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April 29, 2005

Dear Subscribers:

If there's an instant-messager or two at your house, I would love to hear how your family is dealing with it. Is it not a problem, out of control, or somewhere in between? Do you have rules, curfew, etc.? Email me by Wed., if possible, for next week's issue. Here's our lineup for this last week of April:

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IM anthropology: 11-to-15-year-olds' virtual community

"I had the chance to observe an IM chat once," Dr. Robert Price told me in a recent phone interview. "It wasn't about anything; it wasn't a conversation. It was more like graffiti than a conversation." This observation of Haworth School's tech coordinator would probably sound about right to any adult observing middle-school students' instant-messaging conversations. When I watch a session of my 13-year-old's, it seems like a sort of digital snowball fight - a playful group experience with lots of what might be suggestive of communication - not apparently meaningful, yet so meaningful to the participants.

"It's so important at this age level to be part of a group," Dr. Price continued. "IM is nice enough to provide a 'group' [a buddy list] without actually requiring participants to be a social group - they don't have to commit to the normal or historical responsibilities of being a group of friends." When he says this, I'm reminded of junior-high dances of yore, with lots of "dancing" on the edges of actually dancing.

At the middle-school level, it seems, people need to try out various social concepts (e.g., peer groups, personal and group identity) and move fluidly in and out of them; and IM allows them to do that "safely" (in an emotional sense) better than any tool previously available. That makes it very compelling to them - sometimes too compelling, parents feel. But our kids' IM-ing also offers insights - into what they're dealing with at school and in their social lives - which might help us in our parenting.

Instant-messaging "is so new that when you take the time to examine it, you can learn a whole lot. We still have all the typical middle-school issues, just with a new playground," Price adds. At his school in Haworth, N.J., nobody's really gotten hurt on this virtual playground. "When kids play outside, sometimes it gets a little rough, someone pushes somebody down," he said, but nothing like the swirl of school community-wide communication that happened when IM-ing took off in a Salt Lake City middle school a couple of years ago.

When IM-ing does get "a little rough," he says, "I guess one of the problems is, it's not face-to-face, so a lot of the social pressure valves don't exist. Words are probably not this age group's strongest suit, and there are no facial expressions involved [just emoticons!], no nuance. It's basically another opportunity to get into the same old scuffles they always could get into."

Price's antennae are up for comments like, "You're not my friend if you don't give me your password," something no child should feel pressured to do (we need to talk to our kids about that). "Harmless" tricks being played on someone who lets a trickster have his or her screenname and password can lead to hurt feelings or worse, when the trickster impersonates the person in IM. A 13-year-old boy I know (Boy #1) found that a friend (Boy #2), while hanging out at his house, had used Boy #1's IM account to jokingly "confess" via IM that he (Boy #1) was gay, to friends on Boy #1's buddy list (who might not have known it was a joke). Fortunately, no one was hurt. If it had been hurtful, e.g., started rumors, blog entries, etc., it would've fallen into the category of "cyberbullying," or online social cruelty (see my 9/10/04 issue). Sometimes the line is fine.

Then there's the "addiction" question that came up in a recent phone interview I had with dad and software developer Jonathan Greif, who used the word in this middle-school context. He has a bias because he created and markets I.M. Control software*, a solution for "IM addiction." But he's also the father of two active IM-ers, 17 and 13, and when the former was 14, he felt she was "addicted to IM" - "often glued to the screen for hours at a time ... to the sacrifice of her school work, family responsibilities, and normal healthy interactions with her friends and family members," Greif said (see bullets below for more on the addiction Q). He believed a lot of other families were dealing with this, so he went to work developing a solution.

Now, at his house, "we use IM as a negotiating tool," as in "Dad, I did all my homework and my science teacher says I had the best project in the class - can I get some 'bonus time'," said Greif, referring to something his 13-year-old will say. "Bonus time" is a feature in the software that allows parents to maintain the settings (for regularly scheduled IM time) while occasionally adding a chunk of time for "reward" IM-ing.

