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December 1, 2006

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Social Web: Picture less foggy

We digital immigrants have, I think, often mistaken the Internet for a single medium like television or film, even as our children the digital natives have been using it for so many things - communications, news, research, entertainment, self-expression, social activism, etc. To them it has long been multiple media in one convenient "package" and meant to be produced, mashed up, and socialized with as much as viewed. Of course we adults have used the term "multimedia," as in "multimedia Web site," but we've somehow seen all those Web sites as media we consume, like television. And "interactive" meant "click here" or "download this" more than using media to connect with the people behind the pages - that's what communications tools like phones and email were for.

Social networking is the biggest mash-up yet of all the media and creative and social tools the Internet represents to young people. Its huge popularity with kids has brought the participatory Web to life for us. But all the hype in the news has presented a largely negative picture of it. It's great to see a growing body of research on all that's happening on the social Net, reflecting the full reality - positive, negative, and neutral. We're just beginning to get a wider-angle and more granular picture not only of what the Internet is to youth but also of what it means to them and all of us raising, educating, and supporting them. Read on to see what I mean....

  1. 'What we've learned so far'

    A girl started redesigning her town - Pasadena, Calif. - in the game SimCity when she was in the 5th grade. "Today she's a [real life] city planner," her dad writes at the end of a long blog post taking a measure of what his multi-year, multi-study research program has discovered about kids using digital media - music, games, video, IM, anime communities, virtual worlds, and social sites, to name a few. He is Prof. Peter Lyman at University of California, Berkeley, and one of the principal investigators of the Digital Youth Research program that started in 2003.

    His daughter's experience perfectly illustrates what these researchers - at the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Southern California, and the Monterey Institute for Technology and Education - have been studying, what they call "informal learning." It's what young people learn outside of school, and - with digital media and the Internet - informal learning is on steroids. You may be as fascinated as I was reading Professor Lyman's blog about some of their observations. Just one example, from a study about a cybercafe where boys gathered after school to play war games: "1) When a player is 'killed' in the game - a term used by kids to refer to losing a game - an IM conversation begins about the play; one value of online games is a sense of community. 2) The conversations often focus upon game skills and performance, which produces status in the group; today there are international competitions to win reputation. 3) We asked the kids (12-14) why they liked games, and they compared gaming to other sports - basketball, football - with the focus on teamwork and skills. 4) The cybercafe was both a public space for kids' play, and a supervised place. Parents would sponsor birthdays at the cybercafe, and we noted that one father dropped his son there every day as a kind of childcare service, picking him up every day at 6pm."

    With digital media (music, video, photos and text on connected devices), kids are galloping ahead in their informal learning, even as their formal education isn't much different from their parents', and their schools are scrambling to figure out what to do about their tech proficiency. As we seek to increase school's relevance to kids (and pass laws to protect them), it's a good idea for all of us to pay attention to what Lyman and his colleagues are learning about kids' digitally enabled informal learning.

  2. The view from Canada

    From Canada (land of the very popular Nexopia social site), specifically University of British Columbia, the country's latest study, "TeenTech," tracking 500 young people in 400 households through 2009. In its coverage, the Ottawa Citizen cites media analysts as finding that "young Web devotees are engaging their minds far more than previous generations that were glued to the television," e.g., posing questions in chat or IM, researching answers, designing pages and profiles, and developing skills they'll need in future careers.

    The Citizen is reporting on the pilot phase of the study, which zoomed in on 20 10-to-15-year-olds' online activities for six months. It found that social networking was actually their least favorite activity (only 20% used social sites), but - even though IM was the favorite - a quarter weren't using it. The study's author, UBC educational psychologist Jennifer Shapka, said she's "worried this may be a sign of social isolation." The next, longer-term, phase of her work will track "how Internet use affects cognitive development, social skills and obesity rates."

