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Friday, November 23, 2007

More than 150 friends?!

The Wall Street Journal's "numbers guy," Carl Bialik, zoomed in on that number - 150 - which many reporters have cited as the limit to the number of personal contacts any human being could possibly sustain. This is when they're writing stories about the lengthy friends lists some teens have amassed in social sites. The 150 comes from the research of Robin Dunbar at Oxford University, "extrapolating from social groups in nonhuman primates and then crediting people with greater capacity because of our larger neocortex, the part of the brain used for conscious thought and language." Ah, got it. So we definitely can sustain more friendships than primates. But, actually, Dunbar himself, Bialik reports, believes that social sites "could 'in principle' allow users to push past the limit." To the professor, the real question is "whether those who keep ties to hundreds of people do so to the detriment of their closest relationships - defined by Prof. Dunbar as those formed with people you turn to when in severe distress." Bialik cites another recent UK survey that found - no huge surprise - friendships really start offline, but "less-close friendships and acquaintanceships, however, also die offline, while the Web can help sustain them" [read the article for examples]. I suspect this is one of the things youth who move far away, go off to college, or graduate and leave behind college friends so appreciate about social networking. There's much more that's thought-provoking in the Journal column - do check it out.

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Applying for college at Facebook

Yup, it's now possible. I would love to hear from you if high schoolers at your house or school are using Facebook not only to research schools but also to apply. The widget's called College Planner, and its source,, says students can research some 5,000 schools and apply to more than 1,000. As a CNET blogger points out, it's hard to imagine that people wouldn't wonder if colleges and universities would take such applications seriously, much less want to share all their academic plans with social-networking peers. As of this writing, only one person has added the widget to his profile (as seen on the College Planner widget page in Facebook). According to a thorough writeup on this in the Yale Daily News, Yale University has "no immediate plans" to join this program. Anyway, if you have any first-hand knowledge of this Facebook feature, email anne(at) Here's the L.A. Times's latest report on Facebook in general.

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Wednesday, November 21, 2007

UK data security breach & kids

A massive security breach involving the personal information of "virtually every child in Britain" has occurred in the United Kingdom, The Guardian reports. It "could expose the personal data of more than 25 million people - nearly half the country's population," CBS News reports. The data concerns "families with children, including names, dates of birth, addresses, bank account information and insurance records." Two computer disks containing the data were sent via ordinary mail between two government departments and were apparently lost in the mail. The breach was announced to the House of Commons yesterday by Alistair Darling, Britain's equivalent to our treasury secretary. He said this wasn't the first time Britain's tax agency had experienced such a breach. There was, however, no evidence that the data has fallen into criminal hands. This is a clear illustration of risky it would be to have a national database of children's personal information in the US, which is what would be required in order to establish children's age verification online (for more on this, see "Social networker age verification revisited").

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Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Librarians: Parents' best friends

Here's a thought to bookmark, parents of teens: If you have questions about how social networking works or a particular site, a really good person to ask is your local librarian. So many people now log on to their profiles and blogs at public libraries that librarians (and not just youth librarians) have become experts on the subject. See this article in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, for example. So, either come to our forum,, to talk about social networking online, 24/7, or talk to the social-Web expert at your local library. Some libraries are actually conducting "Social Networking 101"-type classes for parents and other adults looking to learn about the social Web.

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YouTube's push to beat bullying

YouTube has set up an anti-bullying channel, the BBC reports. The channel "aims to revolutionise how young people access information on how to avoid being bullied and importantly on how to avoid being the person who does the intimidating." Here's YouTube's channel (see also "What does cyberbullying look like?"). It comes at a good time, as the story of a US cyberbullying incident that ended in a young teen's suicide (see NetFamilyNews last week) has been picked up by news media in multiple countries (see these in Google News search). National-level coverage in the US started later last week. ABC News's Good Morning America and NBC's Today Show interviewed the girl's parents, saying local police are concerned about vigilantism against the family that allegedly created the profile of a fictional boy which was reportedly central to the story. Calls for a regulatory response to this case reflect a misunderstanding of how social networking works, but national-level awareness, even indignation (not vigilantism), is an important step toward this society's working toward nationwide public education about bullying on any digital device.

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Monday, November 19, 2007

What virtual worlds teach kids

Their effect is not entirely unlike hanging out at the shopping mall in the "real world," is my take-away from reading CNET on researchers' just-released study of kids' virtual worlds. Of course, my characterization is simplistic and on the negative side, but "the inherently commercial nature of virtual worlds like Club Penguin and Webkinz, which encourage kids to play games, dress up online characters, and buy virtual goods to decorate their in-world homes or avatars," seems to send kids the message, they said, that good residents, users, or "citizens" know how to make money (amass points by playing games) and buy the right things (e.g., furniture for your igloo, cute pets, and attractive clothes and accessories, I've found from watching my 10-year-old play in ClubPenguin).

But there were positives among the findings of researchers at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School of Communication, the recipients of major funding from the MacArthur Foundation for research on young people's use of digital media. "Kids who are active members of virtual worlds are learning how to socialize" and "how to be technologically savvy" - things they'll need when they enter the workplace - as well as "how to be good little consumers," writes CNET's Stefanie Olsen. Important to know, since "more than 50% of kids on the Internet will belong to such an environment by 2012," she reports. Another thing they're learning: the ability to adapt to and move in an environment of constant change. I was particularly interested in one thing Stefanie picked up on: that absorbing information is no longer the most important form of education - it's what to do with information and distinguishing between fact and fiction, i.e. media literacy. An educator said that to me recently: "Our kids know so much more than we did when we were their age. We don't need to fill their brains more. We need to help them manage all they're taking in."

Back to the consumerism part, The Telegraph tells of ClubPenguin's soon-to-launch, UK-based competitor, Gizmodo calls it’s a mashup of Tamagotchi, Pokemon and NintenDogs, and my 10-year-old son calls it "a monster version of Neopets." And - because it plans to sell Moshi Monster charms, it looks like there'll be comparisons to too. In any case, most appear to have aspects of this formula: games or puzzles to earn currency that buys things for an avatar that's sometimes real, sometimes virtual, sometimes both.

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UN to target Net predators

One of the outcomes of the United Nations' recent Internet governance conference in Rio de Janeiro was a call to protect young Net users from predation. "The meeting, which was attended by more than 1300 representatives of governments, the private sector and the internet from 109 countries, centered on keeping children safe from pedophiles lurking on the internet," Australian IT reports. Participants said that there were disagreements on a lot of topics at the meeting, but not on this one. The Council of Europe's representative called on countries to join a convention toward greater international cooperation on catching online predators. Another principal topic of discussion was the digital divide, since only about 1 billion, or 20% of the world's population have Net access," the Associated Press reports. Less than 4% of Africans have access, for example. But the AP cites figures from conference organizers showing that, in the past decade, Net use has risen from 5% to 35% in "the less-well-off nations that hold nearly three-fourths of the world's population." Later this week, Stephen Balkam, head of the London- and Washington-based Family Online Safety Institute, offered his perspective on the Rio conference at the Huffington Post (see also his "The politics of fear" in our forum site,

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