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April 22, 2005

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

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Kids' IM-ing: A teacher's perspective

In the past few years, Haworth Public School (K-8) in New Jersey has had assemblies and evening meetings with parents about Internet safety, but "sometimes those meetings are a little behind the times," Dr. Robert Price, the school's technology coordinator and a consultant for the makers of I.M. Control software, told me in a recent phone interview.

Those meetings were about "chatting with strangers, inappropriate Web sites, filtering," he said. It's all good, but "IM is kind of outside that. You can talk to strangers in instant-messaging, I suppose, but I find kids don't want to do that. They want to talk to their friends in IM."

That's just it. IM is not your typical online-safety issue. It's really a social thing - both communications tool and environment - that can possibly be problematic but certainly doesn't need to be approached that way by grownups. We just need to have as good a handle on it as possible, for a lot of reasons: Because...

"This one snuck by parents - they didn't even have to pay for their kids to have it," Bob said, referring to the free, often multiple IM accounts kids establish on their own from home, school, the library, a friend's house, etc. "It just magically appeared in family life after people got their Internet connections." And it keeps on sneaking up on us, in a way, because - unlike a phone conversation - IM is silent, with the exception of the tap-tap of a computer keyboard. Unless parents check, they don't know if they're hearing a school report being written or IMs being exchanged.

IM also seems to be very much an early-teen (or maybe tween) social tool. Why is this? I asked Bob. "Middle-schoolers really see IM as their way out," a way to "get together" whenever they want, independent of Mom or Dad's schedule, he said. "High-school students have access to cellphones more readily and have a more established social scene and more freedom." They can get in a car and go see each other!

Haworth's 8th graders have been IM-ing for almost three years, said Bob, who has been at the school for 13 years. "This year was when it really kicked in for adults - as something important to our kids." I asked him if there'd been any incidents that really brought it front-and-center, and he said no (unlike what happened in the 2003-04 school year at counselor Amanda's school in Utah. "I'm kind of surprised," Bob said. "A few years ago we had a couple of incidents with email, and a couple with Web sites. It's almost as if, once those happened, pretty much everyone said, 'Wow, that was unpleasant, let's not do that again.' Maybe those incidents taught us all something."

IM is a gray area for schools. "Although the problem can be brought to school the next day, it started outside of school, so the school really has to look at how much it becomes involved. It can't discipline anyone for something done at home. But I'll play the consultant when someone comes to me and asks, 'How can they possibly do this?' And I'll show them how easy it is to send an anonymous email or one that looks like it comes from a principal or teacher."

What seems to work well for Haworth is teachable moments - for example, when 4th graders are given the password to log into the school's network. "It's a great opportunity to talk about passwords, what they mean, how important it is to keep them secret and protect your privacy," Bob said.

But he has his hands full on the academic side too: A big project coming up is online poetry readings by Haworth students with students of the same grade at other schools, using AIM (AOL Instant Messenger) and Apple's iSight camera.

[Readers, I'd love to hear from you about that interface between home IM-ing and school: how are parents and schools handling this digital extension of our kids' social lives? Email me anytime via]

For further reading

Next week - On those IM screens: What's actually going on?

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Web News Briefs

  1. Sober worm's back: Don't click!

    A new version of a particularly nasty worm is back, with the mission of harvesting as many email addresses as possible, ZDNET UK reports. The creators of Sober.M want to sell our addresses to spammers. Tell your kids not to bother opening any email with the subject: "I've_got your EMail on my_account!" and definitely not to click on an attachment in it that's supposed to have copies of your email in it. The attachment is the worm, of course, and "when opened, the attachment scans files on the infected computer to harvest email addresses that enable the worm to spread," according to The other thing to do: Make sure your anti-virus software is up to date. McAfee, Symantec, etc. reportedly all have this one covered.

  2. Earth Day & recycling computers

    In honor of Earth Day - today - Dell and Hewlett-Packard are lowering the cost of recycling our computer hardware. HP is running a promotion through May 31 that reduces the price by half (fees range from $17 to $46 for monitors to printers), CNET reports. The promotion goes with "a rebate program that gives customers as much as $50 off the price of new HP equipment if they recycle old gear through the company. Dell has indefinitely dropped its fee, "now charging $10 to ship a PC to Dell for recycling; previously, the PC maker charged $15. The company continues to offer free recycling of old equipment for customers who purchase a replacement desktop or notebook system." For the big picture, see the Washington Post's "Finding a Home for Old Computers." For more on Earth Day 2005, click to the Earth Day Network and - for young environmentalists - Kid's Domain for Earth Day history, games, songs, and e-greetings.

