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December 23, 2005

Dear Subscribers:

Wishing you all most joyous holidays and thanking you all for your part in supporting informed tech parenting. You're a vital interest community. Here's the lineup for this third week of December :

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Kids & Webcams: Disturbing story

The story that emerged from a six-month-long investigation by the New York Times begins with Justin Berry, who got his start at age 13 buying a Webcam to meet other teenage friends online. Within weeks he was getting paid $50 "to sit bare-chested in front of his computer for three minutes" for a man who helped him instantly set up a PayPal account.

Over five years, reports writer Kurt Eichenwald, Justin developed an audience of 1,500 that paid him "hundreds of thousands of dollars." The connected computer was in his room, and he hid the Webcams behind it during the day so his mother wouldn't see them, the Times reports. Worse: Justin's activities were only part of the "Webcam Matrix," a term dubbed by another teenager cited by the Times, who, also for money, operates his own site of self-published child porn.

"Minors who run these sites find their anonymity amusing, joking that their customers may be the only adults who know of their activities," Kurt writes, later adding that, "collectively, they were known by a name now commonplace in this Internet subculture: They call themselves 'camwhores'."

The Times article is the first I've seen in 8+ years of following reportage on kids and tech pointing to a trend or a generalized pattern of actions and genre of Web sites. The pattern of behavior and sites/blogs, on the teenagers' part, are about money, naivete, the need to connect, or combinations of the above. The pattern of actions on the adults' part are well known to law enforcement (one of the things that confounds prosecutors is that these kids are both victims and perpetrators).

What wasn't known is how wide-spread self-published child porn seems to have become, based on what Kurt's investigative reporting turned up (if there has been any public-sector or academic research on this, I'm not aware of it). However, there have been scattered reports of teens exposing themselves for intimate friends, before the friendship "goes bad" and photos are maliciously IM'ed, emailed, or file-shared around (e.g., see "India: Child porn by teens" and "Self-published child porn") - the Times also tells of how this social type of kid-generated porn, too, ends up turning its subjects into "pornographic commodities" on the Web. And a few years ago, there was a brief swirl of reporting on "camgirl" sites, linked by their teenage subjects to retail sites' wish lists so people viewing photos of the site owners in various states of undress could send them gifts (see this item in 2003).

But now we know those phenomena were only the tip of the iceberg. "Easy money" is way too easy for tech-literate kids aided "wittingly and unwittingly" by Internet services like free instant-messaging, blogging, image- and video-uploading, Webcam and other communities, "bank" accounts, and wish lists.

The Times says its reporting for this article has led to "a wide-scale criminal investigation." After a series of meetings, it "persuaded Justin to abandon his business and, to protect other children at risk, assisted him in contacting the Justice Department."

The long article includes a video interview with the boy, now 19, which hints at what Justin's been through and the integrity that compelled him to tell his story for other young people's sake. Here are some points in the article parents might want to be aware of:

  1. "As soon as Justin hooked the camera to his bedroom computer and loaded the software [back in 2000], his picture was automatically posted [emphasis mine] on, an Internet directory of Webcam users, along with his contact information."
  2. Contrary to his intention, "no one Justin's age ever contacted him from that listing" and "within minutes he heard from his first online predator ... followed by another, then another."
  3. Video-hosting is offered by many services now, including blogging/social-networking sites, and IM services allow users to attach videos, but kids can also easily create their own video-enabled Web sites.
Further info

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Web News Briefs

  1. 'Santa' worm in IM

    It's a sad day when we have to tell our kids to be very wary of any instant message about Santa Claus! You can tell them they're too smart to fall for this little social-engineering trick: the "IM.GiftCom.All" worm that's spreading through the AIM and MSN and Yahoo Messenger networks. CNET reports that this worm too will look like it's coming from someone on their buddy list, but - when clicked on - it installs a "rootkit" that spreads by sending itself to all the contacts of IM-ers who've clicked. "A rootkit is a tool designed to go undetected by the security software used to lock down control of a computer after an initial hack." It needs to be drilled into everybody's head not to click on anything in a message (a link, a file, etc.) before seeing if the person who seems to have sent it actually did! (See also "Tips from a tech-savvy dad: IM precautions.")