But most fascinating is what goes on on those screens. Haworth School's Bob Price told me, "I've had a couple of girls tell me things can get tricky when they're talking to five people at the same time. That's five separate, simultaneous conversations - five [IM] windows open. One will be sending a message to Mary. Then Kathy sends a message, and suddenly that window's the active one. It's very easy to cause a fight accidentally [or not] by sending a message to the active-window person that was meant for someone in an inactive window [which just fades out a little bit when another window goes active]."

I asked Price if they ever go into IM chatrooms (and chat as a group). Not really, he said. "That's like on a real playground - everybody can hear what you're saying. With five separate conversations, no one but you has the big picture." That's an interesting comment on control or a kind of social safety they like to maintain. Price used this analogy: "IM's more like passing notes, but in a sophisticated, more instantaneous way. You have the opportunity to be part of a group, the 'buddy list,' but you don't have to commit to a specific social group. They can eliminate that but still have the communication [and social experimentation] they want to have." There are benefits to losing that sense of definition and formality, apparently.

They can also have 10 screennames and accounts if they want, I.M. Control's Greif points out, not to mention a 199-member buddy list ("my kids were up to the 199 limit within a month or two," he said). So on one side of the screen, you have five conversations going on in MSN Messenger, on another you're talking with people through your browser via AIM Express or Yahoo (or, later this year, AOL's Triton! - see below). "When you put your name up on a buddy list, everyone can see if you're online, and you may not want that," Greif said, "so you'll have a different screenname they can't see." Even in IM, people like a measure of privacy, after all!

There's so much more to say on the subject (I'm picturing a 12-year-old at the hub of a mini-universe of communications, sometimes in stealth mode, sometimes not, usually feeling in control of what's happening on the screen, or at least what s/he says, but sometimes making slips and feeling anxious, etc., etc.)....

But I'd like to hear what you have to say, about IM-ing at your house. Email me stories, rules, concerns, developments, etc., via

More IM news & views

Next week: An 11-year-old avid IM-er's dad on what he does/doesn't like about IM, and other views.

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Web News Briefs

  1. Kids need Net-literate parents: Study

    "Parents who lack Internet skills could be damaging their children's education and job prospects," reports CNET, citing the just-released final report of the study "UK Children Go Online" at the London School of Economics. There are reams of arresting findings in this study (e.g., 46% of UK 9-to-19-year-olds have given out personal info online, 57% have run across online porn, 30% have "made an online acquaintance"), but much of the coverage zoomed in on this one about parents, the first connection I've seen a study make between parental Net literacy and children's futures. Eighteen percent of parents surveyed said "they don't know how to help their children use the Internet safely," study co-author Sonia Livingstone said. Here are the BBC and on the study.

  2. Spell 'Google' right!

    Tell kids and students: Be careful how you spell "Google" if you're heading there to do a search. If you happen to type "" and go to that site, it will automatically "download and install harmful Trojans and spyware on the computer of susceptible users," reports. It cites an alert from Finnish security firm F-Secure saying that "once a user's computer has been attacked by the malicious website, it installs several malware applications such as Trojan droppers, Trojan downloaders, backdoors, a proxy Trojan and a spying Trojan along with adware-related files, leading to the computer being infected by a host of viruses." Looks like what it really spells is "total PC meltdown"! Safe ways to go to Google: bookmark it, make it a "customized link" in Explorer, FireFox, etc., or use the Google search window in your browser or browser toolbar (for Explorer, go here to download Google's own toolbar).

  3. New law after uber file-sharers

    Not all file-sharers will find life more difficult with the law President Bush just signed, but if they share a film, tune, or software program before it has been released, they could go to jail. "The Family Entertainment and Copyright Act also includes sections criminalizing the use of camcorders to record a movie in a theater, and authorizing the use of technologies that can delete offensive content from a film," CNET reports. Bush signed the law Wednesday. Wired magazine's "The Shadow Internet" describes the kind of "file-sharing" this law's going after.

