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June 3, 2005

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Teacher to parents: Be wary of teen blogs

Earlier this spring a teacher in San Francisco noticed her students were blogging in school. Besides reminding them it was against school policy and monitoring their online activities, she decided to look into what made it so hard for them to stop.

"I must admit, I myself didn't see the danger in these sites early on," Christina wrote me. "The kids actually told me about them awhile back.... At this age, these students are looking for any possible available outlet to express themselves. I just figured they have discovered yet another. Well, they certainly had. When I followed some of the history links from the computers that were being used, I was stunned at the content of these online journals."

Then she heard a radio story about MySpace and other blogging Web sites and decided to write the reporter. Here's what she emailed him (he and she kindly gave me permission to share her message with you):

"I am an elementary/middle technology teacher at a private school in SF. We are in the middle of an alarming discovery concerning blogging and our students. You mentioned sites such as in your broadcast. This is the exact site, along with and that we are struggling with.

"The students post their online journals, and the content is most alarming. They are uploading their pictures, lying about their ages, yet posting the school they attend, their birthdate, what they do after school, places they hang out, discuss their sexuality - and the language is some of the most offensive I have ever read. AND they were updating journals during school hours. I have since upped the security and restricted access greatly. But, even I must admit I did not realize the content. I just figured, oh blogging, ok, online journals, no big deal. It is extremely dangerous. I can bet many parents and teachers do not realize how kids aged 10-13 have been interacting with these blog sites. So why am I telling you this. Well, in your broadcast you failed to mention any of the downsides, dangers, and the alarming rate at which the younger generation has grown to use these sites without any supervision or knowledge of their use by adult figures in their lives.

"These sites are like a candy store for predators. Especially since the kids actually, truly believe that their journals are 'private.' They struggle with the concept that NOTHING is private about posting to the Web. I had one child accuse me of violating her privacy. That was probably the most enlightening thing for me to hear - it was at that moment I realized that they truly just don't understand the dangers of talking about yourself in such dramatic, detailed ways - that it's a dangerous activity, and posting online is NOT PRIVATE.

"Even though these blogs have age requirements - Xanga 13 years, MySpace 16yrs, and Friendster 18yrs - the kids still access these sites and don't even have any awareness of terms of use and legal ramifications. The good thing about Xanga is that if you do suspect your child is using this site, you can request their journal by providing their user name - once you've verified that you are the parent.

"As a teacher in the middle of a 'blogging' crisis, I just would have liked to hear that, yes, amid the great opportunities these sites offer, there is a downside, especially for underaged children."

Christina later emailed me:

"I immediately sent a letter home to parents informing them of the use of these Web sites, explaining what 'blogging' means, and telling them that not only has this occurred during school time, but many postings occur late into the evening and early morning hours.

"All students who accessed these sites were stunned to realize we discovered the content - again, a failure on their part to really get that nothing is private on the Internet, certainly not these online journals. They are not labeled private or password protected, nothing.

"Students who accessed these sites received a disciplinary notice, stapled to a copy of their online journal. Usually just the section or journal entry where they say 'I am in science class right now, ha ha ha,' or 'I am not supposed to be online now, but the teacher can't see me in the back of the class.'...

Next, the school held a "mandatory parents meeting" (parents of kids in grades 5-8), because Christina "felt it important to just bring in all the parents and discuss this together." She showed them Xanga, Friendster, and other blogging sites and talked about "products and services they can use to prohibit these sites from being visited" and "ways of checking the history of the Web browser.

"But I think most importantly," she continued, "I just want the parents to familiarize themselves with the idea that this is going to be an ongoing battle. As long as there is technology and there are kids 10-14 years of age, there is going to be a race to keep one step ahead of their use and safety. And it's just really important for parents to stay involved and discuss these issues with their kids - not just have their child/children lock themselves in their rooms all night with a computer.

