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September 8, 2006
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Monitoring MySpacers: Part 2, the parenting part
When his wife called him to say she thought their 13-year-old daughter had a MySpace account, Brad Weber told her the child couldn't - he'd blocked MySpace on both their daughters' computer and at the router. "I didn't even bother checking. Because I'd blocked MySpace from the girls' computer entirely, I knew they couldn't do anything - everything was locked down."
Actually, his wife was right - in fact, they found out much later that both their 13- and 15-year-old daughters had profiles. The same week, coincidentally, the wife of Brad's business partner, Michael Edelson, called Michael with the same hunch - that their 13-year-old triplets were on MySpace. Michael's parenting style was the opposite of Brad's, the two founders of the BeNetSafe social-networking monitoring service told me in a phone interview. Michaels' kids "have had computers in their rooms all along - I believed that to educate our kids is their best protection."
But Michael did check right away. He searched MySpace and found that, sure enough, "all three kids had extensive profiles with too much info." One included a last name. Clearly some more education was needed. "When I found my daughter's profile, I thought, 'how cute she looks' - the makeup, the poses with her friends. Then I thought, 'Wow, they sure have a lot of makeup on. Not only that, but the posing's a little suggestive.' I realized they're all trying to look like they're 18. I was scared, realizing this is public info being posted for all to see."
I asked Michael: "What did you say to your kids about uploading stuff - was it mostly about what's inappropriate and why?" He wrote in an email that he told them, "Uploading photos and music, etc. is fine. The content should be legal (no copyright issues) [and] appropriate for their age."
"Was it a long conversation or multiple conversations?" I asked. "Numerous conversations over time. They are always changing content and the layout of their pages. This is an ongoing process." I think what Michael says here is worth highlighting - that Net-safety education, at home or school, is an "ongoing process," since growing up is an ongoing process. Parents and educators need to look for and take advantage of "teachable moments" rather than some mythical killer conversation that will take care of all safety issues once and for all!
"Do you think they 'got it'?" I asked Michael. "They get it! But they are teenagers and we have found that you have to keep checking. Sometimes it feels like the game with the gophers that pop out of the holes and you keep punching them down. It is also necessary to check on their friends in their network. You can learn a lot about who they are hanging with and parent accordingly."
I asked Brad, "Why do you think your kids all had MySpace profiles - because all their friends did?" "Indeed, all their friends did so they did too," he answered.
"Why do you think they didn't tell you they had them?" He said, "I had told them not to go to MySpace and other gaming sites because it messes up their computers, so they did it at a friend's house. They did not think it wrong to create a profile. I mistakenly believed they would not create a profile since I blocked them and warned them that certain sites are bad to go to. By 'bad' I had meant bad for your computer."
Brad continued: "At first I felt deceived or tricked that they had their information out there. However, they claimed to have done it on friends' computers and sometimes on their mother's computer. I made them set their profiles to private ASAP. I then went into education mode with them."
I asked Brad, too: "What did you say to your kids about uploading stuff?" His answer points to the key distinction between parenting users of Web 1.0 and parenting users of Web 2.0 (the participatory, or social, Web that teens and 20-somethings are driving):
"Until I found their profiles," Brad said, "my education with them was about not downloading. Now it's focused on not uploading - pics and personal information." He's making sure they're thinking about how "everything is public and even in your private network [of friends] people can copy and re-post it in the open. We discussed mostly what is inappropriate and why, i.e., pics, nude pics, bad jokes. It was over several 5- to 10-minute conversations." He and Michael were telling me about their monitoring service, BeNetSafe, so then came the commercial (though it makes sense): "The best part of BeNetSafe is that at first I had it set to email me [a report about their MySpace activities] daily. Then after I saw they were keeping their profiles private I set it to weekly." The point I'm interested in, here, is that the monitoring, whether by the parent herself or with a convenience tool, can lessen as a child earns trust points.
Finally, I asked them both for their thoughts on social networking in general and whether it should be regulated....
Brad: "I am a big believer in social networks. It is great that the kids can publish and express themselves. Social networks are here to stay. I do not think any regulation will help. This is a family issue and the last thing we need is our government to legislate."
Michael: "Social Networks and the ability of children to publish essays, thoughts, pictures and videos are amazing. Children and adults have a new opportunity for expression. This is great. But boundaries exist, and parents must set boundaries for their minors in this new space. IMHO, children who are versed at uploading content and managing Web pages have a brighter future for employment then those who don't."
As for regulation, he said, "Any technology can be used for good or evil. The Internet is not good or bad, but it's a technology. Social Networks are a form of communication and expression. They should not be regulated. I believe ... government regulation, especially for the Internet and technology, is most often ineffective. However, the threat of regulation and the recent press coverage of abuse should help companies and parents better protect their businesses and children. It comes down to parents needing to act like parents. Education is key."
