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November 18, 2005

Dear Subscribers:

Next week we'll be observing the US's Thanksgiving holiday. The next issue will arrive in your inboxes on December 2. Happy Thanksgiving to all who celebrate it! Here's our lineup for this third week or November:

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A little help for parents

I was thinking "out loud" in this newsletter/blog when I wrote, "Video iPod: Mom's-eye-view" after the debut of this little video player and music videos on iTunes. Two things got me to thinking: the label "explicit" I saw next to some of the videos listed in iTunes that day and how mainstream online music videos had become (having just read that users look at 350 million music-video clips a month at Yahoo Music alone! - see this item). So I wondered what parental controls there were for this vast video area of cyberspace, whether child-protection tech had caught up.

Then Niel Macdonald, tech coordinator for St. Christopher School in San Jose, Calif., and former Apple engineer, emailed me a thoughtful reminder (I had, after all, reported on this last April):

"What folks may not be aware of is, Apple with the release of OS 10.4 (Tiger) includes parental controls (email, chat, web browser) built into the operating system. I checked the new version of iTunes 6.0 and looked in the preferences. I found there are parental controls to 'Restrict Explicit Content' or to completely disable Podcasts or Music Store [some podcasts, or online audio shows, many listed on iTunes, are sexually explicit].

"Is this a perfect solution?" Niel continues. "No it is not, but it does show that the engineers at Apple are thinking about this sort of thing. At this time there is no perfect protection from bad things on the Internet for any platform. The first protection a child has from bad things on the Internet is the parent. [For Macintosh computers] these tools are in place; what is not is a parent's understanding of how they can control their children's exposure to these bad things. There is information at Apple's web page that describes how to implement these controls."

Here's Apple's page on parental controls, but all they'll do is block iTunes altogether (because they allow you to block the use of specific software applications for any children's accounts you set up on that Mac).

It's pretty cool that Apple computers have parental controls at the operating-system level (we'll see if Windows's next upgrade has them), but the Tiger OS's controls don't get much more granular than blocking whole apps. They will allow you to designate the Web sites your child can visit with the Safari browser (and block everything else), but that's more for little kids - few parents would have time to think up a list of Web sites teenagers would want to go to for school research, for example.

The iTunes controls do more, allowing parents, among other things, to "restrict explicit content" in the iTunes Music Store. That's great for all-Mac or all-iPod families who only use iTunes for digital-music downloads and video viewing, but it's little help if kids like to surf other music services like Rhapsody, MSN Music, and Yahoo Music, not to mention musicians' own sites. Music videos are all over the Web.

Third-party desktop software (that doesn't come in a computer's OS) designed specifically to filter X-rated content can block a lot more than Tiger's and iTunes's controls, but I'm not aware of any fail-safe filters that go beyond keyword technology and really filter for the images rather than words on Web pages and text descriptors attached to images. I checked this perception with Niel in a phone interview this week, and he agreed that he hasn't seen good image-blocking technology yet - though it's in the works and he's looking at products that claim to do so (we'll keep you posted).

The point is, software engineers and Internet companies are trying, but technology has a tough time keeping up with kids and their curious, intrepid, exploratory minds. "We forget that the Internet and computers were never intended to be a playground or toys for children," said Niel, who knows this from 11 years as a networking specialist at Apple. Yet, he adds, "we've made it all so simple for children [actually, we had to make it simple for adults, I think!]. That's a good thing, but it wasn't the original intent."

So now parents, caregivers, educators, and techies are playing catch-up, trying to protect kids as the implications unfold before our eyes - if and when we're watching!

All that said, tools - like the Tiger OS's, iTunes's, AOL's, and MSN's parental controls; desktop filters and monitoring software; and all the specialized control apps out there for games, P2P, and IM - can all help. But first parents need to know at least a little about their kids' online lives and favorite technologies before we can figure out what, if any, of these tools are relevant and for how long. Then we need to stay engaged just to know what rules or policies support these tools (and vice versa). This is not an easy time for parents! See the following links for a bit of help, and the first Web News Brief down there for what parents face.