"One parent's view was 'well, at least they're not out on the streets selling drugs'," and I told them, "Heck, being on the Internet is being on the streets, you just have to be able to figure out what neighborhood you want to hang out in!"

Readers: I always appreciate hearing about your experiences with young tech users. They are often helpful to fellow parents. Email me anytime via

Next week: A mom on blogging at her house

Related links

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Web News Briefs

  1. Net to have red-light district

    It's good and bad for online kids. On one hand, they'll be able to find smut more easily, on the other it's easier to restrict them from a defined adult-only area. What I'm referring to is the news that a dot-xxx domain has just been approved by ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names & Numbers), the international body that oversees the Net's addressing system (including .com, .org, etc.). "Sexually explicit sites will be encouraged to move to the new domains to make it easier for people to filter and avoid them," the BBC reports. The Toronto-based non-profit International Foundation for Online Responsibility (IFFOR) and its ICM Registry will run .xxx as "a voluntary adult top-level domain," meaning porn operators don't have to use it, but there will be incentives; the most effective one IFFOR is pushing for is credit-card companies like Visa and MasterCard working with adult-content companies only in the dot-xxx area. Child pornography, which is illegal, will not appear/be accepted in the domain. According to the AP, "ICM contends the 'xxx' Web addresses, which it plans to sell for $60 a year [around 10 times the cost of most domain registrations], will protect children from online smut if adult sites voluntarily adopt the suffix so filtering software used by families can more effectively block access to those sites." It certainly won't be the cure-all in kids' online safety, but - as "Net-mom" Jean Armour Polly, an adviser to ICANN, told me - "it's just another tool in parents' toolbox." Here's my earlier, more in-depth coverage of this development, long in the works) and CNET's coverage.

  2. Does tech help kids?: Study

    Researchers are having a tough time catching up with the breathtaking speed of kids' adoption of the Net and technology, but this year they've made some strides with three significant studies. The latest, released today, is from The Children's Partnership (TCP), which spent the past year looking at a question that hasn't been asked enough: "How can the Internet help America's children succeed?" It found that, while the Net and "technology tools" are "enhancing successful outcomes for young people, they are also seriously disadvantaging those young people without access and the skills to use them. However," it continued, "when low-income children do have these tools, they use them to gain opportunities for themselves at higher rates than wealthier young people." That was one of the most thought-provoking findings - interesting to consider alongside the earlier Kaiser Family Foundation's study about our "media-saturated" youth (see my 3/11 issue). As for kids' adoption of tech, TCP found that "over the past 10 years, the number of kids accessing the Internet from home has grown from 15% to 68%; 77% of 7-to-17-year-old US residents have computers at home and 90% at school. Here's further fresh research, about parental controls, from the Pew Internet & American Life project. And here's the executive summary of and press release for TCP's "Measuring Digital Opportunity for America's Children."

  3. Bagle worm's vicious new variants

    Have you been getting a lot of emails with attachments this week? Don't click! Tell your kids not to click on attachments unless they call/email the friend first to make sure s/he sent that email! These represent variants of the Bagle worm that pack a triple threat to family PCs, ZDNET reports. First, it emails itself to everybody in your email address book. Second, it puts a "Trojan" on your PC that blocks anti-virus software updates and access to Windows Update. Third, it installs a second Trojan that disables firewalls and anti-virus software altogether. Having done all that, the malicious hackers sending out the worm can now control your PC and network it into a "botnet" - "groups of networked machines, often numbering in the thousands, that are hired as spam relays, for tracking users' behavior and for identity theft." Lovely!

