along with it. Sexually explicit ones."

    Rachel decided not to send the link to her friends.

    "This isn't the only example I've heard of. I'm convinced it's a method they use to get young people into this stuff," Tom said. "The ultimate goal is more porn customers, of course. I think it's a trend. At least, I've have heard about it from other parents in our circle."

I love getting on-the-ground expertise from families - and publishing it for the benefit of all readers. Email me your stories and comments anytime via

Next week: Tom's tips on tween IM-ing.

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Web News Briefs

  1. Childnet Academy '05

    Spending a few days with a small group of people representing seven continents is extraordinary in itself. But when they're young and communicators and promoters of the best of causes and ideas, spending time with each other can be life-changing for them and everyone involved. I'm speaking of this year's Childnet Academy in Jamaica last week, celebrating some of the best young Webmasters in the world. I was inspired by the work of this year's winners, representing seven continents, among them:

    • UK 8-year-old Lalit Maganti's "Animals in Danger," which Lalit learned how to build from borrowing a Web site how-to book from the library.
    • 14-year-old Elizabeth Clegg's "Looking at You" for the sight-impaired (Elizabeth wrote site content from her own experience).
    • 17-year-old Nigerian Samuel Oloyede Odofin's - "Biotechnology: The food solution," written in three languages (from a country greatly in need of increased food production).
    • "It's all in the mix" by students at Northern Ireland's first religiously integrated school, reaching out with their stories about mixing it up in a divided community to peers in other divided communities worldwide.

  2. Hotline help for UK parents

    At the Childnet International conference last week, a dad from the UK asked if there was anyone a parent could call in his country to get help if a child was at risk online - local police didn't seem to be able to help. Though the answer was pretty much "no" then, a BBC report the very next day said it'll be "yes" within a year. "A unit to protect children in the UK from Internet paedophiles is being set up by the Home Office," according to the BBC. To be called the Centre for Child Protection on the Internet, its staff of about 100 people from law enforcement and child welfare will be open 24 hours a day. "The centre will take on work being done by the National Crime Squad and will target those who distribute child porn images or 'groom' children for abuse. It sound as if it will function similarly to at the US's National Center for Missing & Exploited Children and Canada's - remarkable services that I hope parents in all countries will have access to someday.

  3. Your house: A bird's-eye view at Google

    With satellite images, Google is now making it possible for Web searchers to see at a glance how close the hotel they're thinking of booking is to the beach, the Associated Press reports. But there's a flipside to that convenience: Searchers can also type in someone's address and quickly size up the neighborhood layout. Google's new feature , stemming from its purchase of digital mapmaker Keyhole Corp. six months ago, "will enable its users to zoom in on homes and businesses using satellite images... providing a bird's-eye-view of about half the United States." The Keyhole technology provides "close-up perspective of specific addresses." A Keyhole manager told the AP that there is little reason for paranoia about the satellite images, though, because they're 6-12 months old.

  4. Tell IM-ers about new worm!

    Watch out, parents of IM-ers, a nasty email-carried worm that started going around on April Fool's Day is now pestering MSN Messenger users. Posing as Microsoft, Trend Micro, and Symantec, the Chod.B worm "sends out messages to contacts from the infected user's address book, warning them that they are about to receive a file," CNET reports. "The virus then sends a file designed to infect the recipient's system." Tell your kids it looks like it's coming from someone on their buddy list and "sounds" like a friend, saying, "'Check out what I just found on the Internet." The cardinal IM rule they need to have memorized is not to click on any file sent them, even from a "buddy" before starting a new, separate conversation with that buddy, or screenname, and asking him or her if s/he sent that file. (The worm grabs screennames from people's address books on PCs it has infected in order to pose as buddies.) For more, see CNET. As for the big picture, ZDNET reports that the quantity of IM threats like these to PC security "increased 250% in the first quarter of 2005."

  5. AOL's new blog service for teens

    I'm wondering why someone hasn't come up with this before - maybe because blogging's phenomenal growth among teenagers took us all by surprise. Anyway, AOL just unveiled its new "RED Blogs" (parts of its "RED" for teens). Even though teenagers often reveal their most intimate thoughts in blogs, they're smart, AOL's research found: 84% of them "said they would not like to share their blog with just anyone on the Web," CNET reports. RED blogs "allows teenagers and parents to select the level of privacy they want for their online diaries; a private blog can be kept locked. A semiprivate blog is locked to all but those who are invited to read it. And a public blog allows access to anybody on the Net." Another interesting factoid: "When AOL asked teenagers in a survey who they were more likely to share their feelings with--parents or a blog - parents narrowly won out, 51% to 49%." For the latest on teens 'n' blogs, see "Parents'-eye view of blogging kids" and "A dad on kids' blogs."