  3. P2P's privacy problem

    This is not the first news about P2P's privacy risks, just the latest: A lot of people are inadvertently sharing their email address books on the file-sharing networks. If you have music fans at your house who are using P2P services like Kazaa, LimeWire, etc., this is one more way your family could be experiencing an online privacy breach. How? After it's downloaded, P2P software usually creates a shared media folder. File-sharers need to make sure all that's in there is what they intend to share - e.g., music files. Studies have shown that a lot more is being shared from family computers, such as emails or financial and medical records. Here's the latest study about spammers harvesting email addresses on P2P networks, as told by the BBC. Here's an earlier, more comprehensive study in 2002 at HP Labs and a 2003 report based on US congressional hearing, "Overexposed: The Threats to Privacy and Security on File-Sharing Networks." See also "File-sharing realities for families."

  4. Playboy on game players

    Having launched "iBod" nude and non-nude photo galleries for the iPod Photo and other media players, Playboy's now moving on to PlayStation Portable with its photos of "female video game characters," CNN reports. But this won't be the first adult content on PSPs. "Within weeks of the PSP's launch, hackers figured out how to use the device as a Web browser. As proof of their success, many quickly began posting screenshots - with adult Web sites filling the screen." Playboy's editor told San Jose Mercury News columnist John Paczkowski that it just want to reach that significant intersection between Playboy fans and gaming enthusiasts. BTW, parents, PSP comes with parental controls, possibly because it connects to the Net - see CommonSenseMedia. For a different angle on multiplayer gaming, see "Trash talk in online games."

  5. Your kids: What people see online

    If you're a little concerned about what your child is saying about herself online - say, in her blog or Web site - it might help to show her this Washington Post piece. In it, writer Robert MacMillan describes a situation that led to a friend having embarrassing information about herself turn up in the first result of any Google search of her name. She cringed when she thought about "prospective employers 'Googling' her" and finding "a concise and prominent summary of her dating proclivities." Of course, if your daughter's smart, she'll tell you her full name is nowhere to be found in her blog, but it wouldn't hurt to be sure. If she's really young and into blogging, this might be helpful: "A dad on kids' blogs: How father & daughter worked through the issues." MacMillan goes on to say that a company called ZoomInfo is making a business of bumping those embarrassing tidbits down in Google's search results; see the piece to find out how they're doing that. For more serious examples of what kids are exposing about themselves online, see this item in my newsletter. See USATODAY's "Prying eyes are everywhere" for a round-up of current online monitoring, spying, and background-checking tools and behaviors.

  6. UK teens' reasons for Net use

    Homework is No. 1 (76%), followed by instant messaging (52%), for 13-to-18-year-old Britons who were asked their main reason for going online. Thirty-six percent said shopping was their main reason, 18% "news and current affairs," and "more than one in 10 teenagers frequently use the Internet to look at 'adult-only' Web sites," the BBC reported, leading with this last statistic (12%). The findings were part of this year's installment of an eight-year study (ending in '09) by the UK's National Foundation for Educational Research about "the effect of citizenship lessons - introduced across England - on children's development." The Register treated the news differently, leading with: "A UK government survey has found that just 12% of 13 to 18-year-olds avail themselves of 'adult-only' websites, preferring instead to use the internet to assist in doing homework or for news."

  7. AOL fights phishing

    Phishing - "one of the fastest growing online crimes," PCWorld reports - has a sizable new enemy. "America Online has begun a campaign to identify and block fraudulent Web sites that attempt to solicit personal information from visitors" with the help of online security firm Cyota, a provider of anti-fraud services to financial companies. They will "try to identify potential phishing sites and limit access to them" from within AOL (for customers who use AOL as their browser). What phishers do is convince people via email and IMs that they need to "update their account, click here" and thus send people to fake Web pages where bank or PayPal customers are told to type in their username, password, account no., etc., which the phishers can now add to their database of stolen personal information. AOL's in good company: "In February, Microsoft, EBay, and Visa International launched a program to share information about phishing attacks called the Phish Report Network," which now has more than 1,200 corporate members, according to PCWorld. For more on this (including help for non-AOL customers), see "To foil phishers," 12/17/04.