  4. 2 teens held for IM threats

    Two northern Virginia boys, 13 and 15, arrested in the past two weeks for sending threats via instant-messaging, were still being held this weekend, the Washington Post reports. The 15-year-old, "a popular freshman," according to the Post, "sent an anonymous IM to a friend, threatening to harm her and others at school. She told her parents that night, and police evacuated Yorktown [High School] the next day, swarming the school before the boy turned himself in. He is being held without bond ... on a felony charge of making a written threat to kill." The 13-year-old, in a separate case, has been charged with the same felony, as well as a misdemeanor for harassment by computer, for similar IM-carried threats that led to an afternoon of lockdown at his middle school. "The arrests have exposed a new gray area for teenagers, the Post adds. "They live in an age when it is delectably easy to use an anonymous screen name to freak out their friends - and in a society that has learned the hard way to take threats of violence seriously." For more on IM-ing, see "IM anthropology: 11-to-15-year-olds' virtual community" and "Parents write: Pluses/minuses of kids' IM-ing." Email me your comments and experiences anytime!

  5. Teens on e-dating

    Hmm. This article in Silver Chips Online, Montgomery Blair High School's "Official Online Newspaper," is a little unnerving for a parent, but also very insightful. For example, Raquel, a 10th grader at Montgomery Blair (in Silver Spring, Md.), started an online relationship with a boy in Nebraska three years ago. "After two years of logging on for love, the two decided to become an online couple," reports Silver Chips, though not explaining what that means. It leads with an account of how Alyssa, a senior, flew to Chicago on her own to meet "Jeff, the boyfriend she knew only through phone and online conversations." Alyssa and Jeff are now planning to attend the same college in Pennsylvania, at least with Jeff's parents' blessing. Raquel was smart, according to Silver Chips. She "grew to trust [the Nebraska boy] because he kept the same personality [over the first two years] ... and she spoke with Parker and his mother on the phone." The student writer cites the advice of an assistant professor of communications at the University of San Diego that online teenagers "perform identity checks like [Raquel's] ... and talk to their online love interest's parents on the phone, before they reveal too much about themselves." An advantage to these relationships, the writer says: Raquel "can be sure things won't get physical with her online boyfriend as long as their relationship remains strictly on the Web." The article also reports on the downside. Another senior, Heather, "now realizes that she never would have let her [online] relationship with Bryan [in Mich.] become as destructive as it did had it developed out of face-to-face interaction." She found it hard to recognize "the warning signs of an abusive relationship when they took shape on the Internet."

  6. Oz's new Net safety survey

    It's probably no different in the US, UK, and everywhere else: Australian children are online "younger and longer with the growth of broadband," according to the latest study, "KidsOnline@Home," from the Australian Broadcasting Authority and NetAlert, Australia's Internet safety advisory body. By mid-2004, 37% of Australian homes had high-speed Internet access, up from 20% in 2003. "The report also found that while Australian parents and children are overwhelmingly positive about the benefits of the Internet, nearly 40% of parents said that their children have had a negative experience when using the Internet at home," according to the study's press release. Parents and kids are picking up on online-safety messages the researchers found, but - because both technology and kids' use of it keep changing - safety education needs continuous updating, they write. For example, mobile phones: "a quarter of 8-to-13-year-olds now make use of mobiles," the study found. "Parents' concerns about their children's use of mobiles generally relate to the costs of use, and not content issues. However, this is likely to change as it becomes easier to access a wider range of content on mobile devices."

  7. Bans on violent video game sales

    Two "states" in two countries - Illinois in the US and Kanagawa Prefecture in Japan - have put restrictions on violent game sales to minors. One game in particular in Kanagawa - Grand Theft Auto III - because "it depicts random killing sprees in public places, cars being blown up and other acts of violence that officials fear teens might try to mimic, the Associated Press reports." Illinois's legislature voted Sunday to "ban the sale of violent or sexually explicit video games to minors ... a move other states and cities have tried but federal courts have repeatedly struck down," the AP reported separately. The legislation "Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who proposed the ban late last year after hearing about the video game 'JFK Reloaded,' which puts the player in the role of President Kennedy's assassin." The Chinese government is moving in this direction too, at a national level - "to root out pornography, eliminate threats to state security, and to stop youths becoming addicted," Reuters reports, citing a report from the official Xinhua news agency. "Online gaming has exploded in China in recent years, with an estimated 13.8 million people taking part." In related news, in its 679 stores nationwide, Best Buy - "under pressure from religious groups" - will require IDs to verify that buyers of M-rated video games are 21+, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reports.

