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May 19, 2006

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How social influencing works: Good to know

Now that our kids' entire circles of friends, in their school and beyond, are in public spaces on the Web, blending the details of their personal and social lives with messages and images from people with all sorts of interests and intentions - from finding friends to promoting a band to sexual exploitation - it's a good idea for them to get a handle on how people influence each other.

"One important foundation for making safe and responsible choices online is ensuring that you are, indeed, the one who is making the choice," writes Nancy Willard, director of the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use, who has researched this in the context of teen social-networking for a book she's working on.

Of course, sometimes the results of social influence are good: for example, in encouraging, for example, tolerance or conservation, Nancy explains. Other times, a result can be destructive. "Grooming," the term used by law enforcement people to describe how a sexual predator influences a child toward an in-person meeting (see "How to recognize grooming"), is one stark example. "Virtually all of the Internet's risks ... are grounded in the negative impact of social influence," she writes. It's always empowering to understand how social influencing works - kids can see influencers' techniques for what they are and socialize more safely and confidently, online or offline. Here are six basic influencing techniques, described in much more detail in a chapter in Nancy's forthcoming book (preprinted with permission here):

  1. Rule of reciprocity. An "extremely strong basic norm," it goes: If someone gives you something, you're obligated to give him something back. Something in return for gifts given (a sexual predator's tactic), but also the reason why charities put address stickers in their solicitations for support. Sub-tactic: "rejection-then-retreat." The manipulator makes an extreme request; it's rejected; she then responds with a smaller request, increasing the rejecter's sense of obligation. Solution to conider: "This person's attempt to manipulate you cancels any obligation or indebtedness you might feel."
  2. Commitment & consistency. "But you told me you'd do it, right?" The influencer's basically saying, "You made a commitment to this, so be consistent, or you're not trustworthy." Consistency is valued [in society] because ... a person who is consistent can be trusted to act in certain ways under certain conditions," Nancy writes. Sexual predators use this one a lot, she adds. The question often asked is, "You trust me, don't you?" "It is a rare child who will respond with a 'no'." There's also the effect of group commitment (the obvious downside being groups promoting hate, violence, suicide, eating disorders, etc.) Toward avoiding manipulation: "The way you can tell if you have made a commitment that is now wrong is to pay close attention to how you feel inside. If you have a gut reaction that something g is wrong, be sure to pay attention to this."
  3. Social proof. Another form of group think: Even if the evidence contrary to a group's philosophy or decision is plain, an individual will in many cases go along with the group's position, a study found. It works best, Nancy writes, "when there is some level of uncertainty or ambiguity in the situation." For example, viral (word-of-mouth) marketing, collaboration in or condoning of bullying, promotional seminars for a business model. Again: "Listen to your 'gut' and take a close look at the situation. You might need to get away from others to think about on your own... Make your own choices."
  4. Liking. If we like someone, we're "far more likely to comply" with what they want. We're usually more influenced by people we like because of a number of possible factors: they're attractive, they're "like us," they praise us, they convey a sense of familiarity, or they're associated in our minds with positive things. "The Internet provides [influencers] the ability to 'image manage' - to create an online 'persona' that makes them more likable. Solution: Critical thinking - asking ourselves how much we *really* know about the persona or image being presented (and knowing that the Net's anonymity can make person and persona seem like the same thing).
  5. Authority. "There is strong pressure in our society to comply with requests or demands from a person in a position of authority," though Nancy later adds that there's evidence the Internet is eroding this tendency. "Young people who are growing up with this technology appear to be far less sensitive to ... authority." Answer: two key questions, actually. Ask yourself: "Is this authority truly an expert - is there independent evidence of his/her person's expertise and credibility?" and "How truthful can we expect this expert to be" - does he/she have something to gain from my acceptance or compliance?
  6. Scarcity. An influencer may present something (product, behavior, opportunity) as scarce, unusual, or having restrictions attached to it, which tend to make it more valuable or appealing in people's minds. Nancy looks at the impact of this principle on, for example, "Managing youth access to pornography through the use of filtering software, [which] would backfire by creating an increased level of 'value' for the restricted 'thing'.... Parents should remain mindful of the scarcity principle in seeking to guide their child's Internet use... 'Just say no' is likely to be significantly less effective then 'Just say know'."
Readers, your reactions, comments, solutions on this topic would be welcome. Email them to me via or post them in the BlogSafety forum.

