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Saturday, September 22, 2007

Teen name calling: Federal case

This is a story parents and teens should know about because it clearly illustrates how a student's mean comment in a public blog can literally become a federal case. US District Judge Mark Kravitz in Connecticut last week "ruled that Avery Doninger was outside her legal bounds when she used derogatory language on the Internet to describe school administrators," NBC TV in Burlington, Conn., reports. Last May Avery, then a junior, called school officials "douchbags" (sic) in a blog post she wrote from her home. After the school stopped her from seeking re-election as her class secretary, her mother filed a lawsuit against two school district officials saying they'd violated her daughter's right to free speech," the Hartford Courant reported. In his ruling, Judge Kravitz said school officials were within their rights "because Doninger's writing related to school and was likely to be read by other students" (see the last few paragraphs of the Courant's report for the two sides' arguments and the 1969 and 1986 cases they pointed to).

About this case, Advisory Board member and youth officer Det. Frank Dannahey of the nearby Rocky Hill, Conn., Police Department wrote me, "I started using this incident in my programs when it occurred back in May. The community where this occurred is about 20 minutes away from where I work. It’s an interesting look at the never-ending saga of First Amendment rights vs. school systems' ability (or not) to discipline for out-of-school Internet postings." Here's an opinion piece about the case in the Hartford Courant. [Editor's note, 11/09: The stories linked to in this item unfortunately are no longer archived in the Hartford Courant and local NBC news sites.]

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Friday, September 21, 2007

Support for young videogamers

This is something parents of young Xbox Live users and Internet gamers should be aware of - that kids and teens can experience considerable verbal and text abuse in online-gaming environments and that there are grownup gamers out there supporting them. For example, there's the GR8 Clan gaming group, founded four years ago by Terra and Jen in Illinois. It represents the kind of community self-policing, or online "neighborhood watch" activity that is increasingly important on the social Web, wherever there's social networking - virtual worlds, instant messaging, and phone texting, as well as online videogames.

"Every day I find myself hosting a room [on the Xbox Live online service] while entertaining the kids," writes multitasking Terra about leading a typical gaming + chat session of GR8 Clan gamers, "answering their questions, asking if their homework is finished [if they're playing] during the school year, asking how their day was, commenting on their increased gaming skills and teamwork, as well as being attentive to what is being said in the room, accepting and sending private chats while searching for a suitable clan for us to battle, which requires online searches, private chats, IMs in 3 different services, getting agreements from opposing clan leaders that their members will not use trash-talk or use improper language during the battle (since I will have children as young as 8 years old in there) - all of this while I must move my own character in the game. A lot of the offenders are clever enough to bypass me and send foul messages to my kids. This is infuriating."

The clan got its start back in 2003, when Terra and co-founder Jen migrated over from the Playstation online community to that of Xbox Live and bought five Xbox 360s and five Xbox Live Gold Memberships, one each for the two of them and a few more for kids "whose parents couldn't afford such a purchase," Terra wrote. When she was between careers, she played videogames in her free time and noticed that "young children were entering public rooms where headset communication among adults and teenagers assaulted the ears with [the stuff of] X-rated or XXX-rated films." She "took control of the situation, steering the speech back to G-rated … and established a zero-tolerance-policy for foul, abusive language" in that room. "All violators were promptly booted out." She soon became "the lady who takes care of the kids.”

GR8 Clan - which now has 22 members throughout the US, more than half of them under 18 - recently got its share of flak, though, after a writeup at (quoting much of an article by Terra verbatim). The flak was about GR8 Clan allowing its kid members to play M-rated games ("M" is the "Mature" rating of the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, Terra's response makes some sense, I think: "I contend that allowing children to play Mature games under responsible adult supervision is perfectly acceptable - analogous to accompanying a child to a PG-13- or R-rated film." More than the content of the film or game, what she said she believes is unethical, or even illegal, in the online gaming context is the abuse coming from other gamers. "Online abuse over the headsets directed toward children is the exact same criminal offense as a supervised child in a public theatre watching a PG-13 movie, while a predator in the row behind the child leans over and whispers, or shouts, sexually explicit expletives or directives into that child's ear….

"I don’t have control over what games the kids play," Terra continued. "I only offer a safe environment for them if they happen to be playing the same game online as I am playing." She and other Clan members are currently playing Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six Vegas (rated "M"), Ghost Recon ("T" for Teen); Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter (M), Battlefield II Modern Combat (T), and Gears of War (M). "Only the eldest kids play the Gears of War game, and their parents purchased the game for them, not The GR8 Clan," Terra wrote.

