Friday, February 24, 2006
Blogging's upside too: Study
Most of the coverage of a Northwestern University study of 68 randomly selected teen blogs zoomed in on what its authors said about blogging's risks. New Scientist magazine, however, led with the man-bites-dog part of the story: "Instead of steering them away from their computers, parents should recognise that teenagers sharpen important social skills online, say psychologists and anthropologists studying internet behaviour." One of the study's authors, David Huffaker, "thinks the blog format enhances [teens'] understanding of how to build a narrative," according to New Scientist. The Oregonian had a similar lead, reporting that these social scientists are saying to parents, "Just chill. The kids are doing just fine, thank you." The headline at Medindia.com, a healthcare portal in India, though, was more like US ones in recent months: "Teens need to exercise caution while using online blogs." Medindia cited some of the study's other findings, bearing out parental concerns: "The blogs, equal samples from male and female teens [average age about 15], were studied minutely, to reveal that nearly 70% opened up with their real names," 61% with contact information, some 30% linking to their personal home page, 44% giving IM contact details. About 50% had "stories about love affairs, infatuations, sexuality debates and homosexuality opinions"; "71% also discussed school topics, homework, grades and stuff along with music preferences." For more on blogging's broad user base (well beyond teens), please see this week's issue of my newsletter.
Teens & guns in the news
There were two sobering stories about teens and potential violence this week, from Colorado and Virginia. The Richmond Times-Dispatch reported that four boys – 16, 15, and two 13-year-olds – have been charged with plotting to blow up two high schools. All of the charges are felonies, which means detention until age 21 if the boys are convicted (the juvenile trial starts next month). "Police, who seized three computers, two shotguns and other unnamed items from the boys' homes, said the four plotted in Internet chat rooms." In Colorado, a 16-year-old student at Evergreen High School was arrested after posting in his MySpace profile photos of himself with guns, CBS News reported. He "was being held at a juvenile detention center facing three misdemeanor charges of juvenile possession of a handgun and will be in court on Monday." There were no threats in his profile, reportedly, but some parents kept their kids home from school after seeing the content and reporting it to the school, which reported it to the police. "One photo allegedly showed him lying on a floor surrounded by nine rifles with the caption, 'Angel o' death on wings o' lead'."
Thursday, February 23, 2006
Beware 'IRS' attacks
Not really the IRS, of course – they're emails coming from phishers posing as the IRS, or PayPal, or your bank, or Wal-Mart, saying scary things like, "Your account's been compromised – click here or we'll have to close it." Or "click here to check on the status of your tax refund." These emails' numbers "skyrocketed in December," and IRS-related ones can only be expected to increase as we approach April 15, the Washington Post security blog reports. These messages are using "social engineering" to trick or scare people into clicking on links that take them to Web sites that automatically send software code to family computers – code like Trojan horse programs that give control of the computer to the phishers or keylogger software that captures personal information like passwords and bank account numbers. This kind of social engineering is aimed more at adults, obviously, but there's plenty employed on the instant-messaging services, trying to trick young IM-ers to check out a cool video clip or tune. Our kids probably know better than we do to be on the alert to messages like that, but a family discussion about social engineering might be interesting to all family members.
Wednesday, February 22, 2006
Mac: 'Serious' security flaw
Suddenly, Mac security is looking a whole lot more complicated. The worms, both discovered last week, are basically harmless, the second even called a "proof of concept" worm. But the security flaw, discovered this week, is being called a serious one by both the BBC and the Washington Post. Security experts say this is looking like a trend (Mac users, ask your nearest authorized dealer what protection they recommend). A German PhD student found the security breach in about 15 minutes after watching a discussion on German TV show Mac-TV in viewers called in to say it was "not possible for OS X users to infect their machines just by clicking on a link or visiting a Web page," the Post reports. Until Apple issues an update, the Post cites advice from the SANS Institute: "Safari users should consider disabling the option 'Open "safe" files after downloading' in the 'General' Preferences section in Safari." [For more on the worms, see my earlier post.]
Usually in the online-safety area we read about cops catching 40-something men posing as teenagers to "groom" them. But this MySpace-related story is about a 14-year-old posing as a 40-year-old to scare a peer. It's a cyberbullying story. According to the Mail Tribune in southern Oregon, investigators were preparing to subpoena MySpace for user records after a girl reported a "string" of threatening "electronic messages, escalating to phone calls and notes…. They purported to come from a 40-year-old single, white man in Medford who had an account on MySpace." But then the teen who made the threats confessed. She was expelled from the school both girls attend. A detective on the case said the case possibly could have resulted in identity theft charges for creating a false identity or harassment charges, but no criminal charges were filed. The victim's parents, relieved that their daughter wasn’t targeted by a predator, agreed not to press charges." BTW, cyberstalking is now a federal crime. It was controversial, but it passed with little publicity, USATODAY reports, so now it's a "crime to anonymously 'annoy, abuse, threaten or harass' another person over the Internet."