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Web News Briefs [For our May 26 issue, click here.]
  1. 'Predator panic'

    Could we be in the middle of a bit of a panic? Dateline's now weekly "To Catch a Predator" sends a certain message. Danah Boyd, a social media researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, told Reuters that we have "a complete culture of fear." Benjamin Radford, who "wrote about Megan's Laws and lawmaking in response to moral panics in his book Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us, writes in science magazine Skeptical Inquirer that "Despite relatively few instances of child predation and little hard data on topics such as Internet predators, journalists invariably suggest that the problem is extensive, and fail to put their stories in context." He adds that "the issue is not whether children need to be protected; of course they do. The issues are whether the danger to them is great, and whether the measures proposed will ensure their safety.... According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, 'based on what we know about those who harm children, the danger to children is greater from someone they or their family knows than from a stranger'."

    Radford zooms in on the constantly cited "one in five children approached by online predators" statistic from the University of New Hampshire's Crimes Against Children Research Center's 2000 online victimization study. He writes, "Not a single one of the reported solicitations led to any actual sexual contact or assault. Furthermore, almost half of the 'sexual solicitations' came not from 'predators' or adults but from other teens. When the study examined the type of Internet 'solicitation' parents are most concerned about (e.g., someone who asked to meet the teen somewhere, called the teen on the telephone, or sent gifts), the number drops from 'one in five' to 3 percent."

    I called Janis Wolak, a co-author on the 2000 study (the Center will be releasing an update next month), and asked for her view of all the stories about online predation in social-networking sites, and her response was, "Overall, there aren't that many cases that seem related to these sites, given the millions of teens on them.... Basically, what puts kids at risk is when they talk about sex with people they meet online, and the vast majority of them don't get involved in that kind of situation." These perspectives are worth parents' consideration, as are teens' views shared in the BlogSafety forum that maybe parents need to "chill" about social-networking. There's a lot of great stuff going on in MySpace and other such sites too, some of them say (though others say they find it "boring" or "too much of a popularity contest"). Certainly the picture's a lot more granular than the news media make it out to be. But what do you think? Email your thoughts anytime to

  2. Online socializing: Latest numbers

    The Top 10 social-networking sites now reach a whopping 45% of active Web users, according to Nielsen/NetRatings, which just released its latest figures on the phenomenon's growth and popularity. Together, the ten sites have grown 47% in the past year (from 46.8 million unique visitors in April 2005 to 68.8 million last month). "The two biggest surges came from MySpace, which grew from 8.2 million users in April 2005 to 38.4 million last month, and MSN Spaces, up from 1.9 million to 7.1 million over the same period," reported the Washington Post. The study illustrates how new and loosely defined this user-driven part of the Web is - some of the Top 10 are more about blogging, or creating your own Web page (MSN Spaces and Blogger), some more about media-hosting (YouTube), and others more about socializing (MySpace and MSN Groups) - though all have aspects of each, and the lines keep getting more blurry! Nielsen's Top 10 are: MySpace, Blogger, Classmates Online, YouTube, MSN Groups, AOL Hometown, Yahoo! Groups, MSN Spaces, SixApart TypePad, and Xanga. [If this were about the top social-networking sites among teens, the list would include Facebook, MyYearbook, Hi5, and Friendster, as eMarketer reported in March (see "Teen traffic").] Here's WebProNews on the Nielsen report.

  3. Risky Web search

    Tell your kids not to search for "free screensavers" in any search engine. Of course, secure Web searching goes much deeper than that, but those are the "most dangerous words to search" in terms of bad stuff that gets downloaded from bad Web sites, the BBC reports. The BBC is referring to a new study on this sponsored by PC security firm McAfee. "It is well known that visiting sites offering porn, gambling and free MP3s leaves users at serious risk of falling victim to spyware and adware," according to the BBC. "However, the research by Ben Edelman and Hannah Rosenbaum reveals that those carrying out searches for innocuous subjects are at risk too." Searchers should be very careful when searching for any free downloads like ringtones and screensavers. The results from searches for file-sharing sites like "Bearshare" and "limewire" are also extremely risky. The other two terms on the most-risky list are "WinMX" and "download Yahoo Messenger." The danger we're talking about here is that the sites these searches lead to might download to the family PC something else altogether: software code that logs your every keystroke (and thus captures user names, passwords, credit card numbers, etc.) or enables malicious hackers to take control of your PC (in a way that's tough to detect). [Here's my earlier coverage on "SiteAdvisor," the software the study's authors used to tell them whether it's safe to click on links to specific sites.]