You know what I think parents really need?: a forum, a place online where they can swap ideas, favorite products, parenting tips, and family learning experiences in the technology area. Because I think the best experts out there on tech-parenting are fellow parents! But what do *you* think parents need? Email me anytime via

Related links

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Web News Briefs
  1. Porn's new platforms

    By "platforms" I mean video players, music players, phones, gameplayers - and this is all over tech news this week. Parents who care about this need to know. One porn publisher told the Washington Post that his industry's Web business had peaked a couple of years ago, so there's great interest in moving onto new, more portable platforms. Of course, because of the iPod's popularity, much of the news focuses on that (it took 20 days from the day videos became available for iTunes to reach 1 million video downloads), but the Post looks at the big picture. Besides video iPods, there's the everywhere news of porn and parental controls on phones (see last week). And last July, I linked to Newsweek reporting that Japanese adult-DVD makers H.M.P. and GLAY'z had joined Playboy on the Playstation Portable gameplayer. The PSP does have parental controls. Here's a post about them at "With those porn coming out, the GTA ["Hot Coffee" mod] scandal, if I was a parent, I'd freak with real scary thoughts of having my 10-year-old having hands on the Sony PSP. With the 2.0 firmware update, under Security Settings, a concerned parent can set up the Parental Controls to stop little kiddies playing that R-rated stuff not meant for them. To set it up (or un-set it), the password is 0000, and turn it on as you like. This is a community service from PSPJunkies making the Sony PSP a safer device. :)" [Of course, there's a workaround detailed at, which someone not much over 10 could easily find.] Of course, the Web is far from passe, especially on the amateur front - for example, "vlogs" (video blogs) are taking off, with tech startups offering "tools that make it easy to create, distribute, and monetize homemade content," Red Herring reports.

  2. Don't install Sony's patch!

    That's the advice from the Washington Post's Brian Krebs, reporting that "security researchers say it will introduce even more vulnerabilities into your system." If you're not sure what I'm talking about, see my coverage last week. If you're not sure if someone at your house has inadvertently downloaded the offending Sony anti-piracy software (by playing one of the Sony BMG CDs that installs it automatically), Sony finally has a list of the CDs that carry this copy protection technology. If you're still not sure if you have this flawed software on a Windows PC, you can go to a new Microsoft service you should know about anyway: Windows Live Safety Center, which will scan your PC and help you get this and other nasty, invasive software off it. The Post explains all of this in detail.

  3. More 'digital shoplifters' sued

    That's what Britain's version of the RIAA, the BPI, is calling the file-sharers it's suing these days: "digital shoplifters." The BPI announced yesterday it had filed 65 new lawsuits in the UK, "among 2,100 similar cases launched around the globe this week by local recording industry trade associations," The Register reports. The 2,100 this week bring the total to 3,800 lawsuits, in addition to "the 16,200-odd individuals targeted to date by the RIAA in the US." This week saw cases filed for the first time in Sweden, Switzerland, Argentina, Hong Kong, and Singapore. In Britain, 70 of the 150 file-sharers sued so far have agreed to pay up to 6,500 pounds (about $11,300) to settle out of court. For more on P2P risks (in addition to the legal one), see "File-sharing realities for families."

  4. Google: Everybody's database? store?

    Want to put the new baby's photo on the Web so all the distant relatives can ooh and ah? Or care to post that scrumptious recipe for leftover turkey so that we all can simply print it out? Or perhaps your child will post her university course schedule so you know when *not* to call on her cellphone? Well, now you don't even need a Web site or blog to do these things. You can put info or photos or sell goods on the Web for free and for everyone in the world to see at a new service called Google Base, basically Google's new global database or classifieds, maybe (though postings need to be in English, Google says). Certainly there are qualifications: no pirated material, no promotion of violence, no gambling, hacking, or weapons or drugs sales, and no child pornography or "non-consensual material" (which means consensual explicit content isn't ruled out, for parents concerned about kids' exposure to that). Here are the San Jose Mercury News and CNET on this development.