  4. New P2P-carried worm

    There's a new P2P-carried worm kids and parents need to be on the alert for: Nopir.B. By "P2P-carried," I mean that it's spreading on file-sharing networks and infects Windows PCs when downloaded and run by file-sharers. Why would they do that? It's "designed to look like a DVD-cracking program," tricking file-sharers who are looking for software that circumvents copy-restriction technology on DVDs, ZDNET UK reports. What it really does is delete people's music libraries (all MP3 files on hard drives), as well as some P2P programs (e.g., LimeWire, Grokster, or Kazaa, but ZDNET doesn't say which ones). Sophos, the anti-virus firm that discovered the worm, says it thinks Nopir's creator is on some sort of anti-piracy mission. It's too early to tell how infectious this one will be, but apparently the family PC's safe if your anti-virus software is up to date. For another risk that just came up in tech news again last week, see "P2P's privacy problem."

  5. Family sues P2P service

    A family using the class-action process to sue, that is. This is the first report I've seen about parents of file-sharers suing a file-sharing, or peer-to-peer (P2P), service: "Couple plans suit in Web music case" at the Cincinnati Enquirer. Sally and Jim Wilson of Cold Spring, Ohio, were sued in February by the Recording Industry Association because, the RIAA said, their two teenage daughters had downloaded 653 songs illegally. The RIAA added that they "could be liable to pay $750 for each," or $490,000 if they lost the case in court (they settled with the RIAA for $3,000). They are now suing Kazaa, the P2P service their daughters used, basically for profiting from the ignorance of parents of file-sharers, according to the Enquirer. They're using the class-action method so that other parents who have settled with the RIAA will join them in the lawsuit (more than 10,000 people, not necessarily parents, have been sued by the media industry so far). Kazaa is embroiled in other litigation and reportedly on the decline among P2P services, but it's still widely used. "In October 2004 alone, approximately 2.4 million users of the FastTrack network, which includes Kazaa and Grokster, traded 1.4 billion files," according to RIAA data cited by the Enquirer.

  6. Digital music: More options now

    If there are online music fans at your house, they now have more options - including free and for-sure legal. This week RealNetworks unveiled the new Rhapsody, reports, which includes Rhapsody 25 (listen to 25 songs for free on a PC); Rhapsody Unlimited ($10/month to "rent" unlimited songs, listen to them on your PC for as long as you're a subscriber; or 89 cents/tune or $8.99/album to "own" and listen offline on the PC); and Rhapsody to Go (for $15/month, listen online, offline, or put music on an MP3 player or burn a CD). The "free" category represents something of an alternative to illegal file-sharing: 25 free "plays" a month (whether 25 songs or 25 plays of the same song). Of course, there are still restrictions. The number of MP3 players Rhapsody's tunes can be played on is limited, though Real says it has made its service compatible with the iPod. "For the moment, Real says it only supports the Creative Zen Micro and the iRiver H10, but if you already own a Dell Pocket DJ or one of iRiver's H300 series players, my educated guess is that they could work, too." All this is a good sign that online music retailers are aware that flexible, fluid music consumption is the goal for all those music fans out there. More than 300 news outlets covered this - see also Internet News.

  7. Kids seeking Star Wars games?

    Ah yes, the marketing blitz for Star Wars Episode 3 continues and - for those of us hearing more about it from the gamers at our house than from the media even! - New York Times gaming columnist Charles Herold says there are two great game options for them. One is a role-paying game for Xbox called Jade Empire that isn't about Star Wars at all but is "instantly recognizable as a follow-up to Bioware's 2003 game Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, with a similar interface and almost identical morality and dialogue systems." The other is more for kids and those who just love the Star Wars experience: Lego Star Wars, which "recreates scenes and events from 'Star Wars' Episodes I, II and the forthcoming III" in animated Lego-style, Herold writes. You can't die in the game, which is good for kids, but it's even "easygoing fun for adults with poor gaming skills ... who want to bond with their children by playing along [in] cooperative mode, which allows two players to go through missions together." Speaking of Jade Empire, the Times reports separately that a new language - Tho Fan - was developed just for the game. It "sounds ancient and distinctly Asian. Its "sh" sounds come from the back of the throat, as they do in Chinese. Its "r" sounds are made with a tap of the tongue, echoing Mongolian." And it was created by Wolf Wikeley, PhD candidate (with a weakness for Japanese animation and first-person-shooter video games) in the linguistics department at the University of Alberta.