  4. Schools: Control or communicate?

    Or both? The article in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin leads with two examples of high school students videoing and posting fights on But the story's about a deeper question schools are grappling with in the face of something school administrators admit they don't fully understand: how to deal with out-of-school online behavior that can affect school safety. "Critics say [social-networking] sites are a superhighway for spreading harmful content and bad blood much faster and wider than word-of-mouth, and that Department of Education security policies haven't kept up," according to the Star-Bulletin. It says one school board member in Honolulu is interested in a term used in a proposed school-safety policy in Utah: "substantial disruption." The policy would allow schools "to react to off-campus situations earlier, especially if they cause 'substantial disruption' to school operations or infringe on student or staff rights." A private school in the Honolulu area that "has had its share of cyber-situations" told the Star-Bulleting that school-parent-student communication is key - "acting quickly to show students and parents the harm caused has shown good results." And here's a story at Chicago's about how a suburban school district in Illinois is "considering new rules that would make students more accountable for what they post on sites like MySpace.comAnd here's a story at Chicago's about how a suburban school district in Illinois is "considering new rules that would make students more accountable for what they post on sites like School officials said [the rules are] more about prevention than punishment, and what they hope to do is open the lines of communicating between the parent and the student."

  5. Beyond MySpace?!

    Not all teens like MySpace, of course. Also reflected in our BlogSafety forum is the view that - to some teens - online social-networkers need to "get a life." The Fort Worth Star-Telegram cites the view of 18-year-old Summer Stoker, "disappointed" with MySpace "by what seemed like less of a social network and more of a popularity contest." Another factor that may cause some teens to move on is all the monitoring that schools and law-enforcement folk are doing in MySpace. For example, the Mississippi Education Department's director of school safety regularly cruises social-networking sites "looking for anything that would threaten students, school officials or the general safety of a school," the Jackson (Miss.) Clarion-Ledger reports (and two Maryland teens were charged with setting fires after police saw them bragging in MySpace, the Associated Press reported Sunday). The Star-Telegram article looks at the history of social-networking as well as where it's headed, ending with the idea that maybe teens are looking for all-inclusive, immersive virtual worlds like The Fort Worth reporter may be on to something, if the "online nightclub for the global teen market" that launched yesterday takes off (here's the press release). BTW, Second Life is not for minors. See more on this in my items "Lively alternate lives" and "Second Life for teens."

  6. New front in child-porn war

    That would be child traffickers in child porn. The arrest yesterday of a 28-year-old computer consultant in Detroit "signals a new front in the [US] government's response to the revelation that minors have been using Webcams to run their own child pornography Web sites," the New York Times reports. The Times adds that the arrest could have a crippling effect on this once-burgeoning business. The man was accused by Justin Berry, 19, of "luring him to Michigan when he was 13, molesting him and setting up a Web site that charged a monthly fee for videos of him performing various sex acts." Berry testified about his child-porn business in congressional hearings last month, after going public in a front-page New York Times story last December (see "Kids & Webcams" and "Porn revolution & teen girls").

  7. Net good & bad for teens: Study

    The results of an important set of studies in the American Psychological Association's journal are not surprising but useful confirmation: "Some youth [75-90% of whom use the Net in the US] benefit from Internet use while for others it can exacerbate self-destructive behaviors." The study is presented in six articles in a special issue of Developmental Psychology, edited by Patricia Greenfield in UCLA's Department of Psychology and Zheng Yan at State University of New York, Albany. Some of the positives mentioned: "essential social support for otherwise isolated adolescents" and "the improvement of academic performance and health awareness." Key negatives in the study included: "the sharing of self-injury practices" and the potential online communication has for normalizing and encouraging "self-injurious behavior." The six articles are available in full. Links are provided at the bottom of the APA's press release.

