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August 11, 2006

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Here's our line-up for this first full week of August:

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Teens online: Major study

'Tis the season for surveys about online teens, it seems. Several have just been released, but the biggest news in Net safety this week was the much-anticipated "Second Youth Internet Safety Survey" (the first, much-quoted, study came out back in 2000) from the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, sponsored by the US government-funded National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. Let's look at it first because it's a milestone (next week: two interesting studies that fold in online parenting, one focusing specifically, and so far unprecedentedly, on MySpace)....

Youth Internet safety in 2006

USATODAY's coverage of the CACRC study came with a very at-a-glance sidebar with three points that sum up quite effectively what has changed in kids' online experiences over the past five years:

Of course some qualifying is needed. First the contact issue: Even though "a smaller proportion of youth Internet users received unwanted sexual solicitations" (13% in this study, down from 19% in 2000) and a smaller percentage are interacting with strangers (34% down from 40%), "aggressive solicitations [defined as solicitors trying to meet in person] did not decline," and 4% of young people surveyed said the solicitors asked for nude or sexually explicit photos of themselves (not surprisingly, digital photography is now showing up in the research, which means it needs to show up in Net-safety education at home and everywhere - and, parents, beware of Webcams and picture phones!).

As for increased exposure to porn despite greater use of filters, my guess is this is not so much a comment on the effectiveness of filters as on the effectiveness of relying on filters installed on home computers when the exposure increasingly happens in multiple locations on multiple devices. In other words, this finding is a comment on young users' experience of the broadband, everywhere wired and wireless Web 2.0 - and on how important it is to work with our kids on self-protection and critical thinking wherever they access the Web.

And there were other findings of interest to parents...

  1. Where it's happening. Amid all the media stories about social networking, particularly noteworthy is where the "bad stuff" actually occurs: "The study notes that chat rooms and IM are the predominant 'places' on the Internet where these incidents occur," wrote Tim Lordan, executive director of the Internet Education Foundation in Washington, D.C., in an email to me about his take-aways from the study. "While a substantial number of youth in the study had used online journals or blogs [they weren't called "social networks" yet when the survey was being conducted], none of them attributed the sexual solicitations as happening in those spaces. Those interviewed did report, however, that they had been bullied [emphasis mine] on blogs and online journals (See Online Harassment of Youth, Page 43)."
  2. On cyberbullying: Peers and "offline acquaintances" (people they know in real life) are clearly a growing risk factor in sexual solicitations as well as harassment - 44% of harassment incidents involved offline acquaintances, most of them peers, and a significant portion happened "when youth were using the Internet in the company of peers" (group think and peer pressure as noted elements in cyberbullying.) Even in the 2000 study, fewer than a quarter of the sexual solicitations came from people 18+ (in 27% of the cases, the age was unknown), 3% of them were "aggressive" (defined by the authors as requesting an offline meeting), and none of the solicitations led to sexual contact or assault.
  3. Peer pressure. This showed up for the first time in this year's study - that "some of the unwanted incidents and risky Internet use were not solitary." Just as has always been the case, kids are "encouraged" by their peers to try risky things together and to harass other peers, and this is no different on the Internet. But the Internet can augment this behavior because of the anonymity it provides. In other words, be around when kids go online together at your house or school.
  4. Childhood development. The authors' statement that "normal teenage development may be an important factor" in their finding that online sexual solicitations "remain a phenomenon of the teen years" (indicating that normal teenage sexual exploration needs to be taken into consideration in the development of online-safety education and policymaking). For more insights on this, see "Net-related crimes against kids: Reality check" about a 2004 study by the same authors based on research into actual cases handled by law enforcement.
  5. Kids underreport. The authors highlighted their finding that kids are "still not telling parents/guardians and authorities when victimized." They don't say why, but other experts have said it's because they don't want adults to overreact and take away access - not just access to the Net, but more importantly to their friends, their social scene. It's essential not to overreact so that parent-child lines of communication are wide open and our kids don't "go underground" online when they can so easily. Too, disciplinary actions like banning certain sites or deleting blogs and profiles don't really work, at least with noncompliant kids, because of the innumerable workarounds like proxy sites and servers (see this page, for example) and free blogging and social-networking accounts available to them in so many "places" online (see Wikipedia's list). A parent can spend hours emailing and deleting one account at MySpace, for example, and another one can pop up in its place in minutes - if a "shadow profile" or two weren't there already.
Readers, your comments on any of the above are most welcome! Email me anytime, or post at our forum,