  2. Teens' risky online: Study

    A just-released survey of 1,468 US tweens and teens turned up a lot of risk-taking in their online activities, USATODAY reports. The study, by the Polly Klaas Foundation, found that 42% of 13-to-18-year-olds who use the Net post personal informaation so people can contact them, 30% have talked about meeting someone they encountered online, and 27% have talked about sex online with someone they've never met in person. The Klaas Foundation, a member of the Association of Missing and Exploited Children's Organizations, says it conducted the survey because "the recent explosion in online networking [as at] puts young people at increased risk of sexual encounters and abductions by predators." In other findings from the survey...

    • More girls than boys 13-18 are posting a profile (56% vs. 37%), sharing personal information (37% vs. 26%), and being asked about sexual topics (33% vs. 18%).
    • 54% have communicated with a stranger via IM, half via email, and 45% via chatroom.
    • 56% have been asked personal questions online; 25% weekly; 10% daily.
    • Online teens frequently communicate virtually with someone they have never met: 54 percent have done so using Instant Messaging; half via e-mail; and 45% in a chat room.
    • 12% have learned that someone they were communicating with online was an adult pretending to be younger.

    The Klaas Foundation's press release cites Justice Department data showing an 84% increase this year over 2004 in complaints nationwide about predators enticing minors online or traveled to meet them. Here's the San Francisco Examiner's coverage.

  3. 'Game moms' : Dazed & confused?

    They seems to have fewer clues than soccer moms, anyway. Not all, but a lot of them, based on the impressions given by a Washington Post reporter observing game moms behavior in what is not generally their natural habitat: game stores. "Salespeople at the game stores, as amused as they are a little agitated, say they can easily spot the three types of game moms: the indifferent, the clueless and the hip." The salespeople don't seem to mind this sub-category: clueless with a list. The other lists game moms and dads might want to check against is the National Institute on Media & the Family's lists of games to avoid and recommended games (p. 11 of its 2005 report) and the ESRB's list of game ratings and what they mean. For further insights into the gaming phenomenon, see "A (Virtual) World of Their Own: Computer Gaming and Your Patients," by Jerald Block, MD.

  4. US videogame law introduced

    The trend at the state level is courts blocking laws against violent videogame sales to minors. It could be reversed at the federal level, though. "A trio of Democratic senators with presidential ambitions introduced federal legislation" that basically would turn the gaming industry's current voluntary ratings into law and would fine retailers for selling to minors games rated "Mature" or "Adults Only" or with "ratings pending," the Wall Street Journal reports. The Journal says the senators "believe [their law, unlike the state laws so far] can pass constitutional muster." The senators are Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, and Evan Bayh of Indiana. The article details what's been going on at the state level. Here's the page at the Entertainment Software Rating Board that describes the current rating system (ratings can also be found on the front of videogame packaging, with descriptions of their meaning on the back). Meanwhile, a federal court this week blocked a CA law that would make it criminal in that state to sell or rent violent videogames to minors, the Los Angeles Times reports. Gamemakers said it was the sixth time a judge has ruled in their favor.

  5. 'Neopets addiction' ok for your kid?

    Before one even looks at's numbers it's clearly a phenomenon: designed by a young British couple who love animals, art, and writing software code, marketed by an American who based its business model on the teachings of Scientology and trademarked the phrase "immersive advertising," and acquired by Viacom last June for $160 million. Then there are those user numbers, 25 million members wordwide, 80% of them under 18 and 20% under 13, interacting and caring for their neopets in 10 languages - "the stuff of marketers' dreams," as Wired magazine put it in a thorough take-out on planet Neopets. But the site is not without its critics, because "half a million of its users are under age 8," and people that age can't mentally fend off persuasive sales messages, Wired reports, much less distinguish between playing a game and immersive advertising (as in the "'Lucky Charms: Shooting Stars!' game, in which kids navigate a series of marshmallow treats" of breakfast cereal fame), even when it says "this page contains paid advertisements" at the bottom of the page. There is profanity screening, according to Wired, and "Neopets bars kids under 13 from using the messaging features ... but with no credit card numbers to verify identity, nothing prevents an 8-year-old from registering as an 18-year-old to post instant messages. And although they can't select a username like Phuckhead, because it's blocked, they could choose Childmolester - if it weren't already taken." For more, see "Beware chat on Neopets" from a mom/NFN reader and "Advergames & the nag factor."