  6. Predator stopped in Seattle

    Police arrested a 42-year-old man outside a shopping mall when he was rendezvousing with "a 13-year-old girl" he'd been "grooming" in online chat. "The receptive young girl never existed; detectives had posed as her online, trading sexually explicit banter with the suspect as part of a ruse to catch Internet pedophiles, The Olympian reports. Tech-savvy policework like this is happening more and more worldwide, and if I linked to all the coverage, this news service would just be about that. So I'm linking to this short, clear-cut article in case it's a useful discussion point for family discussions on chatting with strangers online. In many of these stories, 13-14 is the age level particularly vulnerable. This story points to several tactics of predators, including their perusing and using young people's online profiles in blogs, IM, chat, etc. (so kids need to be careful about what they reveal in them). Police also noted two approaches these people take: quick, predatory attempts to meet kids offline and patient "grooming," or relationship-building using various communication modes - chat, email, IM, phone, etc. - over weeks and sometimes months so targeted kids don't feel they're talking to strangers. (Thanks to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children for pointing this piece out.)

  7. Kid-friendly search engines

    I've been waiting for this: the specialists at SearchEngineWatch updating their survey of child-safe search engines. The article covers major directories of child-appropriate Web sites, grownup search engines that provide filtering, and a bit about filtering software in general. One children's directory they missed is Kidsnet's, which offers only child-safe Web pages actually reviewed by human beings (Kidsnet's number was 175 million pages a year ago). For more on Kidsnet filtering, see my write-up, 4/9/04. Parents, you do know about filtered Web search, right? If you don't have filtering for your family PC, this would be the most basic precaution against kids stumbling upon online porn: Go to Google, Yahoo, MSN Search, etc. and turn on strict filtering on their preferences pages. A family rule to use only those filtered search engines (to keep it simple at our house, we all just use one search engine) and not to change the preferences would back that up. As an additional precaution, we tell our kids to use that search engine to find sites whose URLs they're not sure about - don't just type any old URL into your browser windeow, because of the bad stuff you can run into. [Thanks to Marylaine Block's "Neat New Stuff I Found This Week" for pointing out the SearchEngineWatch update.]

  8. From blogging to vlogging

    Teenagers will probably be interested in trying this: video blogging, or "vlogging" - what Google just announced it's going to start hosting. Vlogging "is still a new phenomenon but is expected to take off as Web space becomes cheaper - or even free - and digital cameras become ever more sophisticated," the BBC reports. Teen bloggers, who love playing around with various media, undoubtedly will have fun with this. But there's a downside they and grownups need to be aware of, the same one found in moblogs (blogging with mobile phones), podcasting (blogging with Web and iPod), and regular blogs: the unwise way teens represent themselves with images and video, thinking it's all just among friends (for an extreme, not a common, example, see "Self-published child porn"). Back to the BBC: "The move to let people upload video to Google's servers comes as the firm trials a video search service.... Google's interest in blogging - web logging - stems back to 2003 when it bought popular blog site," BTW, in its coverage of vlogging, The Register reported that, in a recent survey, 23% of Britons "cited pornography as their primary reason for getting broadband internet, far outweighing any other factor."

  9. So what is phishing again?!

    I've covered the phishing phenom in the past, but according to the BBC there are still a lot of questions out there about just what it is, exactly. Simply put, it's online fraud - people trying to separate you from your personal financial information, passwords, etc. And phishers are getting more sophisticated, CNET reports, with trickier technology (making the phony Web sites their emails link you to look very much like the real thing) and better "social engineering" (being trickier or more persuasive in getting you to do what they want). It's not just about sending you to what appears to be your bank's Web site anymore. It may be a persuasive IM to your child that appears to be from one of their friends and tells them to download this cool photo or that awesome song or click to this online body-rating site. [This page at CNET has a helpful sidebar, "Many types of phishers in the sea."] Phishing requires increasing alertness on the part of both parents and kids - ideally a family discussion about careful downloading and clicking. There are also tech tools to help, for example FraudEliminator (see my 12/17/04 issue), and Internet service providers are increasingly providing tools to protect their customers.

  10. Animal hunting as a video game?

    California is considering a law to ban what one state legislator calls "video target practice using live animals," the Associated Press reports. People in the state actually run "computer-assisted hunting sites." "It's a response to a Texas ranch that says it is setting up a system that would allow people to shoot at live game via the Internet," according to the AP. State Sen. Debra Bowen (D-Redondo Beach) called it "pay-per-view video game using live animals for target practice." Pro-hunting groups themselves are calling it unethical and unsporting. We can only hope that young Web surfers and gamers haven't found or used such "services," thinking they were legitimate or "just a game."

