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August 12, 2005
Here's our lineup for this second week of August:
- Argentine dads' online-safety site
- Web News Briefs: 6 new patches; Games not child's play; Student hacks criminal?; New IM worm; Online predator convicted; GTA patch released; 'Second Life' for teens; GameSpot's new service; Digital-music basics; Gamer convicted; Korean gamer dies; 'Camp' for game designers; A teachable blog....
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Argentine dads' Net-safety site
Some of the most effective work in kids' online safety is done by parents themselves at a grassroots level, and what's happening in Argentina is no exception. Ricardo Lapadula and Carlos Biscay recently emailed me (thoughtfully in English) about their new public-service site, ChicosenInternet.com.ar - ChildrenontheInternet, also translated as "Secure Internet for Kids."
"This site tries to give advice to parents and teachers so they will pay attention when their children are online," Mr. Lapadula and Mr. Biscay wrote, because "lots of horrible things are happening." They added that they're also trying to establish a foundation to support this work.
I emailed them back, asking if they'd send a little background on themselves and the project, which they kindly did.
"Ricardo is the owner of a software development business" focused on education, and Carlos teaches online learning at the university level, they told me. "We decided to start this because we are parents and we know all the horrible things that happens in this area.... Pedophilia cases, abductions really concern us."
I asked them if they knew of similar projects elsewhere in South America. "The first we are making contact out of Argentina is you. In Argentina we are trying to make connections, and we are sending all our clients publicity about our site, inviting them to help us and to be involved in this matter."
As for demographics, they weren't aware of published figures on Net-connected homes in Argentina, "but what we do know is that this number is increasing every day. Here we have lots of 'cybercafes,' where children go - in some cases without their parents' permission - and they are connected for hours and hours, and nobody takes care about who they are talking to or what kind of sites or information they are seeing."
To read the information in ChicosenInternet.com.ar in English, type "chicoseninternet" into the search box at Google.com, then click on "Translate this page" next to the "Chicos en Internet - Inicio" link. The translation isn't exactly idiomatic, but you'll get the basic meaning.
[Readers, I appreciate hearing about grassroots projects to educate and protect online kids. Email me about them anytime - via firstname.lastname@example.org. Someday we may be able to leverage growing public awareness into "parent power" on an international (Internet) scale!]
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Web News Briefs
- 6 patches, 3 critical: Git 'em!
If your family computer is a Windows one, be sure to get the new patches Microsoft has just released (if you haven't turned on automatic updates here). Microsoft says three of them are critical to your PC's security. They include a patch bundle for the Internet Explorer browser, and you need it even if you've switched to Firefox, Washington Post security expert Brian Krebs points out. See my patch alert last month for links to further info.
- Games: Not just child's play
The problem is, we've always associated the word "game" with something kids do. Now that there are digital games for kids and adults, those of us over 40 who didn't grow up with them are confused, concerned, etc., about the ones for adults, The Economist suggests. "Like rock and roll in the 1950s, games have been accepted by the young and largely rejected by the old. Once the young are old, and the old are dead, games will be regarded as just another medium and the debate will have moved on." In fact, The Economist says, games are well on the way to becoming a mainstream medium - half of Americans play videogames, but of course 76% of them are under 40 and the average gamer's age is 30. So, to gamers, games are more and more like movies, both in production values and in variety of content and age-appropriateness. Parents who are gamers know that they need to be as aware of game ratings as they are of film ratings. Gamer parents also know, the article suggests, that even Grand Theft Auto isn't all about violence. "The problem-solving mechanic that underlies most games is like the 90% of an iceberg below the waterline - invisible to non-gamers. But look beneath the violent veneer of Grand Theft Auto, and it is really no different from a swords-and-sorcery game. Instead of stealing a crystal and delivering it to a wizard so that he can cure the princess, say, you may have to intercept a consignment of drugs and deliver it to a gang boss so he can ransom a hostage. It is the pleasure of this problem-solving, not the superficial violence which sometimes accompanies it, that can make gaming such a satisfying experience." The piece cites a study of the effects on players of violent fantasy-world game Asheron's Call 2 (look under the subhead "Moral Choices" in the Economist piece for conclusions). [Thanks to reader and dad Tito in Portugal for pointing this article out.]