She says there are some positive outcomes for youth playing these games in a supervised online environment: Along with strategy and hand-eye coordination, she says, kids learn such things as teamwork, taking responsibility, "a healthy sense of competition, communication skills, and good sportsmanship, as well as how to recognize poor sportsmanship."

See also…

  • "The Gamer and the Tinkerer Plan out a Future with Computers" at the Digital Youth Project on the University of California, Berkeley, site

  • Tips for parents of gamers from Xbox Dad at Microsoft

  • GR8 Clan's MySpace profile and Web site

  • "For female gamers," about support for women and girls "who tread into the testosterone-steeped world of console gaming," as the Los Angeles Times put it.

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  • Thursday, September 20, 2007

    Videogames increasingly social

    Increasingly, experts are saying that banning a teen's use of social networking is like banning (or more likely inhibiting) his or her social life. That's increasingly true with videogames too. "People tend to play with friends and family more often than they play by themselves, contrary to the stereotype of the anti-social gamer that stays in their room all day," the Tehran Times (Iran's English-language paper) reports in "7 steps to make videogames good for your kids" (the article's actually a reprint of's Guide to Nintendo Games but illustrates how universal videogaming is). The tips are great - they include: "Buy some active games" (like Dance Dance Revolution or games for the Wii), "buy extra controllers so you can join in," "keep the system in the open," and "don't be afraid [from all the media about violence in videogames]." As for excessive game play, the South Jersey News Online zooms in on the signs, adding that "70-90% of US youths play videogames." A tragic example of excess in videogames just occurred in China, where a 30-year-old man "died of exhaustion after a three-day Internet gaming binge" in a Guangzhou cybercafe. The Associated Press had that story.

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    Trend: Exclusive social networking

    Business Week calls them "online country clubs," and they're becoming a trend: not just niche social-networking sites, but exclusive niche sites. "Membership in these networks, not unlike the exclusive country clubs where the rich and powerful hobnob, is carefully guarded," Business Week says. For example, at one such site, aSW (short for aSmallWorld), "only a subset of established members have the power to invite new users to join." Going from 500 to 260,000 users in its 3.5 years, aSW's growth doesn't come close to MySpace's, but of course "big is bad" with these sites (here's the New York Times on aSW). The Independent describes another one to launch next month, Diamond Lounge, which "aims to do for the world of Internet networks what Studio 54 did for New York nightlife, and the identity of members is being kept strictly secret in order to maintain an aura of glamorous mystery." Its proprietor says 30,000 will be its max membership. Another new Web 2.0 trend: social networking for baby boomers. As Robin Wolaner, founder of a new boomer site called (and former founder of Parenting magazine), told the New York Times, who wants to hang out at the AARP Web site? One thing's for sure, our teens would certainly prefer it if we hung out at TeeBeeDee or trying to do so at aSW than at Facebook!

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    Wednesday, September 19, 2007

    Online eating-disorder communities

    Eating disorder communities have been with us as long as there were eating disorders. When I was in high school, long before anyone but a handful of innovative researchers used the Internet, some of the cheerleaders would support each other while they binged and purged. The "community" was geographically limited. After the Web came along, ED became an "interest community" not restricted to any location. The same goes for "pro-Ana" (for anorexia) and "pro-Mia" (for bulimia) community in social-networking and blogging sites. It's one of the darksides of the social Web that are alerting us to and teaching us about the many age-old risks that at-risk youth take. Virtual eating-disorder communities are also a byproduct of "the [US's] moral panic about obesity," according to "No Wannarexics Allowed: An Analysis of Online Eating Disorder Communities," a study that's part of the MacArthur Foundation-funded Digital Youth Project (here's its home page at the University of California, Berkeley). "In the 1990s, eating disorders were the body issue of the moment but that spot has now been taken over by concerns about excess weight…. Sites for the pro-ana/mia/ednos communities have proliferated while, at the same time, a general cultural conversation about eating disorders has waned. Initially, many [Web site] servers took down pro-ana/mia sites, but, with the emergence of social-networking sites, they have reappeared." Even this brief synopsis of the study offers insights into these online communities (note the three numbered points at the end), "primarily populated by women under the age of 20," 56% of whom identify themselves as teenagers. See also my "Eating disorders & the social Web" last spring, including a backgrounder from Hannah, very caring friend of a college student who suffers from an eating disorder who contacted me about this to help get the word out.

