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Friday, May 06, 2005

Parents on IM pluses, minuses

After his list of concerns, John - father of an 11-year-old avid IM-er - wrote in an email: "I did think of something I like. When [my daughter] gets on AIM, a pop-up box appears on my computer and I can ask her if she has finished her homework! Also, I am apparently getting another window into their lives that I wouldn't have otherwise. She leaves her computer on a table beside my desk, and I get to watch a bunch of this stuff happening...." In this week's issue of my newsletter, see what else John and five other parents around the country (and in Germany) have been thinking about their children's instant-messaging (including some helpful family rules).

Clubs on phones

Texting is the instant-messaging of phones (not that IM itself isn't coming to cellphones too!), and it is taking off. I'm just not sure what the difference between the two is, since both are text on phones (help me out, readers-in-the-know). Phone text messages have a 160-character limit, so - like IM on the computer - they're short, silent, and part of a conversation, not something you leave with someone, as in email. The experience of 15-year-old Shawn in Indiana - who told that he sends around 1,000 text messages a month - helps explain the attraction. And here's a thorough update on US-based texting at, including texting clubs such as "the alibi and excuse club" at, "which promises to get users out of any bind. Send a detailed text message to the club and one of its 4,100 members will pose as a friend or a relative and call whoever is your superior - a boss, a teacher, a spouse [a parent?] - with an excuse on why you could not keep an appointment or date." As for numbers, "about 36 million Americans, or about 27% of the 134 million American adults who have cell phones, have sent text messages" and last year "more than half of 13-to-24-year-olds were active text message users" (send more than one text message a month). And the reason given for texting's take-off of late? "American Idol"! Two years ago the TV show allowed viewers to vote for their favorite singers via text message.

Parents, please note: If you're concerned about texting costs and your child is not yet an avid texter (in which case this would be a negotiating tool more than a cost-saving measure, probably), some cellphone companies will turn texting off for specific phones on your plan - be sure to ask about that. When my then-12-year-old got his cellphone, I had Verizon turn texting off, and he never got the taste of it; IM's enough of a digital socializing opportunity for now.

Teens' ringtone costs mount

CNET refers to teenagers' "penchant for reckless spending," but I think this new cellphone-related challenge to our wallets is more because 1) they love personalizing their gadgets, 2) they're huge music fans, and 2) the ringtones are a great way to combine those and show off how current and cool their music tastes are. Don't you think? Anyway, the CNET story I'm referring to, here, may sound familiar: "Wireless operators are fighting a growing backlash from parents angry at the exorbitant ring tone bills their children are racking up," CNET reports. The outrage (against ringtone providers) is probably justified, since they don't make their pricing plans clear - some kids don't realize they're buying subscriptions with monthly payments instead of single ringtones, according to CNET. In fact, one family is suing Cingular, T-Mobile, and ringtone company Jamster. Cellphone companies have been getting more and more irate calls, and the good news is, they're taking action.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Web's fan fiction boom

Every now and then someone in the media notices how huge "fanfic" is on the Web. Newsday is the latest to take a thorough look at the "millions of stories written for cyberspace by ordinary consumers of TV shows, movies, books, even video games." It actually has been going on for eons; the Web has simply made the writing and sharing that fans of Harry Potter, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, etc. love to do infinitely more efficient. And it has turned all this writing, critiquing, and interacting into places where passionate fans can find each other and hang out. Some of these fans - particularly Harry Potter ones - are very young. Which is why parents might want to know about this sort of hang-out. It has what some would consider a darkside - sexually explicit stories - lightly covered fairly far down in the Newsday piece. For the perspective of a mom and fanfic writer in Texas, see "'Chanslash': The other Net porn kids access."

Phone parental controls in the works

With more and more Web-type content coming to phones - including the X-rated stuff - cellphone companies are trying to figure how to provide as broad a range of material as possible without displeasing parents (a very big market). The solution? Parental controls, in the form of content-rating and filtering. Phase 1 of the process, spearheaded by the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association (CTIA), is rating the content, Reuters reports. By "mid-year," CTIA says, content inappropriate for people under 18 will have been identified and put into a "restricted" category. In 12 months there will be more labels and content categories - "mobile versions of existing rating systems," e.g., for movies and video games. So it looks like filtering - technology that puts those ratings to work - is a ways off, but at least it's in the works. I can think of other controls parents might want, too: restrictions on time spent talking, number of text messages, calls from strangers, pictures or videos sent and received, etc. It'll be interesting to see what cellphone makers will provide. For an early look phone parental controls, see my 5/7/04 issue.

Teen fraudster sentenced

UK 18-year-old Phillip Shortman has been sentenced to 12 months' detention and training for defrauding more than 100 eBay customers of $85,000, CNET reports. He did so by selling them goods he didn't have and demanding cash up front. So tell anyone who uses eBay at your house to be on the alert for seller terms like that. "EBay recommends that customers pay by credit card or by PayPal," according to CNET. "It also offers a buyer protection program."

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

'For teens, a tangled Web'

Teenaged software writers, Web developers, and tech support experts are actually not the norm of their generation, according to a recent report. Although 83% of US teens have Net access, they're not as media literate as many adults think they are. In a series of tests in which a group of 13-to-17-year-olds was "asked to visit selected Web sites and perform given tasks, [Nielsen Norman Group] researchers measured a success rate of 55% ... much lower than the 66% success rate they found for adult users in a similar recent test," reports. For more on media literacy and youth, see "Not-so-savvy searchers," "Kids confused about Net risks," and "Critical thinking: Kids' best research tool."