- Student hacks: Criminal?
They're being called the "Dirty Baker's Dozen" in the UK and "the Kutztown 13" in the US, and their story has been picked up by more than 100 media outlets in the US, the UK, Canada, and China. "The trouble began last fall after the district issued some 600 Apple iBook laptops to every student at the [Kutztown, Pa.] high school about 50 miles northwest of Philadelphia," the Associated Press reports. The Register in the UK continues the story with tongue in cheek: "The administrators had not ... reckoned on the sheer determination and Machiavellian cunning of the students. They quickly found the admin password allowing unrestricted internet access - not by a keystroke logging black op or extracting it from the IT manager at the point of a gun - but rather because it was taped to the back of every machine." The students downloaded iChat and proceeded to chat. "At least one student viewed pornography. Some students also turned off the remote [student-]monitoring function ... using it to view administrators' own computer screens." The students have been charged with computer trespass, a felony in Pennsylvania, and a hearing in juvenile court has been set for August 24. Possible sanctions they face include juvenile detention, probation, and community service. An uncle of one of the boys set up CutUsABreak.org with their side of the story. The site, which reportedly has received tens of thousands of visitors, asks of school administrators: "Make it policy that there is a back up plan other than felony charges for the kids who can not handle the temptations that laptops bring into their lives."
- New IM worm
Parents of instant-messagers need to be aware that IM and file-sharing are definitely vulnerable points for the family PC. "In June, technicians at the [Akonix] IM security [firm] registered a 400% increase in threats targeting instant messaging and P2P networks," Internet News reports. Last month was better, they said, but there's a new IM worm circulating. Called Chode-D, the spyware-installing worm was deemed "medium risk" by Akonix. It "runs continuously in the background of computers," allowing a "remote intruder" to, among other things, send emails, download software, participate in denial-of-service attacks, steal passwords, and disable anti-virus products. Consumer Reports has a really basic article (with pictures), "How to Outsmart Computer Viruses," but it doesn't mention IM. Worms and viruses come via IM similarly, but suggesting to the receiver (sometimes posing as a friend) that s/he click on a link or attachment, and - if they think a friend is sending them something - kids can be pretty receptive. Please see "Tips from a tech-savvy dad: IM precautions" for help on the IM front.
- Online predator convicted
There have been many such convictions - this is just a recent example so parents can be on the alert for danger signs. A 32-year-old man in Texas was convicted for criminal solicitation of a minor, the Texas attorney general's office reports. In this case, the minor was a 12-year-old girl in Missouri. She went to her mother distraught because the man, "who has sent her more than 200 sexually explicit emails had attempted to commit suicide," according to the press release. They had been exchanging emails for nearly two months. "During their email communications, the suspect told the child that he loved her and that he was going to kill himself if they could not meet. The child ultimately received an email stating that the suspect was in the hospital, possibly for trying to commit suicide." The mother called the CyberTipline (1-800-843-5678 or CyberTipline.com) at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which immediately contacted the Beaumont, Texas, police. The investigation led to the man's arrest in February and conviction in June. He was fined $1,000 and sentenced to three years in prison. Very few cases like this involve children over 15, according to research at the University of New Hampshire's Crimes Against Children Research Center (see "Net-related crimes against children: Reality check"). On police work in this area, see "Pedophiles better at using Internet to prey on kids" from the Associated Press and "I was groomed online" at the BBC.