Other studies in the news this week

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Web News Briefs
  1. Our Web searches are us

    What we type into Web search boxes says a whole lot about us - very personal information most of use wouldn't want to be public. A recent "colossal miscalculation" at AOL, as the Christian Science Monitor put it, highlighted how easily our privacy can be breached. A team of AOL employees "publicly posted the Internet search topics of hundreds of thousands of customers online. The goal was to support academic research about Web traffic, and AOL users' names were replaced by numbers. But that didn't guarantee anonymity," according to the Monitor. The New York Times was able to trace one of those user numbers (4417749) to the woman in Lilburn, Ga., it represented. "AOL removed the search data from its site over the weekend and apologized for its release," the Times reported, "but the detailed records of searches conducted by Ms. Arnold and 657,000 other Americans, copies of which continue to circulate online, underscore how much people unintentionally reveal about themselves when they use search engines -- and how risky it can be for companies like AOL, Google and Yahoo to compile such data." This has bearing in the online-safety field because state attorneys general have recently been calling for age verification in social-networking sites. Verifying children's ages, ID verification experts tell me, would require a national database of children's personal info against which verification technology could check.

  2. Homeland Security on PC security

    Patch your Windows, the agency said in what ZDNET called "a rare alert" on PC security. If you haven't already automated security patches for your Windows PC, Homeland Security "recommended Wednesday that people apply Microsoft's MS06-040 patch as quickly as possible. The software maker released the 'critical' fix Tuesday as part of its monthly patch cycle." Microsoft this week issued a dozen patches as its regular monthly security update, saying nine of them were critical. "However, the flaw addressed in MS06-040 is the only one among the updates that could let an anonymous attacker remotely commandeer a Windows PC without any user interaction," ZDNET adds. Go to Windows Update (using the Internet Explorer browser) for more info.

  3. Google's help for Web searchers

    This is a great development for people (like kids) who haven't quite mastered "think before you click. "Google has started warning users if they are about to visit a Web page that could harm their computer, the BBC reports. If you're using Google and you click on a link that would take you to a page that would download spyware or other nasties to your machine, you'll get a little pop-up window warning you. "The warning suggests that people try a different site but if they want to continue to the potentially dangerous webpage Google will not stop them," the BBC adds. It works like McAfee's "Site Advisor" software, which does about the same thing. A recent survey found that 4-6% of sites have harmful content on them, and if someone's looking for "free screensavers" or games, that percentage goes a lot higher, since those sites' owners try to lure people in with freebies or "easy winnings."

  4. Very social media players

    Gadget makers are taking a cue or two from MySpace, it appears. How so? Media players are increasingly social tools, just as MySpace made teen blogging a social phenomenon. In fact, media players and personal communicators are now being called "lifestyle devices." One example is Microsoft's Zune MP3 player, expected to launch this fall, which "aspires to be one part MySpace, one part iTunes and one part Xbox Live," Reuters reports. Then there's Sony's mylo, which stands for "my life online" and targets 18-to-24-year-olds who want their media, IM, Net-phone, and email capabilities everywhere, all the time, CBS News reports. That would be in addition to their cell-phone talking and texting options, which seems like one gadget too many to carry around, but I'm no 18-to-24-year-old, the Associated Press reports. Mylo "doubles as a portable media player. It can play music, photos and videos that are stored on its internal 1 gigabyte of flash memory or optional Memory Stick card. It also can stream songs between mylo users within the same network, as long as the users grant permission to share their music files." Sony has partnered with Yahoo and Google for IM (it's working on folding in AIM), and Skype for Net-based phoning.