  3. 'Friendships in the Age of Social-Networking Web Sites'

    The new Harris Interactive study reflects youth's blurring of the line between online and offline. Harris folded all teen social tools into its research, finding that 85% of 13-to-18-year-olds have email contact lists, 81% IM buddy lists, 77% have cellphones, and 75% have social-networking or community site profiles. But "for both tweens [ages 8-12] and teens [13-17], their most common way of spending time with their friends are in person, closely followed by speaking with them on the phone," Harris added - in-person socializing being the top pick for 81% of tweens vs. 53% for teens (IM is No. 4 for tweens and No. 2 for teens). Particularly interesting is a chart (on p.3) about online vs. offline friends. Nearly 80% of teens have friends in real life with whom they never talk online (only in person or on the phone), 87% have friends with whom they talk both online and offline, and 36% have friends with whom they talk only online, but these "friendships that exist only online are more recent, and thus not surprisingly, less close," Harris found.

    Because of the real but sometimes thin veil of anonymity online, Harris also found that, "for some teens communicating online allows them to show more of their true selves" - 30% "share more with a friend online" and 29% "are more honest when they talk to friends online." (29%). Here are eMarketer's highlights.

  4. Social Web's strong points

    Society's view of the social Web is getting more balanced. The risks for minors certainly haven't gone away, but a fixation on predation by the news media and some politicians is becoming mitigated somewhat by what we're learning about the positives.

    For example, a group of youth librarians recently wrote a 23-page blog describing "30 positive uses of social networking," including teen empowerment (e.g., Robbie Trencheny, 14-year-old CEO of the Teen Podcasters Network), college search, community building, collaborative learning, networking with authors, and raising awareness about everything from teen dating violence to copyright law and constitutional rights. The project, of the American Library Association's Young Adult Library Services division, was designed "to help librarians, their colleagues, and their communities understand that social networking isn't automatically bad" (go to p. 23 of the doc to see the librarians' own highlights).

Readers, I'd much appreciate hearing what you have learned about kids using digital media at your house or school. Email me anytime via

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Web News Briefs
  1. Videogames 'report card'

    American kids need to be put on a media diet, said David Walsh as he unveiled his watchdog group's 11th-annual "Video Game Report Card" in Washington today, the Associated Press reports. The Minneapolis-based National Institute on Media and the Family "urged parents to take a stronger role in safeguarding their children from games that glamorize sex and violence. Game industry news site Gamasutra reports that "the two major topics highlighted in the report concerned 'parental ignorance' and the 'public health crisis' of obesity and gaming addiction.... While the Institute's surveys found that two thirds of parents said they had house rules over game play, only one third of surveyed children reported the same." The institute says this year's report card "focuses less on the flaws of a complex [$13 billion] industry and more on what all of us can do about the real risks posed by some types of video games [ignorance, obesity, game addiction]" and points out that nearly half of "heavy gamers" are 6-17 years old, even though gamers' average age is in the high 20s. Meanwhile, the video game industry won another victory in its battle against state laws "designed to criminalize sales and rentals of violent or sexually explicit games to minors," CNET reports. A federal appeals court affirmed a lower court decision declaring unconstitutional an Illinois law restricting sales of violent videogames to minors. The law's wording was apparently too broad. Similar laws in Louisiana, Minnesota, Michigan and California, and others face pending challenges.

  2. Videogame effects: New study

    Watching the brain activity of a group of teenagers playing violent videogames and a group playing nonviolent ones, researchers at Indiana University found some differences, InformationWeek reports. "The groups didn't differ in accuracy or reaction time, but those who played the violent game showed more activity (brightly colored scans [using MRI technology]) in the amygdala. That is an area of the brain connected with emotional arousal. They showed less activity in an area associated with executive functions such as planning, shifting, and controlling and directing thoughts and behavior, according to researchers." Psychologists not involved in the study are saying it's "significant," according to InformationWeek, which looks at the difference between this study and others attempting to resolve the long-standing debate about violent videogames' impact on youth. Here's Reuters coverage. And in yet more videogame news this week, the Associated Press tells of a videogame that teaches teens the consequences of using drugs; and in another First Amendment case involving states restricting game sales, a federal judge "issued a permanent injunction barring the State of Louisiana from enforcing a controversial law that would have banned the sale of violent video games to minors," reports.