  8. ID theft & online families

    No surprise to anyone following tech news these days: On the Diane Rehm Show on National Public Radio this week, Robert O'Harrow, Washington Post reporter and author of "No Place to Hide," said we're at a difficult intersection right now between incredible convenience and incredible vulnerability in terms of privacy. He was talking about the information on all of us that sits in businesses' computer databases, many of them connected to the Internet. The latest on this was the news this week that "information involving 1.4 million credit card and 96,000 check transactions" was stolen from computers at 108 DSW Shoe Warehouse stores, Reuters reported. The Associated Press added that the theft, which was 10 times greater than investigators originally estimated, "did not include home addresses or personal identification numbers." Earlier but recent personal data-theft reports involved other retailers and more famously LexisNexis and ChoicePoint, which, among other services, provide background checks on people.

    How this relates to online families: working together to secure the personal info on our family PCs. Ideally, that involves family discussion about not ever sharing personally identifiable info (full name, address, school name, team name, phone no., etc.) in email, IM, blogs, Web sites, etc. For talking points, see this helpful primer on preventing ID theft at the Washington Post and Slate's "Has your identity been stolen?". One thing to keep in mind, as pointed out by Robert Douglas of on NPR: The Internet is not the main problem with ID theft. Lost or stolen IDs like drivers' licenses, people riffling through trash, and lax business practices are bigger causes, he said. Teaching kids to protect their (and our) info online is just a good start as they develop critical thinking about what info they share online and offline.

  9. Skype: More opps to chat with strangers

    You could call it penpals on steroids - random phone calls from anyone, anywhere, enabled by free Net telephony provider Skype. In a fun New York Times article illustrating this, Net pundit and former Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow got a call from a woman in Vietnam who just wanted to practice speaking English. "They spoke for a long time, exchanging text, photographs and Web addresses, and discussing everything from the state of Vietnam's economy to Ms. My's father's time in the army." The Times adds that Mr. Barlow's experience wasn't unique. "Skype users report unsolicited contacts every day, and contrary to such experiences with phone and email, the calls are often welcomed." Now, it's probably a lot safer for your child to talk with someone in Southeast Asia than someone within a 100-mile radius for two reasons: 1) ill-intentioned strangers probably don't try to establish relationships with children when it would cost a fortune to meet them in person, and 2) parents can hear when a child's chatting by phone, which sometimes means a higher awareness level than with silent online chat. A third might be that your kid would have to turn the random-call feature, called "Skype Me," on, not that it's hard to do. So this is yet another way kids can meet and get to know strangers. Just a heads-up. [Skype facts: it's the most popular and one of the first of the current-generation VoIP (voice-over Internet protocol) providers, having just passed the 100 million-downloads mark, according to The Register; it's totally free if both users use a headset and have its software on their PCs; it's cheap if you use a phone; and it's brought to you by the people who created and later sold the Kazaa file-sharing service.]

  10. Next-gen RFID includes privacy

    The newest RFID tags will be out by next fall and, interestingly, will feature privacy technology, ZDNET UK reports. The technology is now reaching global standardization, which means it'll be adopted exponentially. As for the privacy tech in the new G2 (2nd-generation) chips, it involves "encryption, password protection, and authentication in order to protect the data stored on the RFID tags and their databases. That's good news in this climate of widespread identity theft and if schools try again to use this technology on student IDs. For recent news on RFID and kids, see my feature of that title in February.

  11. Student tech support: Key in Ore.

    More evidence that student techies are real assets to their schools: "The Silver Falls Technology Department supports all 14 schools in the district plus the administration department with only 2-1/2 full-time employees," according to the Silverton Appeal in Oregon. That simply would not be possible without the 16 high school and two Chemeketa Community College students in the "Technology Assistant" class that makes up most of that Tech Department. They're learning computer support, Web page support, video production and "eBay sales for the school district." They are also learning to be professionals at a young age and are treated as such.

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


Anne Collier, Editor

Net Family News

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