MySpace to get safer
That's what its parent, News Corp., is promising, the Wall Street Journal reports. "News Corp. plans to appoint a 'safety czar' to oversee the site, launch an education campaign that may include letters to schools and public-service announcements to encourage children not to reveal their contact information." The site aims to be the industry leader in safety, the Journals adds. Other measures the company's considering: blocking links from MySpace to explicit photos stored on other sites (a popular work-around to bypass deletion by MySpace); restricting access to groups like "swingers" to people 18+ (though there's currently no technology preventing people from lying about their age); blocking search terms predators might use to locate users; and somehow encouraging users 14-16 to restrict access to their profiles to people they know. It could be that the best blog-safety tip is to encourage kids to use social-networking sites owned by large companies accountable to public opinion. But there's little stopping determined kids from moving on, or keeping a MySpace account to keep Mom or Dad happy and establishing free accounts on a bunch of other blogging sites. Many kids do have multiple accounts (see "18-year-old blogger Amanda on blogging" and Wikipedia's partial list of social-networking sites). Feel free to post about this in our new forum).
Tuesday, February 21, 2006
Business Week looks at the phenomenon of self-published media and how terrified conventional media companies are (or should be) of it. It's half of this new phase of the Net we're experiencing (the other half being its mobile, multiplatform, 24/7 nature), and it explains MySpace's popularity – as well as MySpace's growing competition. An example: myYearbook.com, founded a year ago during spring break by two high school students, now with 2.3 million visitors a month (home-page selling points: "Vote for 'Best Butt' in Your School!" and "Bully, Flirt, & Secretly Admire Everyone!"). One of Business Week's sources "likens social network sites to teens' fervently decorated rooms and notebooks" of the "olden days." Now, somewhat similarly to "American Idol," they can display their talent (and themselves, of course), for all – not just a few friends who come over - to see and comment on, then instantly take it down and go in a different direction. It's the allure of customization plus socialization (local or global, whichever one prefers), and it's easier than ever to experiment with so many free tech tools at our fingertips.
Tech smarts, street smarts
Randy Schur, 15, one of the expert sources in a Philadelphia Inquirer piece on parenting the digerati (basically all teenagers), had a revelation as he was explaining socializing by IM: "If you want a girl to like you, you probably should talk to them." "Connected and cut off" is one of those great articles that digs in and offers multiple perspectives. Among other things, it hints at why parents are "dinosaurs," as one parent quoted in the piece put it, and why we aren't. And it talks about adolescence as well as IM-ing - man *and* machine - how adolescence and parent-child relations haven't change even as technology very definitely has. Yeah, teens have tech literacy, but we have a little more life literacy, and today - more than ever – teens need the latter too, even if they don't think they do.
Monday, February 20, 2006
Apple: 2 worms in 1 wk!
Apple users got a pretty loud wake-up call about computer security this past week – or it just seemed loud because unusual. Though not a big security threat themselves, two Mac-targeting worms were released into the wild, ZDNET reports, in what security experts say is probably a trend. They called the latter, "Inqtana" a "proof of concept" worm that isn't likely to affect a lot of Mac users and just sends itself to other users, doesn't do damage. About the first worm, "Leap-A," the BBC reports that it targets iChat users. But "installing and running [it] requires users to go through several stages and this, along with bugs in Leap-A's code, have led security firms to play down the threat it poses." Of course, Symantec the security firm, "recommends that Mac OS X users keep antivirus and firewall software, as well as operating systems, up to date." But I also heard that a few months ago from an authorized Apple tech-support guy, who said he tells his customers they should get Norton anti-virus for Macs. Here's Apple's own page on Mac security. Clearly, Apple users can no longer afford to be complacent about security.
AOL: 'AIMing at MySpace'
I was thinking that MySpace's competition, at least in the teen space, will be a whole passel of smaller, more special-interest sites like, for example, Tagged.com or STLpunk.com. But today's news from USATODAY indicates that passel just may include online giant AOL. The latter is planning soon to bring its 43 million active AIM (instant-messaging) users to its own social-networking space. And we all know there are a lot of teen AIM users. USATODAY quotes an analyst as saying the clincher will be how well AOL links this space with its "substantial music and video offerings." The service is expected to launch in a couple of months.
Phone as fashion statement?
Actually, "fashion statement" is too shallow – tech choices are becoming more like identity statements. The New York Times article today on 3G phones (that connect to the Web and play music and video) starts out by saying "gadget freak" Greg Harper is less than impressed with 3G phones and suggesting that Sprint, Verizon, and Cingular should probably be worried. The thing is, Greg looks a lot older than a teenager, and I have a feeling teenagers will be quite a bit less judgmental about the phones' functionality, and the phone companies know it. Just look at Helio, a South Korean phone company, now in L.A. too, has struck a deal with News Corp. to bring MySpace-enabled, multimedia phones to US teens and young adults, Information Week reports. They will be able to use their MySpace screennames to IM each other, and there will be a "presence" feature that, as in instant-messaging, tells you when a "buddy" is online. Whether or not it takes off (before teens have moved to a new "favorite" social-networking site or type of Web service), I think Helio understands what young phone users want better than Greg Harper does. Helio said in its press release that this is not a phone, but "a badge of personality," a "mobile lifestyle."