  8. 'Ana' on the Web

    "Ana is short for anorexia, and to the alarm of experts many who suffer from the potentially fatal eating disorder are part of an underground movement that promotes self-starvation and, in some cases, has an almost cult-like appeal," reports the Associated Press, in an update on the phenomenon that would be helpful to any parent concerned about teenage eating disorders. "The movement has flourished on the Web" and now has a following in many parts of the world. The article lists some resource links at the end.

  9. Utah anti-porn law challenged

    A coalition of civil-liberties organizations and attorneys is challenging a new Utah law aimed at keeping Net-based pornography away from kids, the Salt Lake Tribune reports. The Washington-based Center for Democracy & Technology, the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah, and others say the law violates the First Amendment and the Commerce Clause of the US Constitution (the latter because the Internet is global and "Utah's law affects legal speech outside of the state," according to the Tribune). The law requires the state attorney general's office to create a database of sites that "appeal to children's 'prurient interests in sex'." The legal challenge on First Amendment grounds did not come as a surprise. In response to it, Attorney General Mark Shurtleff "has halted efforts to implement the new law." [Thanks to BNA Internet Law for pointing this article out.]

  10. The new computer camp

    In her first two years of technology camp, 11-year-old Lily "learned the basics of Web design and video game creation, so this year she's moving on to creating digital videos," the Associated Press reports. (Her mom, a professor of psychology at University of California, Berkeley, where tech camp is held, told the AP that Lily does other things during the summer, particularly sports like soccer and basketball, so there's balance of activities.) Joe, 16, Some kids, though, just couldn't be happier any place other than computer camp. who built his first computer at age 12, "has signed up for what will be his third summer at a sleepaway tech camp run by Cybercamps at the University of Minnesota at St. Paul." He wants to be a digital animator. At today's tech camps, kids don't just play video games and surf the Web, they get serious instruction. And - though they're "on the computers for five to six hours a day, the instructors also take them outside for activities to break up the day."

  11. 3 generations of Net users

    It's hard to get teenagers to reflect out loud on their experiences on the Net, because - to them - being online is like breathing. And yet, says another, "they're not naturally good at using the technology." They work at it, put a lot of time into it, the latter, Susannah Stern, a youth-Internet-culture researcher at the University of San Diego, told the Minneapolis Star Tribune - especially kids who develop their own Web sites, play online games, use technologies as creative tools. Because this is contrary to what a lot of grownups (who are less familiar with tech than their kids), think, this is worth highlighting. It's at the tail-end of a thoughtful look at three generations' approach to tech and the Net at the Star Tribune. "As this wired generation enters adulthood, the impact of growing up Web-savvy will have far-reaching implications, experts say. The Wired Generation will be better equipped than their parents to monitor their own children's computer use. Their social networks will not be bound by geography as much as their parents' and grandparents'. They will have easier access to all kinds of information."

  12. Tech for teen social status

    Not skater or running shoes, not clothes, but pricey tech gadgets as fashion statements. We all saw it coming, but now parents are really dealing with it, the New York Times reports in its "Styles" section. "It is no secret that Apple's sleek iPod, costing $99 to $449, has become, to the American teenager, a de rigueur fashion item, not just a handy gadget." Then there are picture phones and DVD players. "It is a vortex of contemporary social currents: teenagers' longing outstrips their ability to satisfy it and collides with most parents' hope to teach restraint and fiscal responsibility." Parents of all income levels, since marketing messages and images reach just about every teen one way or another. Of course, this was probably always the case, but the Times says the objects of desire, if not pricier, are outdated faster. Readers, how do you deal with the nag factor? Email me anytime (via

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


Anne Collier, Editor

Net Family News

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