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Friday, October 17, 2008

Online harassment: From one who's been there

Lisa's experience of "cyberbullying" is probably the most common - some anonymous person(s) who made up "random screennames" and sent her IMs saying "stupid things" like "you're stupid" or "you're fat," she told a reporter from the Digital Natives project at Harvard University's Berkman Center. Though it probably wasn't cyberbullying as defined by researchers (see this), it certainly made her wonder: "Are my friends really my friends?" It was "kind of an uncomfortable ordeal because I never knew who it was in the end, but it wasn't as bad as being made fun of in real life could've been," Lisa, a University of Massachusetts, Amherst, student from New Jersey, said in an audio interview.

That last point gets at the distinction between online harassment and cyberbullying, which has a more hurtful connection to school life. In real life, Lisa says, "it's hurtful because it's direct and it's personal and you’re standing there and it hurts. If it's on the Internet, you can easily disregard it because it's not personal, they don't know who your are, and they can't offend you because they're not talking about you - they're just trying to give a comeback. So if it's on the Internet, it's kind of like you have more power, you're in much more control, it's kind of like a big shield."

There you have possible talking (or coaching) points for parents whose kids are being harassed online. As Lisa points out, these experiences are indeed a big deal when you're in the middle of them, and they do raise all kinds of unsettling questions about who your friends are, but if they're anonymous meanness, a parent might say: You can choose to make that same anonymity that they're hiding behind your "shield," as Lisa put it. They have no idea how their words affected you, so you're in control - you can choose to let the words roll off and not react. Because reaction is very likely exactly what the harasser wants, and you can decide whether s/he gets it." The uncertainty that goes with incidents like this is rarely unique to the incident; it's more like a constant of pre-adolescent life that spikes each time such an incident happens. As tweens learn social norms, figure out and create their school's social scene, and explore identity, they're also learning how to cope with the uncertainty and other challenges associated with the wider circle of relationships in adult life.

I hope parents will actually get the chance to have this conversation with their children, since kids so rarely report online harassment - only 10% of 12-to-17-year-olds tell parents or other adults, according to research from UCLA (see this post), which also found that the harassment Lisa described was the most frequently occurring kind among the young people in its survey. Harsher cyberbullying may call for outside professional help.

A much tougher story that does fit the emerging definition of cyberbullying was told in the Long Beach (Calif.) Herald this week. For details on the slightly one-sided telling of the story (because the alleged bully's family declined to comment), please read the article. But the outcomes so far indicate a lot of maturity on the part of the girl, "Mary" (15), who experienced the online abuse. After having to leave her school (she is still being home-schooled a year later), "Mary said the experience made her stronger, but only after a period of depression." She told the Herald that, even though people tell her bullying is "part of life," she feels that it is not and should not be. She also told the paper that she could handle having her experience told publicly if it could help somebody else.

Solution creation

One of the conditions of cyberspace that enables harassment and bullying is disinhibition, a word psychologists use to describe what happens when we lose the face-to-face part of communication. It's like suddenly, in this environment, we're more robots than humans. So it seems to me we'll be able to mitigate cyberbullying when we begin to reduce the disinhibition effect and increase the empathy factor - when it begins to sink in with children (everybody, really) that behind those text messages, avatars, profile comments, and IMs are real people with real feelings.

Cyber Bullying: A Prevention Curriculum for Grades 6-12 takes disinhibition head on - with collaborative learning that teaches empathy. The curriculum (book plus printable materials on a CD) - by educators Susan Limber, PhD, Robin Kowalski, PhD, and Patricia W. Agatston, PhD - is designed for schools, but parents and community-service programs will find it helpful too. At the core of the curriculum are true bullying stories like some that have appeared in NetFamilyNews in the past few years. The titles are pretty self-explanatory: "Boy Found in Locker after Three Hours"; "Being Excluded Online" (peers defriend a girls and stop IM-ing and texting); "Hip Hop Dancing Girl" (who unthinkingly videotaped herself and later found a peer posted the video online for all to see); "Tired of Being Bullied at School, Teen Strikes Back Online" (with a defaming Web site about the bully and faces charges); "Teens Facing Felony Charges for Cyberbullying Revenge" (posting a video of their retaliation beating of the peer on a video-sharing site).

With the curriculum, students lead discussions, role-play, write journal entries about the incidents, design anti-bullying Web sites, etc. There's a complete training module for teachers. For school administrators and resource officers, the curriculum goes beyond education to resources for dealing with this on-campus, off-campus challenge. Supporting materials include boilerplate letters to parents, incident reports, acceptable-use policies; guidelines for choosing students leaders; and legal information, including forms for evidence-gathering.

The curriculum is based on the holistic ("whole school") Olweus Bullying Prevention Program that seeks to involve all stakeholders (at school, home, and in the community) not only in reducing and preventing bullying but also improving eliminating in preventing and reducing bullying problem but also improving "peer relations at school."

Related links

  • So international. If anyone had any doubts that bullying is a universal problem, here's news from Bangalore, India: The Daily News & Analysis reports that a three-year study involving 1,200 students and 600 teachers, 59% of boys and 65% of girls (ages 14-18) said bullying was occurring at their school.

  • Toward "social intelligence": earlier NetFamilyNews coverage here and in an item on "stalking" as a form of social intelligence-gathering.