  3. Parents on Net vs. TV

    That kids watch too much TV is still the view of more parents than that kids spend too much time online. In a just-released study at the University of Southern California, "21% of adult Internet users with children believe the kids are online too long, compared with 11% in 2000. Still, that's less than the 49% who complain their kids watch too much TV," the Associated Press reports. Losing TV-viewing time is also still a more widely used disciplinary measure at 57% (of parents who say they impose it) than losing Internet privileges (47%). I think this is smart, because we're really comparing apples and oranges: TV is a single, very passive medium; the Net is many media and, for youth, far from passive; parents are increasingly getting this. Other key findings:

    • At least 74% of all Americans under 66 are online (only 38% of people 66+), and 99% of people 18 and under are.
    • "On average, users spend 14 hours a week online, compared with 9.4 hours in 2000" (when USC first started researching this).
    • 37% of US Net users have dial-up accounts, 50% high-speed ones, and 11% access the Net via mobile devices.
    • 22% of Americans are unconnected, more than a quarter of them former Net users who "dropped out" (mostly because their computer didn't work).

  4. Offline, online student brawl

    A St. Louis-area school board this week voted unanimously to expel 12 students - 11 girls and one boy - involved in an in-school fight over who did or didn't get invited to a party. Three of the students will be excluded from graduation next spring. The superintendent said "the board had little choice but to expel the students because school administrators had tried to mediate differences between the two student factions before the melee," the Associated Press reports. "Madison County prosecutors already had charged three of the students - all 18 or 17 years old - with felony mob action in the fight, which produced no serious injuries." The fight reportedly was planned by the students via messages and bulletins in MySpace, just two days after "parents of seven of the students accompanied their children to school [of 2,500 students] to sign nonaggression pacts." Besides being one of the planners' communications channels, MySpace probably also played a role in identifying the fight planners, because it works closely with law enforcement and, more recently, schools. In September, with the help of the National School Boards Association and Seventeen magazine, MySpace began distributing online safety brochures to some 55,000 schools nationwide (see this 9/29 item). Not only is the line between students' online and offline lives going away, so is the line between what happens on and off school grounds, putting schools in quite a quandary. For a bit of case-law history on students' and schools' rights, see the Electronic Frontier Foundation's FAQ on student blogging.

  5. Smartphones like hotcakes

    Those phones that are more like connected computers than telephones are "going mainstream," USATODAY reports. This means two things to parents: 1) They'll be hearing, "But everyone has one, Dad"; and 2) our kids' online communications will be even more mobile and beyond home supervision. That doesn't have to be a bad thing, but it's unnerving to some parents. "Unlike regular cellphones, smartphones have a PC-like operating system and download and run computer programs," USATODAY explains. "Most include advanced data features such as e-mail, instant messaging and word processing. Some, such as the Palm Treo and Samsung BlackJack, have small typewriter-style keyboards." Sales of these phones jumped 50% the first half of this from 2005, it adds. Another sign: YouTube's coming to a smartphone near you. It just struck a deal with Verizon, the New York Times reports. Meanwhile, at least in the UK, "the online video boom is starting to eat into TV-viewing time, the BBC cites a new study as finding. Back to smartphones: Even though prices are coming down (to around $100 with a service contract), you really don't want one if you're just going to talk and text. Smartphones are all about music, video, and the Web, which is what makes them very attractive to youth. But watch out, that downloading can add $10-$50/month to a phone bill, USATODAY says. [Speaking of downloading, Jupiter Research found that "adult content on mobile devices will be worth $3.3 billion by 2011, up from $1.4 billion this year," with Europe the biggest spender, followed by the Asia-Pacific region, reports.]