  6. Granddad settles & other music news

    It's a case people have been watching: that of a Wisconsin man, who was sued for $600,000 by the film industry because his 12-year-old grandson downloaded four movies via a P2P network. Fred Lawrence said he knew nothing about file-sharing at the time his grandson did the downloading, and they owned three of the movies anyway. The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reports that Mr. Lawrence will be giving talks to schoolchildren about Internet piracy as a part of the settlement with the Motion Picture Association of America (here's earlier coverage). Meanwhile, the music industry has just sued 751 more music file-sharers, CNET reports.

    There have been lots of digital-music developments lately.... Playing a bit of catchup, Google is beefing up music searching, providing "more information about artists, album cover art, reviews, and links to stores where users can download a track or buy a CD," Red Herring reports. MTV and Microsoft are teaming up, with the former announcing its plan "to launch its long-anticipated Internet service, called URGE," the Los Angeles Times reports . MTV wants to "exploit the flexibility and ubiquity of Microsoft's Media Player software, which comes preinstalled in the Windows operating system." There's now an alternative to the video iPod: the Creative Zen Vision:M. Here are Engadget and The Register on it.

  7. Lawsuits not 'helping'

    At least not in the UK. I'm referring to lawsuits by the music industry against file-sharers and a just-released study about it cited in The Guardian. The survey, conducted by market research firm Mori for AOL UK, found that "51% of those who currently download tracks do so illegally." It also indicated "a large degree of confusion among consumers about whether or not they were breaking copyright laws by using illegal sites. Only four in 10 said that they understood the law." Even so, more than 75% of respondents said they'd illegally downloaded music at least once (one in six said they use music retail sites exclusively).

  8. Teen's blogged confession... led to a guilty plea (Blurty is a blogging/social-networking site). "An 18-year-old passenger who caused a fatal crash ... pleaded guilty to DUI manslaughter after prosecutors discovered a confession on his online blog," the Associated Press reports. The blog post was dated three days after the crash, though the boy, Blake Ranking, "had previously told investigators he remembered nothing of the crash and little of its aftermath." His sentencing is December 28. Here's the Orlando Sentinel's coverage.

  9. Oz parent-teen gap: Study

    A just-released study in Australia found "a huge disconnect between parents and their teenage children over online behaviour," according to its press release. The study - conducted by NetAlert, the Australian government's online-safety body, and Web portal - looked at teen blogging/social networking, "illegal content downloads," and parental supervision of kids' online activity. It found, for example, that...

    • 24% of teens claim that their parents are never around when they're online; 6% of parents said they were never around when their kids were online.
    • 71% of parents believe their children use the Net for research; 23% of teens say they research online.
    • 80% of parents claim they have set ground rules for Internet usage; 69% of teenagers agree that such rules exist.
    • 40% of teen respondents said they'd "potentially" meet in person someone they'd "met online"; 12% said they'd get their parents' permission.
    • "As many as 63% of teens have "downloaded content from the Internet that they didn't want their parents to know about."
    • 50% of parents believe they always know what sites their children visit.
    • More than half of parents surveyed claimed that they had better Internet knowledge than their children.

  10. 'America's Army' morphs

    What was created as a recruiting tool for the US Army is now "one of the most popular computer games on the planet," the BBC reports. "America's Army," a free massively multiplayer online combat videogame, has "6 million registered users worldwide and scores of fansites worldwide," the BBC adds. But that's not all. From recruitment to entertainment, the game is now morphing into a third mission: combat training. "The Army believes that the real power of this technology lies in the fact that it is multiplayer, and can be securely networked across the globe. That would allow combat-hardened soldiers in the field to assist new trainees." This third, more realistic phase of the game, called "Full Spectrum Warrior" and developed Army-funded Institute for Creative Technologies at the University of Southern California, teaches soldiers other skills besides those developed in combat, though: e.g., how to interact and negotiate with all kinds of people in "mission-critical areas," such as average citizens, doctors, clerics, and political leaders.

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


Anne Collier, Editor

Net Family News

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