Readers, you've heard me say it many times: It's great to get your stories, policies, views about tech parenting. Email them to me anytime (via email@example.com) or - even better - post them in our forum, BlogSafety.com!Related reading
- Parents on Net safety. Cable in the Classroom says high school-age kids spend as much as 5.1 hours a day online (outside school!), middle-schools 4.9 hours, and grade-schoolers 3.8 hours. Parents, the latest data shows, are concerned about their kids' privacy and safety, CNET reports. Here's a mother's comment in the Register Guard in Oregon: "Embrace MySpace.com as a teaching tool."
- "I Spy; Doesn't Everyone?" The New York Times looks at lots of views about snooping on Web-using loved ones. For example, it said, "A number of parents said they not only have a right to check up on their children, but a responsibility to do so because they are their children's protectors.... Some parents say spying is too strong a word to describe the monitoring they do of their children's Internet activity.... One mom said that "monitoring encourages a child eventually to self-monitor ... while spying implies that you do not trust your child."
* * * *Web News Briefs
- Facebook flap
For its users, Facebook crossed a line this week. A protest group of them called Students Against Facebook News Feed said Facebook violated user privacy rights by aggregating info users already make publicly available into a "news feed" that alerts people on their friends lists to even the smallest updates on their pages so the recipients don't have to dig around. "By late on Wednesday, more than 500,000 of Facebook's 9.5 million members had signed an online petition" against the new feature, MIT's Technology Review reported. For more tech-savvy people, this is a Web 2.0 version "push" vs. "pull" - pushing out info instead of waiting for users to be pulled in to see it - and critics using Facebook called it "creepy" or like being stalked. What makes it mainstream tech news is that 1) this is the first time social networkers themselves have spoken out about protecting their own privacy, and 2) Facebook is in the headlines instead of MySpace! Within about two days of protests, Facebook announced it would soon be giving users more control over their info (though users who had the strictest privacy settings turned on weren't in news feeds), the Washington Post reported), and on Friday announced the new features, a San Francisco Chronicle blog reported). But before mainstream news outlets picked it up, the story was in campus newspapers nationwide. Here's a sampler: at the University of Wisconsin, "Facebook users strike back"; at Indiana, "Facebook updates 'creepy'"; and at Virginia, "Don't feed the monster."
- FTC: Watch out, social networks!
In fining Xanga.com $1 million, more than twice any previous fine of its kind, the Federal Trade Commission sent a clear message to the social networks this week that COPPA is in force where their industry's concerned (COPPA is the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act). "The Xanga site stated that children under 13 could not join, but then allowed visitors to create Xanga accounts even if they provided a birth date indicating they were under 13," says the FTC in its press release. So at the time of its investigation, 1.7 million people had created accounts and given "birthdates" indicating they were 12 or under. The thing is, people can give their dog's birthday or the day of their first date and a Web site would never know. Xanga's response was: "Before these issues came to our attention, Xanga had in place a registration system intended to screen out underage users - reflecting our longstanding policy that no one under 13 is allowed to create an account. That system was inadequate because users were able to initially indicate that they were at least 13 years old when registering for the site, and then afterwards post a younger age on their profile. We found that an array of Xanga users created profiles with "birth dates" other than their actual day of birth when establishing their weblog. For example, pet bloggers registered with their pet's birthday, engaged bloggers registered with their wedding date...." Ironically, Xanga is barely a "social networking site." It really focuses on blogging and doesn't include social features like chat and instant messaging and doesn't allow "profile searches based on sex, age or gender." But it has shown leadership in implementing a number of safety measures, which are listed in the press release linked to above. [For the sake of full disclosure, Xanga is one of 11 companies supporting BlogSafety.com, a Web site I co-direct.]
- Mini music stores at MySpace
This is great news for musicians and more bad news for Tower Records. Not only can young musicians and garage bands introduce their music to millions of fans everywhere via MySpace, now they can sell it to them too - right from their own pages. "Assuming that the songs for sale do not violate a copyright, the artist or label can set a price and allow Web users to buy songs the way they might with services such as iTunes and Yahoo Music," the Washington Post reports. Shawn Fanning, creator of the original file-sharing program Napster, is providing the technology, the Los Angeles Times reports, through his company, Snocap, Fans get a piece of the action too, quite remarkably: They can "sell their favorite bands' tracks on their own MySpace pages, with a portion of the proceeds going to the artists." The service is being tested now, with full availability by the end of the year, according to the Post. More on MySpace recently: a commentary in Associated Content on MySpace as "the new American social icon" (interesting but not entirelyaccurate).