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    Social networking's impact on RL

    How is online social networking changing socializing in real life? It's a very interesting question that people - from researchers to social networkers themselves - are beginning to look into. For one thing, UK professors have found, "online social networks tend to be far larger than their real-life counterparts," Science Daily reports - "the average person has a social network of around 150 friends, ranging from very close friends to casual acquaintances." There are as many insights to be gained, too, from this blog post by a 23-year-old social networker who has thought a lot about how social networking has affected his life and the lives of his fellow social-Web users: "5 observations of how social networking (online) has changed social networking (offline)." His first observation, "Social networking as a pre-screening tool," seems to answer a question Prof. Will Reader at Sheffield Hallam University took to his research: "Making new friends involves an investment by committing time and energy to another person in the hope that they will provide reciprocal benefits in the future. Dr. Reader and his colleagues wondered whether online networks are somehow reducing the investment necessary to make new friends by lowering the perceived risk." Meanwhile, a media studies class at Pitzer College in southern California will be studying YouTube, looking at such things as "the role of 'corporate-sponsored democratic media expression'," its professor told the Associated Press.

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    Tuesday, September 18, 2007

    CA teen-driver law signed

    Just a quick update to last week's item about teen drivers using tech: "Signed into law Thursday by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the bill by Democratic state Sen. Joe Simitian bans teenagers from using an electronic device, such as cell phones, pagers, laptops, and handheld computers, while behind the wheel," Information Week reports. It adds that "violators would be fined $20 for the first offense, and $50 for each additional offense." The law goes into effect next July 1. The governor's office says that, though teens represent 6.3% of US drivers, they account for 13.6% of fatal crashes.

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    The kitchen computer

    A family doesn't really need HP's $1,700 touchscreen computer for the kitchen (to keep coffee and cereal-milk spills off of keyboards), but the idea of a centrally located kitchen computer - harking back to the days of the family hearth - is a great one. Obviously it carries out that cardinal rule of kids' online safety about having the Net-connected computer in a high-traffic spot, but it's also a very natural way of making the Internet as much a part of family day-to-day life as it is of young people's social lives. Then stuff that goes on online becomes a natural - and hopefully hardly ever confrontational - topic of family conversation (parental overreaction too easily sends kids "underground," establishing "stealth accounts" and profiles in any number of places online that parents may've never heard of, sometimes putting kids at greater risk than when communication lines are open). But the Internet in family routines is definitely happening, the New York Times indicates, since broadband use (47% of US homes, according to the Pew/Internet Project) makes things like looking up phone numbers and movie listings more efficient on the Net than in phone books and newspapers. Even better news is that "74% of teenagers who use the Internet at home do so in a shared space," the Times reports, citing Pew figures.

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    Yahoo's new social site

    Called Mash, Yahoo's social-networking site is still being tested (people join by invitation only right now), the Times Online in London reports. "Mash has already been dubbed 'an homage to Facebook' – but with a difference: users of the new Yahoo site can edit each other’s profiles." As a New York Times blog puts it, "Think the Wikipedia version of a social network." Now there's a scary thought. But, as with Wikipedia, changes can be changed back, and the profile owner has the controls: "If you don’t like this game at all, you can change settings to allow just people marked as best friends or family to edit your profile, or you can keep the crayon box entirely to yourself," the New York Times blogger adds. Here are some interesting UK social-networking numbers cited by the Times of London: "One in four UK people with an Internet connection at home now uses a social networking site - rising to nearly a third among 15 to 24-year-olds." And here's Reuters on Mash.

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    Monday, September 17, 2007

    Schools, state laws & cyberbullying

    A Texas schools superintendent said that any online behavior that detracts from learning in school is going to get school action, and his schools have detailed but one-page Internet-use contracts students have to sign. State legislators are taking action too. Rhode Island is considering one of the toughest anti-cyberbullying laws, the Chicago Tribune reports. "Under the proposed legislation, students and their parents could be prosecuted if the student is caught sending Internet or text messages that prove disruptive to school," whether or not they send those messages from school. As for other states, "South Carolina recently passed a law that mandates school districts to define bullying, including cyberbullying. In Oregon, lawmakers have backed a bill that would require all schools to adopt policies that ban cyberbullying and allow for expulsion of those who are caught doing it." School policy and state laws may be kicking in because courts have "proved reluctant to get involved in what many may see as an age-old problem," and courts and prosecutors "have largely agreed, concluding that the 1st Amendment covers even the most offensive online speech." It might be a good idea for all adults - parents, educators, policymakers - to start thinking of online kids more as participants than as potential victims and start working with them on online citizenship as much as online safety - involve youth too in the public discussion about online behavior and the First Amendment. For more information, the Washington Times has a thorough look at cyberbullying, including how it differs from the traditional kind. And here's National Public Radio on how Virginia is out in front as "the first state to require public schools to teach Internet safety."

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