- GTA patch released
The makers of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas have released a "No More Hot Coffee" patch for the game, CNET reports. The patch disables access to the sexually explicit content that got so much media attention last month. The patch can be downloaded from NoMoreHotCoffee.com, which includes instructions and a FAQ by GTA creators Rockstar Games. The FAQ says that, after installed, the patch blocks the Hot Coffee mod from being installed. So far, this doesn't change the Entertainment Software Rating Board's "Adults Only" (18+) rating, but - content-wise - it does realign the game with its original "Mature" (17+) rating. Rating descriptions can be found here at the ESRB.
- 'Second Life' for teens
Now there's a version for 13-to-17-year-olds, CNET reports in "'Second Life' for teens: 3D fun sans the brothels." Second Life is an MMORPG. Catchy acronym, huh? It stands for massively multiplayer online role-playing game, and this one's true to its description, with more than 40,000 subscribers (logging an average of 20 hours/week) who together create this virtual world. "A lot of Second Lifers are making money selling [virtual] things that they've created in the game," the San Jose Mercury News game blog reports. But it can get sexually explicit, so creators Linden Lab has just opened Teen.SecondLife.com, where teenagers can "build the world the way they want it" and where "only authorized adults" are allowed, according to the game's page for parents. No brothels, no "metrosexual goblins." The forums are monitored and Linden Lab staff are always available to players via IM, the site says. However, parents may want to note that on its Terms of Service page, the company says it "cannot absolutely control whether minors gain access to the Service other than the Teen Grid ... and makes no representation that users inside the Teen Grid [game] are not adults. Linden cannot ensure that other users will not provide ... access to Content that parents ... may find inappropriate...." For insights into all the communications tools associated with many online games, see this page. Here's an earlier CNET big-picture piece on virtual worlds. Play requires a one-time fee of $10, but it's about $10 a month to be able to "own land" in this world.
- GameSpot's new subscription service
For gamers, it's sort of like an ever-available, create-your-own LAN party or one of those strip-mall game centers in your own home, and it's an interesting development for gamers' parents to know about. GameSpot, a Web site owned by CNET that's visited by some 20 million gamers a month, has started a $9.99-a-month subscription service that allows them to play "at the highest speed connections in online games such as Electronic Arts's Battlefield 2," the San Jose Mercury News reports (Battlefield 2 is rated 13+ for violence). "It remains to be seen if gamers will pay to play online games that they can play for free via the Internet," the Merc adds, but GameSpot folk say it "removes a lot of the hassles from online gaming." Gamers can host their own games, e.g., customize a Battlefield 2 game "to their tastes so that as many as 64 players can fight it out without annoying hiccups in broadband service that slow down a game." They'll be able to tap into "computing power" GameSpot has leased and data centers on both US coasts for a better gaming experience.
Parents may want to be aware that the service also offers discussion groups, voice chat services, and tournaments, which means communicating with strangers, but this is more for teenagers and experienced gamers focused on the game, so probably less risky than Web-based chat in general. However, an anonymous poster to my blog who says s/he's an adult player of online games, wrote, "Then of course there's the chat system built into every game, which is constantly working to pass on all sorts of abuse ... sexually as well as aggressively." Ask any gamers you know how much they use those community tools, how bad the griefing is, and - beyond griefing - whether people use chat to talk about anything but the game at hand. I'd appreciate hearing their answers - via email@example.com. Parents may want to be aware that the service also offers discussion groups, voice chat services, and tournaments, which means communicating with strangers, but this is more for teenagers and experienced gamers focused on the game, so probably less risky than Web-based chat in general. However, an anonymous poster to my blog who says s/he's an adult player of online games, wrote, "Then of course there's the chat system built into every game, which is constantly working to pass on all sorts of abuse ... sexually as well as aggressively." Ask any gamers you know how much they use those community tools, how bad the griefing is, and - beyond griefing - whether people use chat to talk about anything but the game at hand. I'd appreciate hearing their answers - via firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Digital music-scene primer
There are so many ins and outs to digital music - the costs, pluses, and minuses of playing, renting, and owning - that few kids, much less parents, can keep up with it all. So the New York Times's David Pogue has provided quite a service in walking us through a bunch of them. For example, if you rent/subscribe and want to move tunes to your MP3 player, note that you need to connect it to "the mother ship" service once a month so those songs don't self-destruct; Yahoo Music lets subscribers swap tunes via Instant Messenger; Wal-Mart has a limited library, but it will press a custom CD for you; and you can only listen (not burn) Rhapsody's free 25 songs a month, but they'll give you a good feel for what's happening on the pop scene. Check it out, and you may be able to help music fans at your house stretch their music budgets. While we're on the subject, a fascinating development in Japan following iTunes's debut there (where, in just four days, people downloaded 1 million songs): Musicians there are defying their record labels and trying to get their songs into iTunes, the Associated Press reports. Sony Music has not yet signed up to join Apple's service, the AP added.