- 'Storytexting' on phones
It's a little like a soap opera for the teeny screen - that of a cellphone. Each scene in the text novella "Ghost Town" is "about 160 characters long, just enough to fit into one text message," the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reports. The story has eight characters and "revolves around a high school football star, 'Ghost,' who has a secret. He's homeless." The characters all have backstories that subscribers can read at YouthNoise.com, a youth-activism site and online community that's a project of Save the Children. The other partners in this project are Stand Up for Kids, a nonprofit organization supporting homeless young people, and Virgin Mobile USA, providing its platform. The Star Tribune says 12,000 people have signed up to receive the novella's twice-daily "episodes" for a month, ending Sept. 15. All of the story's characters have blogs at YouthNoise and the main ones have profiles on MySpace, where readers can add them to their friends lists (illustrating how the line between fiction and real life on the social networks is never totally clear).
- Woman charged in teen boy's assault
A disturbing reminder that girls aren't the only victims of online predation: "A 23-year-old Massachusetts woman is facing a sexual assault charge involving a 15-year-old Connecticut boy she met on the Internet," WFSB TV in Hartford reported. They reportedly had "'met' online through a friend of the victim. The arrest warrant showed the two began chatting through MySpace.com and MSN Messenger," which led to cellphone conversations, the exchange of photos, and a sexual encounter in a motel. The boy's mother reportedly learned of all this when she found the two together the next day. [Det. Frank Dannahey of the Rocky Hill, Ct., Police Department pointed this story out.]
- Not-so-virtual advertising
Videogamers will soon be seeing - or interacting with - pretty sophisticated ads in their games. This is not the static product-placement advertising of the past, of course. These are being called "dynamic" ads "because they are built into the virtual landscape of the video games and can be updated by advertisers via the Internet," the San Jose Mercury News reports. Just as in real life, gamers will see this advertising on billboards, buses, storefronts, etc., right in the games' environments - urban, suburban, or rural, maybe on virtual TV and movie screens!
- Social networking everywhere
You do know that MySpace is only the beginning, right? There are social sites popping up all over the place designed specifically for connecting users with - as parents would see it - "strangers," CNET reports. In the "amazing array of social-networking tools" being launched for mobile social networkers, CNET mentions "services like Dodgeball and Meetro, [which] allow you to locate and communicate with your circle of existing and potential friends within a given geographical location using text and instant messaging on a cell phone or laptop." Then there's Placesite, which "allows you to identify strangers with similar interests while surfing on your laptop and sipping a latte in your favorite cafe." CNET also mentions Nokia Sensor, Playtxt, Mamjam, and Jambo, which "facilitate flirting and interacting with strangers" wherever one is, using a cellphone-based profile and text messaging" or a profile "accessed on a variety of wireless devices." Of course, MySpace and Facebook profiles can be accessed via cellphone too (see this item last April). It's not just the social Web, it's the very mobile social Web on any device you happen to have in your hand. For context, CNET had some numbers: "Two of every three people in the United States now visit social-networking sites ... roughly 90% of young people are online, [and] more than 63% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 27 now send text messages." In related news, "police have arrested a 31-year-old Groton [Conn.] man, accusing him of setting up sexual encounters with a 14-year-old girl over the cellphone," the Associated Press reports. [Thanks to Det. Frank Dannahey at the Rocky Hill, Ct., Police Dept. for pointing this news out.]
- Homework helpers
It usually helps to get the lowdown from a fellow parent. Alina Tugend, parent of people in middle and elementary school, helpfully reviews homework help sites in the New York Times. After typical confusion up front, she found that "there are two main differences in online help sites -- those that allow a student to interact with a tutor through instant messaging and those that provide resources and techniques to help a student figure out answers to questions." She proceeds to link to some examples in both categories. Among them is AOL's StudyBuddy.com, a search engine for students that turns up results pre-screened by teachers and librarians. The Associated Press zooms in on this service in a short review of its own. Meanwhile, here's CNET's Top 10 Sites for Students (of the college variety), which include a poker site in the "Best for Vice" category.
- Wikis: The social side of research
A wiki is a site that aggregates content created by people all over the Web. The most famous one is Wikipedia.org. But there's a growing number of others: e.g., wikiPregnancy.com; Wikia.com, like a Wikipedia but with more arcane info; wikiHow.com, with how-to info on lots of topics; Wikitravel.org with all sorts of travelers' advice; and ShopWiki.com with product reviews. In addition to mentioning all the above, the New York Times looks at the business of hosting wikis. BTW, teachers can go to Wetpaint.com or Wiki.com to start their own classroom wikis!
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That does it for this week. Have a great weekend!
Anne Collier, Editor
Net Family News
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