Telling the world their secrets

At a recent meeting of the Lexington Herald-Leader Teen Board, "most members said they had blogs, but when an adult said she'd like to read them, there was a universal 'Nooooo.' The 'it's on the Internet, where anyone can read it' argument was lost on them," reports Herald-Leader writer Mary Mehan. She cites the work of David Huffaker, a PhD student at Northwestern University who has studied 3,000 teen blogs, finding that - in terms of blogging topics - "struggles with parents or sexuality are presented with the same frankness as small ones, say, what somebody had for lunch or the glory of a sundress." But it's not so much these intimate details that add risk to blogging; it's information that helps strangers figure out who and where they are. The Pew Internet & American Life project has found that 62% of teens online have been contacted by strangers; blogs are just another tool they can use. This is a readable, meaty article that you'd also find great fodder for a family discussion. Another good one is at MSNBC. As for *secure* blogging, here's Wall Street Journal tech writer Walt Mossberg on MSN Spaces, which - along with AOL's new RED Blogs (as described by CNET) - offers bloggers varying degrees of privacy.

Spyware targeting kids

This is something online families need to talk about: how spyware gets downloaded onto the family PC. One clear answer just confirmed by spyware expert Ben Edelman is "kids." But it's not their fault. As Edelman explains it to ZDNET, spyware creators are buying banner ads on kids' Web sites - cute ads with offers like "Click here for free smileys!" (smiley faces and other little graphical icons to add to/spiff up their instant messages). When kids click on these free, fun, innocuous-looking ads, they download spyware, Edelman said. "I've been trying to figure out how these programs have such a large installed base: Who in their right mind would agree to have their computer become a vehicle for pop-up ads? It turns out that many of these programs target kids." Besides free IM graphics, another temptation is free little games kids can click on, play, and in the process download spyware. But informed families are empowered families, and kids will probably appreciate this heads-up, which they can in turn IM to their friends! The simple message is "think before you click" (and you probably don't want to click on free downloads or to Web sites advertised on banner ads that make them sound really cool with all kinds of freebies (so they don't have to ask Mom or Dad to pay for them). Here are Edelman's report on this and bio.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

From road to computer rage

Personal computers arrived and evolved so quickly (and the making of their software and hardware involve so many different people and talents), it seems, that they never got to be user-friendly. Thus we've added "computer rage" to the lexicon of modern society. And to roaming tech-support techies' lists of headaches (though, on the upside, they are becoming the knights in shining armor of the Digital Age). Their employers, however, probably aren't too upset about computer rage. "The phenomenon is transforming the nature of technology service, an industry long infamous for being impersonal," the Washington Post reports. "Business is booming for companies with names like Rent-a-Geek, Geeks on Call, and Geek Squad that make house calls to fix computers." The savior-techies of one such company "do triage. The challenge is to recognize which of the five stages of grief - denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance - a given customer is in, and respond accordingly." If this sounds entirely too familiar and your family is in need a little computer-related humor therapy, do not miss, starring John Cleese.

A student's threatening blog

The article in Foster's Daily Democrat (Dover, N.H.) starts with a caveat: "Readers should know that some of the language and images presented in this story may be considered obscene and disturbing." That is not an understatement. The article is about a University of New Hampshire junior who was ordered by administrators to undergo counseling and stop attending a class because of obscenities and threats of violence and murder against the class's professor and fellow students in his blog. "The public blog however did not require a password and could be opened by anyone knowing [his] name," the Democrat reports, adding that the student said it was all intended as a joke, but he has since apologized to the professor by email. The student "said the counseling sessions and being banned from the English class are the only sanctions he has received. He also said he voluntarily took down the journal, which he started his freshman year of high school." That's a long time for his blog to have been available - hopefully it only recently turned threatening. This is a very extreme example of what can go on in the "blogosphere" but a reminder that it's a good idea for parents to be aware of their children's blogging activities - ideally through open parent-child communication, but at least via an occasional Web search of their name in association with other key words in their lives (such as town, school, team, and friends' names). Here's a thorough piece on the subject at MSNBC.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Our personal info online

With all the news about identity theft of late, there has been "a flurry of hype over," CNET reports. The article provides some helpful perspective, saying that ZabaSearch is one of zillions of personal-information search sites (Google turns up some 300 million). It's "no evil Big Brother. It's a search aggregator, and a rather efficient one at that. All the information in its database can be found elsewhere on the Web." It's all public information (which - at first check - means that minors' information doesn't turn up, thankfully). I guess there's small comfort in that only one's birthdate, address, and phone number turn up - you have to pay for background check info! The article's writer, Tom Merritt, points out that ZabaSearch will remove your information but - somewhat shadily - requires even more details to do so. The main point is, though, that you'd really have to go to the sources to get personal info off the Web, and he tells you how. This is another one of those Internet reality checks; convenience has a definite downside. If you read down far enough in the CNET piece, you'll get to a link to another very informative article about "Identity theft remedies in the works," which I'm linking to here in case you don't get that far.