- Gamer convicted
A 20-year-old in Alabama "whose lawyers claimed the video game Grand Theft Auto and childhood abuse caused him to kill three small-town police officers" was convicted for capital murder Tuesday, the Associated Press reports. The AP added that the jury deliberated for "just over an hour."
- Korean dies in marathon game session
It was reported worldwide: A 28-year-old man died at a cybercafe in Taegu, southern Korea, after some 50 straight hours playing Starcraft, the BBC reports. The cause of death, police said, was presumed to be heart failure stemming from exhaustion. "The man had not slept properly, and had eaten very little during his marathon session," the BBC added, citing police reports. "Online gaming in South Korea is extremely popular.... Games are televised and professional players are treated, as well as paid, like sports stars. Professional gamers there attract huge sums in sponsorship and can make more than $100,000 a year." Here's The Economist on how the worldwide debate on the impact of gaming is intensifying. And here are links in Google to multiple reports on the tragedy in Korea.
- 'Camp' for aspiring game designers
"Yes, dear parents, the countless hours spent glued to the screen don't necessarily mean wasted time for your children," reports the Washington Post in an article about summer camp that isn't the just-ended, five-week Urban Video Game Academy at McKinley Technology High School in the Washington, D.C., area. "The academy, like video game summer camps at Princeton University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, teaches the ins and outs of game design, exposing the joystick generation to the possibility of careers in the multibillion-dollar industry [7.3 billion last year]." At McKinley this past month, there were about 25 design trainees, all 9th- and 10th-graders, about a third girls, most African American, the rest Latinos. This diversity is important, the article points out. "If video games represent the next evolution of storytelling, as hard-core gamers and industry insiders insist they do, then who are the storytellers and what kind of stories get to be told?" A lack of diversity "results in here-we-go-again stereotypical story lines," those gaming insiders say. The picture is not pretty at the moment. Industry demographics cited in the Post indicate that it's 80.5% white, 2.5% black, 3.5% Latino and 8.5% Asian, and seven out of eight people in the industry are male. "These racial proportions aren't hugely different from the demographics of game players, according to Nielsen Entertainment's Interactive Group, except in the coveted 18-to-24 male demographic. There, 17 percent are black and 18 percent are Latino.
- A teachable blog
Instead of a teachable moment, how about classroom blogs as ongoing instructional opportunities? Some smart teachers have established blogs (easy-to-update Web sites) to do a number of things: keep parents up on classroom activities, develop students' summarizing and writing skills, and teach kids safe, constructive blogging. An example is the class blog of 5th-grade teacher Mr. Roemer in the St. Petersburg, Fla., area, "among a smattering nationwide," the St. Petersburg Times reports. Mr. Roemer has students post daily entries about what they did in class that day, and he checks it at night, answering questions they or their parents might have about homework right in the blog. Blogging's as easy a technology as word-processing, so it's not the tech that's challenging here, it's the time Mr. Roemer puts in. But at least he's spending it on communicating rather than on the tech enables it.
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That does it for this week. Have a great weekend!
Anne Collier, Editor
Net Family News
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