  8. The Matrix: Now online

    Are their Matrix fans at your house? The Matrix Online (rated "Teen," or 13+) sucks up as many as 30 hours of every week in 26-year-old Christina Carkner's life, and she's just fine with that, the New York Times reports. So is Warner Bros. and the gaming industry. They're counting on the move of the massively popular Matrix film series to the online world to make MMPGs - massively multiplayer (online) games - a mainstream thing in the US, like it is in Korea and Taiwan, for example. Not that Christina's helping - she was already "deeply involved" in another MMPG called World of Warcraft but ran out of challenges in it (Christina's interesting - read more about her in the Times piece). "Unlike traditional video games, which have their roots in arcades, these games have more in common with role-playing pastimes like Dungeon & Dragons," according to the Times. That potentially makes them big moneymakers, because players get immersed and become willing to pay subscription fees of around $15 a month in addition to buying the software up front for $50-or-so (Sony expects EverQuest's sequel, which launched last November, to make $500 million in its first eight years). To see what The Matrix looks like, go to CNET.

    Also from the "How They Might Spend Their Allowance Dept." - This says something about how immersive these games can be: Sony just unveiled an auction site for EverQuest II players to buy and sell virtual artifacts, CNET reports. It's called "Station Exchange" and, yes, that's real money for faux goods, such as an opportunity to buy that "Flaming Sword of Destruction" your Shadowknight always wanted.

  9. TV makes us smarter?!

    Now there's a twist! According to this New York Times Magazine article by Steven Johnson, author of the soon-to-be-released "Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter," the human mind "likes to be challenged; there's real pleasure to be found in solving puzzles, detecting patterns or unpacking a complex narrative system." And, Johnson says, TV's producers are meeting that demand because it's good business. He explains how. But, parents, if you read nothing else in the article, read the last two paragraphs. In the first he suggests that we reconsider "the criteria we use to determine what really is cognitive junk food and what is genuinely nourishing." But his most interesting suggestion of all is that we see today's programming (maybe media in general) as an opportunity instead of a crisis: "The kids are forced to think like grown-ups: analyzing complex social networks, managing resources, tracking subtle narrative intertwinings, recognizing long-term patterns. The grown-ups, in turn, get to learn from the kids: decoding each new technological wave, parsing the interfaces and discovering the intellectual rewards of play." I think, too, it's an opportunity for more, very rewarding, parent-child communication.

  10. Buying vs. sharing tunes

    Apple's iTunes is two years old this week, and Rob Pegoraro, the Washington Post's tech writer, has spent "a fair amount of change" at iTunes since he first went there, he reports. "And yet millions of people still get their music online from a file-sharing service or site - and in the process, put up with an often dubious selection, spyware-ridden software, and the unpleasant reality that the artists who made that music won't make a cent off each such download." So he looks at why people put up with the downsides of P2P and what's still missing at "the legit online stores." Examples, no Beatles or Led Zeppelin in any of them, hardware (MP3 player) restrictions, and sharing/transferring tunes with/to friends. By spelling out these points that any of our kids could probably tick off in two seconds, Rob's providing us parents with some helpful insights into the online music world.

  11. Porn: Everywhere a teen turns

    "Pornography is so common in the Digital Age that teens see it as 'part of the culture.' But if it's corrupting them, the data don't show it," goes the subhead of a recent Los Angeles Times column. The piece offers some context that's a reality check for some parents, unsettling (at best) for others. It leads with the experience of an Orange County 16-year-old, who thinks he saw his first sexy Web pop-up when he was "a little kid," first X-rated spam when he first learned to use email, first videogame with "sexy images" the first time he played Grand Theft Auto, and first online porn site right after his fist sex-ed class in seventh grade (where he learned there were adult Web sites). It's everywhere - "online, on cable, on cellphone cameras, in chat rooms, in instant messages from freaks who go online and trawl children's Web journals, on cam-to-cam Web hookups, on TV screens at parties where teens walk past it as if it were wallpaper, in lectures about abstinence in Sunday school and in health class, in movies, in hip-hop lyrics...."

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


Anne Collier, Editor

Net Family News

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