  5. IM: Tops with teens

    This will not be a huge surprise to parents, but a new AOL study found that IM is definitely the communications tool of choice among young people. "Two-thirds of teens and young adults between the ages of 13 and 21 said they use instant-messaging more than email" (up from 49% last year), and "an increasing number of people across age groups are sending IMs from their mobile phones [almost double the 2004 figure]," according to InternetWeek's coverage of the survey. Nearly half of 13-to-21-year-olds change their away messages every day to let others know where they are, to list a cell-phone number or alternate way to be reached, or to post a favorite lyric or quote, the study also found, adding that some use their away messages to "post a call to action, like "'Please donate to the Red Cross to help hurricane victims'." What's coming in IM-ing? The fans are asking for live streaming TV on their IM services (26%); music on demand (25%); video on demand (21%); using IM to make voice calls to other computers, land-line phones, and cellphones (21%); and replacing their primary home phone service with "IM-based Internet telephone service" (12%). Fastern your seatbelts!

  6. Band promoter's word to the wise

    In "TalkBack" at the bottom of a CNET piece on schools dealing with teen blogging, there's a very credible message parents might find helpful from someone who uses for its music-community focus: "I visit mySpace to promote a band's profile," writes one Rob Stevens, "and find myself surprised to see the kind of information some people put on their profiles. There's one type of common profile that I guess it may use a form for the users to fill in. This form posts information that could be easily used for identity theft or blackmailing. I'm not trying to be paranoid, but I'm not naive either. There are a lot of perverts, cons, and criminals out there looking for victims. And I think some young surfers are just opening their front door to sickos. Let's hope they wake up and change their information." He's talking about the Web form MySpace users fill out to create a profile - they should know they don't have to answer all the questions, and they can be careful not to post personal information ill-intentioned people can use to contact them - this goes for other blogging/social networking sites, too, e.g.,,,,,, etc.

  7. 'Toons & other TV on the Web

    Television shows old and new are popping up all over cyberspace these days, a true trend. First Desperate Housewives turned up in iTunes (along with a few other ABC shows). Now AOL announces it's launching an online TV channel, In2TV, offering dozens of old shows like "Welcome Back Kotter" and "Growing Pains," grouped "by genre, including comedies, dramas, animation, sci-fi and horror, action-adventure and 'vintage TV'," the Associated Press reports. The lineup will keep changing, but "within the first year, In2TV will offer more than 100 series and at least 300 episodes per month," the AP adds. According to the New York Times, each show will have "one to two minutes of commercials for each half-hour episode, compared with eight minutes in a standard broadcast. The Internet commercials cannot be skipped." Meanwhile, Nickelodeon has found a new distribution channel for its cartoons: Hasbro's VuGo digital media player, CNET reports. With it, kids will be able to download an episode for $1.99-2.99. "The cartoon offerings range from SpongeBob SquarePants to The Grim Adventures of Billy & Mandy," CNET says.

  8. Facebook: Getting students in trouble

    Colleges and universities are beginning to use as a tool for monitoring and protecting students. "Nine underage students at N.C. State are facing charges of violating the school's alcohol policy after a residential adviser visited one of their profiles on Facebook and found links to pictures of them drinking," CNET reports. Similar actions were taken at Northern Kentucky University and the University of California at Santa Barbara; and "Fisher College in Boston expelled a student this fall for posting threatening comments about a campus police officer on the site." CNET also looks at what high schools are doing about their students blogging at MySpace and other social-networking sites, and there's some good advice (in a sidebar) about parental involvement. Here's a little background on Facebook and other such sites at

  9. Anime on iPods

    It's nice to know the porn industry isn't the only early adopter of new technology. Anime characters can now be found on video iPods too, the New York Times reports. Nine days after Apple introduced the device, anime distributor Central Park Media announced it would make some titles available on iTunes for the video iPod. Titles the Times mentions include "the adventures of Chirico Cuvie in the series 'Armored Trooper Votoms'," and - to be offered a little later - "Descendants of Darkness," "Revolutionary Girl Utena," and "Shadow Star Narutaru." For insights into a small, dark corner of online anime, see "A mom writes: Yaoi not for kids" in my 8/5 issue.

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


Anne Collier, Editor

Net Family News

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