  5. Google: MySpace's new search source

    The good news is it may be easier to find your kid on MySpace; the bad news is it may be easier for other people to find your kid on MySpace. It looks like The good news is it may be easier to find your kid on MySpace; the bad news is it may be easier for other people to find your kid on MySpace. It looks like MySpace is going to have a better internal and Web search engine: Google. The two just formed a partnership that means Google will provide MySpace and other News Corp. sites advertising and search. News Corp. also receives $900 million over three years for letting Google do so, the San Jose Mercury News reports. For one thing, this means Google text ads will appear on users' profiles - the type of ad that's "triggered by the content of a page or keyword typed into a search box - the popular 'Ads by Google' feature on many sites," according to the Mercury News. In its coverage of this development, the New York Times says MySpace will pass the 100 million-member mark this week. Pundits have been saying MySpace hadn't yet figured out how to capitalize on its huge traffic. This should help. Other News Corp. sites to receive Google search and ads are, GameSpy, TeamXbox and 3D Gamers, as well as Rotten Tomatoes, a movie site. The Times reports that Google will not try to put ads on every MySpace page, that "fewer, better ads" was the solution. That's probably good news for parents, too, and also likely includes MySpace's recently announced policy not to display racy ads to users who register as under 18 (see my coverage). Here's the Los Angeles Times.

  6. One very connected girl

    Parents of young teens might enjoy the story of 14-year-old Julia Schwartz of Pacific Palisades in "Girls Just Want to Be Plugged In - to Everything." "Julia's voracious appetite for all types of entertainment - and the tech-savvy ways she consumes it - is typical of girls her age, according to a new Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll that surveyed the habits of 12- to 24-year-olds. Girls ages 12 to 14 are the most deeply motivated by TV: 65% say they are influenced by a TV show or network, are more likely to multi-task than boys of their age group and are easily bored - 41% say there are too few choices of entertainment," reports the Los Angeles Times, adding: "They're also the most carefully monitored by parents: 68% say their parents know how they spend their time online." This is the fifth in a 5-part series of articles on teen tech and entertainment based on several L.A. Times/Bloomberg polls released this month.

  7. Universities on social networking

    Heads-up, freshmen! Along with all the other warnings your college-bound kids will be getting about partying and credit card debt, this year they'll be told to be careful about what they post in blogs and social-networking sites, the Associated Press reports. "From large public schools such as Western Kentucky to smaller private ones like Birmingham-Southern and Smith, colleges around the country have revamped their orientation talks to students and parents to include online behavior," according to the AP. Some even include role-playing skits about online socializing in their orientation programs. But note that the schools are warning not banning. "College administrators say they can't -- and wouldn't want to keep students off sites such as Facebook. Many welcome the kind of community-building the sites facilitate, and they recognize they have become an important, and usually harmless, venue for the kind of identity formation and presentation that's an important part of the college experience." The AP adds that these sites actually help with the bonding that is one of student orientation's major goals.

  8. 'Bully' the videogame

    Jimmy Hopkins, 15, can be anything you want him to be. That's because he's the main character in Bully, a new game for PlayStation 2 that has stirred up a lot of controversy. According to USATODAY, which got a "two-hour exclusive preview" of the videogame set for release in October, "the 'Columbine simulator' fear appears to be meritless. There are no guns in the game and no killing. Schoolyard fisticuffs are a central element, but there is no blood or black eyes, and nobody seems to get seriously hurt." The fears might have come out of the fact that Bully was created by Rockstar Games, "the company that created the ultra-violent, ultra-popular Grand Theft Auto titles." Meanwhile, KXAN in Austin has a report about a videogame, Re-Mission, that helps young cancer patients.

  9. Social-network investigations

    Law enforcement people see the online social scene as "part of their jurisdiction now," reports Fox Carolina in the Greenville, S.C., area. They do a lot of their investigation work right in social Web sites. "Sometimes people talk about crimes they've committed, other times they brag about those they plan to commit. And it's also a way to catch adults soliciting under age kids," according to Fox News. It gives three examples: a MySpace page a Fox Carolina reporter found "that helped Easley police get critical information on a suspect in a pawn shop murder"; Houston police tracking "a suspect in four murders all the way to Greenville through his MySpace page"; and this week's arrest of "an Anderson County teen after his MySpace page contained vivid descriptions of shooting at cars."

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


Anne Collier, Editor

Net Family News

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