  11. Trouble for online cigarette sales

    This is timely for the Tobacco-Free Kids Campaign's 10th-annual "Kick Butts Day," April 13: "Two weeks after credit card companies announced they would no longer accept payment for tobacco products bought online, scores of Internet cigarette merchants have effectively lost the means to do business profitably," the New York Times reports. They are "either limping along or have shut down their operations altogether." Kick Butts Day is when "thousands of young people are expected to speak out against tobacco use," according to's latest newsletter. "The initiative empowers young people to become leaders in stopping tobacco use." Connect for Kids cites figures from the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids showing that "more than 2,000 children and teens become addicted to tobacco every day, one-third of whom will die prematurely." The Times cites the 2004 online cigarette sales figure to have been $1 billion. The US federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms says online merchants "had not done enough to comply with age verification practices," among other requirements, according to the Times.

  12. Mobile Net, mobile porn

    Everything that our children can be exposed to on the Web will soon be on cell phones. A lot already is. CNET columnist Molly Wood does a great job of laying out the not-so-pretty mobile-phone picture today. What "bigger screens, higher resolution, more colors, and video capability" mean in this context, that mobile porn will be a $5 billion industry by 2010, and that the US market for this content is only playing catch-up to what's happening in Europe, Asia, and South America. Some countermeasures are in the works - see "Filtering phones."

    But phones aren't the all of the "mobile Internet," as my colleagues at Childnet International put it. The mobile Net is enabled by the "wi-fi hot spots" proliferating throughout the world - places where anyone can connect wirelessly with anything from a cellphone to a game player to a "walkie talkie"). What 24x7 connecting capability means to families is less and less parental control over young people's access. This puts the onus on all of us - parents and kids - to work harder at developing the most effective filter there will ever be: the one that lies between children's ears, as's Larry Magid first put it in an online-safety seminar years ago. Their own critical thinking and media literacy will be children's best protection, along with engaged parenting. The Digital Age calls for a solid parent-child partnership: They can help us with their tech literacy and we can help them with our life literacy, and that's a tremendous opportunity for parent-child communication and mutual respect. For more detail on what the mobile Internet looks like, see

  13. P2P & new copyright thinking

    Hip-hop is a great example of music that's so Digital Age, the Christian Science Monitor points out in a thorough think piece on all Net-based music's shades of gray. "The Internet hasn't only made copying easy, it also has helped foster a culture in which some artists create new work by literally reusing or remixing the work of others. Hip-hop music, built on the idea of 'sampling' the beats or sounds of earlier music, is the most obvious of several examples," the Monitor reports. It creatively pulls together "found [musical] objects of other cultural products," it quotes one expert as saying. Which seems to require a new approach to copyright - the reason why there's so much controversy and litigation over traditional copyright models. Some companies are finding some middle ground, for example, That was John Buckman's idea in 2003 when he founded - "an independent record label that sells music through online downloads and CDs and also licenses music for both commercial and noncommercial use," according to the monitor. Its business plan: "Let people listen to the music all they want for free over the Internet. If they like an album so much they want to own it, they can pay a range of prices from $5 to $18 per album, which they can choose." Most customers pay $8.20/album on average. Half goes to the musician (much more than conventional record labels pay. [Last week the US Supreme Court heard arguments on both sides of the P2P debate - see CNET. A decision is expected in June.]

  14. Copyright law & our kids

    Our children - whether they're listeners, downloaders, composers, or digital-music mashers - are affected by the copyright-law decisions being made these days, including the one the US Supreme Court is expected to announce in June. "When people are willing to line up for nearly 24 hours to hear a copyright case, something far bigger than accessing free music is taking place," writes Internet law specialist Michael Geist in the Toronto Star. "That something is a dramatic shift in the production and distribution of creative work by millions of individuals who are both creators and users and now see copyright reform as relevant to them. The success of future reform depends upon recognizing this evolution and ensuring that reform processes properly accommodate the largely unrepresented constituency." Children, parents, educators, artists, entertainment companies, tech innovators - everyone who works with intellectual property, which is basically all of humanity - has a stake in this debate. And it's wonderful fuel for family discussion and helping our children develop critical thinking and moral reasoning. See also "Bigger picture on file-sharing," 1/30/04. Thanks to Michael Geist for zooming in on its importance.

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


Anne Collier, Editor

Net Family News

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