  6. Marketing, social Web-style

    Parents may want to know what "brand integration" means. It's the buzzword social-networking companies use when they talk about how they're going to make money on the millions of profiles and blogs on their sites ("going to" because, despite their enormous popularity, few of these sites have really figured out profitability). The kid version of "brand integration," for example at, is also called "immersive advertising," as in a game sponsored by Lucky Charms cereal. Two clever examples in teen social networking are's advertiser-sponsored "tags," which describe as "graphic icons that kids can trade la online friendship bracelets." A Tagged executive likens them to logos on clothing - they tell friends you think this brand is cool. "is working with advertisers to sponsor home pages' 'skins' [such as a Web page's "wallpaper" and other elements that give it a certain look and feel] and other branded content so kids who are attracted to a sponsor 'will make it their own, and spread it virally, becoming brand advocates'," MediaPost quotes a Bebo executive as saying. Scheinman says. From T-shirt statements to Web page ones. Marketing is increasingly about self-expression, and social networking and virtual worlds/online games are capitalizing on that reality (see also "Embellishing their pages").

  7. 'Grey goo' & Web 2.0

    Second Life's recent attack of the "grey goo" shows it has something in common with MySpace: the more creative freedom an online community allows its users the more trouble as well as user creativity it invites. Trouble in terms of both virtual-world security (against malicious hacks) and content controls in the context of child online safety. What happened recently in Second Life was basically a denial-of-service attack that looked like annoying golden rings spinning and flying around everywhere and slowed the game down for everybody, The Register reports. Second Life's creators Linden Labs had game life back to normal in a couple of hours, but among the "side effects" were "unreliable account balances, disappearing clothes, and shutting down in-game teleportation, which digital inhabitants use to get around quickly." The rings were "self-replicating objects" created maliciously - the downside of Second Life users' ability to have pets that reproduce and gardens that grow. Other virtual-world games, such as World of Warcraft, have had similar problems. However, a competitor of Second Life,, requires its users to get approval for digital objects before they're allowed in the game. A parent's upside, possibly, is that "by instituting an approval process, the company can prevent X-rated content from entering its PG-13 world, keep out objects that may infringe on others' intellectual property and stop security threats from entering There," The Register cites's CEO as saying. But it's just those controls that can cause players, including teenagers, to flock to the freer, potentially more lucrative experience of Second Life. One Lifer, "Lioncourt," told The Register that "the freedom to make his own content without an approval process has led to a part-time income of hundreds of dollars a month" (income that can come from selling virtual objects, advertising, and real estate for real money). This is the conundrum of the social Web: the safer or more controlled an environment is the less attractive it is to young people, who have unprecedented freedom on the social Web to move on to less controlled environments. This is why, I think, one tech educator, Wesley Fryer, recently suggested that, in working with young social networkers, the question shouldn't be "how do I control" but rather "how do I manage?"

  8. Mobile trespassing?

    If you look out the window and find people you don't know in your front yard talking on their phones it could because you have an open wireless network in your house and they have Internet cellphones (though not many people are using these phones yet). They're designed to make free or low-cost calls over the Net by taking advantage of "the hundreds of thousands of wireless access points deployed in cafes, parks, businesses and, most important, homes," the New York Times reports. Neat idea, yes, but one that raises ethical questions: "walk-by talkers" stealing other people's bandwidth. As for the phones, an example the Times gives is a "Belkin phone that works with the Skype calling service costs about $180; calls to Skype users on computers are free, as are outgoing calls to domestic phone numbers, at least through the end of the year. Incoming calls from phones cost extra." Other catches: lots of dropped calls (which makes regular cellphone service look a lot better) and the power-greediness of wireless calls (which means batteries lasting only 1-2 hours). This is definitely early-adopter territory, where learning about the technology adds value.

  9. Socially mobile: Yahoo's version

    We'll soon be remembering "the good ol' days" when all we had to worry about was what pictures our kids posted of themselves on MySpace. Now Yahoo has "quietly launched" a new mobile social-networking service called Mixd that gives groups of friends a Web site "where all the pictures, videos and messages sent through the phones will be posted for viewing later," InformationWeek reports. Like other phone-based social services, Mixd is "centered on making it easy for groups of friends to use text messaging as a way to organize a party, meet in a restaurant, attend a football game or arrange any other social activity. Yahoo expects users to form a lot of ad hoc groups around particular events, and use the service's 'reply-to-all' feature as way to communicate collectively." InformationWeek adds that Yahoo plans to market Mixd on college campuses around the country.

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


Anne Collier, Editor

Net Family News

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