  8. France's teen tech lobbyist

    The US social-networking scene (not to mention the music file-sharing one) needs an Aziz Ridouan, 18. The New York Times quotes the economic director of one of France's largest consumer advocacy groups as saying Aziz "may still be in high school, but [he] has a more profound understanding of copyright law than most lawyers and members of Parliament." I'm sure, actually, that we have a lot of people like Aziz, but US adults - including lawmakers - need to listen to a lot more teens before we pass any laws. That's what the French Parliament is reportedly doing (or some members of it and the government) where legislation about P2P file-sharing is concerned. "Mr. Ridouan, who began lobbying with protests against America Online when he was 12, first came to the national media's attention in 2004 as the founder of the Audionautes -- which roughly translates as 'the audio surfers.' The Audionautes is a nonprofit association that provides legal assistance to those accused of illegally downloading music, many of whom were taken to court by the Civil Society of Phonographic Producers, the French equivalent of the Recording Industry Association of America." Aziz is missing some school because of his lobbying, but "he has a note from the French interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, excusing him from class when he meets with government officials." Perhaps Britain has a similar need - at least its version of the RIAA said "the issue needs discussion" after the release of a study showing that 59% of Britons said they'd copied music from their own CDs (55% saying they thought it perfectly legal). The Register's headline, though: "Poll: 55% break copyright law."

  9. Kids too plugged in?

    The bottom line of CNET's article on whether too much tech use can harm kids' necks, thumbs, backs, etc., is that there is way too much we don't know about it. "Some physical therapists and pediatricians are already citing cases of RSI [repetitive stress injuries] in children as young as 8 years old" and "a study from 2000 in Australia on the effects of laptop computers in schools showed that 60% of students aged 10 to 17 complained of neck and back discomfort while using the PC," CNET reports. On the other hand, "a theory called the 'Healthy Worker Effect' supposes that when someone performs a repetitive task for a long time, like lifting heavy boxes or surfing the Web, the person can develop a resistance to problems associated with the activity." So another "bottom line" comes to mind: Until we know more, moderation is a good thing. Meanwhile, a reality check: The San Francisco Chronicle describes in detail the tech-related life of Daly City, Calif., high school senior Nathan Yan, adding that "if the amount of time Nathan spends on the computer seems unusual, it's not.... Young people reported spending about 6-1/2 hours per day occupied with various media" from the Net to TV, with TV use losing out to Web use among teens (here's my coverage of the Kaiser study last year).

  10. MTV's new music store

    MTV's got the Urge to take back the music scene, it appears. Urge is its new online music store, offering 2 million songs (Apple's iTunes has about 3 million). Like iTunes, Urge sells "individual songs for $0.99. But unlike iTunes, Urge also offers unlimited access for $9.95 per month," reports Internet News. So people can both buy and rent their music for "everything except iPods," The Register points out. That would be "more than 100 digital music players," the BBC reports. It's actually a Microsoft/MTV deal. "URGE will be the default setting in the next version of Windows Media Player," The Register adds. This may actually have an impact on young people's holiday wish list this year, as we consider the impact on online families. For "More on music," see the Washington Post, reviewing and lala (see also my "Swapping tunes, supporting musicians" about lala and my slightly more sweeping "Creative online music communities").

  11. Sex info via text msg

    The San Francisco Department of Public Health launched cellphone-based sex and health information for the city's "sexually active 12-to-24-year-olds," USATODAY reports. Called SexInfo, "the service focuses on everything from what to do 'if ur condom broke' to whom to call 'if ur feeling down ... like u wanna xcape ur life'," according to USATODAY. It's based on a similar service of that name that launched in London in 2004.

  12. Gameplayer porn

    A mom in Osceola County, Fla., is warning other parents about "pocket porn," WFTV reports. She's referring to porn that can be downloaded from the Web to Sony's PlayStation Portable gameplayers, which connect to the Internet wirelessly. They have parental controls, but the PSP manual explains how to reset them, and they're reset automatically when the players' batteries wear down, the mom discovered after she'd set the parental controls, then caught her 13-year-old viewing pornography. Her son also taught her that, "with one click, the history [of sites visited] becomes history." He told her it's a feature "all the kids know about." Elsewhere on the porn front, people can now buy adult movies online and copy them to DVDs that will play on any screen, including a TVs, the Associated Press reports. "It's another first for adult film companies that pioneered the home video market and rushed to the Internet when Hollywood studios still saw it as a threat."

  13. Gamer's view worth notice

    "Morality in video games is not uncommon," writes a reader of the Los Angeles Times. "Even in the much-reviled Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, the main character deals with stopping a corrupt police force and trying to halt the sale of drugs in his city. The idea that gratuitous violence is the major factor that drives game sales is preposterous. In fact, games that are rated 'M' for mature make up only about 12% of video game sales. Of these, only a handful feature violence or sex without some kind of moral context, and these usually sell abysmally."

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


Anne Collier, Editor

Net Family News

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