  • "'Cyberbullying' better defined": Researchers cite three factors that escalate it beyond the online harassment Lisa experienced (above): repeated aggression; power imbalance; ties to "real life" (school life, for the most part).

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  • New study on earbud hearing-loss risk

    Further evidence this week that earbud users who like the volume turned up high are seriously at risk of hurting their ears. Parents, get your kids to listen to this as well as music! A European study found that people who listened to music on MP3 players "for five hours a week at high-volume settings exposed themselves to more noise than permitted in the noisiest factory or work place," the New York Times reports. The study - by a team of nine specialists on the Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks - "threatens permanent hearing loss for as many as 10 million Europeans." The Times adds that in the EU's 27 countries "an estimated 50 million to 100 million people out of about 500 million may be listening to portable music players daily." I'm sure the percentage isn't much higher than that in the United States. The study "also warns that young people do not realize the damage until years later." The maximum safe decibel level is 89, which - on iPods - is about the 60% volume level (see "iPods & ears" and "New earbud risk study"). The iPod manual includes a warning about hearing-loss risk.

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    Thursday, October 16, 2008

    Think b4 u click to YouTube videos!

    If your kids watch a lot of YouTube videos, suggest they make sure the URL in their browser window actually says "" before they click to that page. Another tip-off to the latest malicious hack against YouTube users is that the fake YouTube page will show "an error message that claims the video they want won't play without installing new software first," according to coverage in the San Jose Mercury News. Almost any kid who's ever watched a YouTube video will know a player's not needed, but it's still good to be put on alert. "That error message includes a link the hacker has provided to a malicious program, which delivers a virus." When I asked YouTube about this, they wrote back saying, "We are aware that there is a malware threat from fake Websites posing as YouTube and inviting users to download a plug-in to watch a YouTube Video." Because the sites are on other servers, of course, YouTube has no control over them.

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    What are online video viewers like?

    They're pretty young, for one thing. Though 13-to-24-year-olds represent only 15% of Internet users, they make up 35% of "active online video viewers," according to a new Forrester Research report cited by These active viewers "are highly engaged with online video, paying attention to longer programming and the ads that run with it," Forrester says. I'm sure they're among the Web's most active video producers too. For more on this, check out the charts on eMarketer's summary page.

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    Wednesday, October 15, 2008

    Site for anonymous bullying reporting

    Given the recent UCLA report on young people's reticence in reporting cyberbullying (see this), this is an interesting concept: a Web site that allows students to report said anonymously. So far the Utah-Based site,, is being used by "six Utah schools and 48 schools in other states," the Salt Lake Tribune reports. The only concern is that the site could also be abused. Given also what we know of how kids have been known to abuse abuse-reporting in kid virtual worlds (see "Top 8 workarounds of kid virtual-world users"). An apparent protection against this possibility is that the tips go right to administrators of the schools that have signed on. One administrator told the Tribune she's received 20 reports so far this year, one of which was false. "Often [the administrators] respond to the anonymous student online and ask for more details. Sometimes they can persuade the student to come forward and work with them. At the very least, if the student doesn't want to be identified, school officials can question the alleged bully or keep an eye on the situation." Hmm, the thought occurs: what impact would age verification of minors have on this process?

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    Mobile Web's rapid rise in developing world: Symbolic

    All by itself China illustrates the potential of the mobile Web, The Economist points out. Seventy-three million people, or 29% of all Internet users in the country (the total number, which recently surpassed that of the US, is 250 million), use mobile phones to get online, and that number grew by 45% the first half of this year. Some 600 million people in China (about twice the US's total population) are mobile phone subscribers. But that's just China ("just"!). "Opera Software, a firm that makes Web-browser software for mobile phones, reports rapid growth in mobile-web browsing in developing countries," The Economist reports. "The number of web pages viewed in June by the 14m users of its software was over 3 billion, a 300% increase on a year earlier." Russia, Indonesia, India, and South Africa led that growth. The articles gives some examples of how very useful mobile-based transactions are in third-world countries.

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    Tuesday, October 14, 2008

    Defending remixers, future artists

    In light of the new intellectual property law President Bush just signed (see this yesterday), it's interesting to read the story about how 13-month-old Holden Lenz's 29-second dance video on YouTube became a case of "willful copyright infringement under the laws of the United States" whereby Holden's mother "is liable to a fine of up to $150,000," Stanford University law professor Lawrence Lessig writes in the Wall Street Journal. "We are in the middle of something of a war here - what some call 'the copyright wars'; what the late Jack Valenti called his own 'terrorist war,' where the 'terrorists' are apparently our kids." He goes on to suggest that we "decriminalize Gen X [and Y and the Millennials!]" and "deregulate amateur remix," which "could drive extraordinary economic growth, if encouraged, and properly balanced." See also "Break the Digital Millennium Copyright Act," the last of "5 dangerous things you should let your kids do," a video of a talk by Gever Tully, founder of the Tinkering School, in which kids learn to build things.

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    US's 2 new anti-predator laws

    President Bush just signed two bills into law. The first one is useful for tracking sex offenders already convicted and registered, the second seems to be more about finding predators to be arrested and prosecuted. The "Keeping the Internet Devoid of Sexual Predators Act of 2008" ("KIDS Act" for short) requires registered sex offenders to register online identifiers - email addresses, screennames, etc. - as well as address and phone numbers. "The US attorney general will make that information available on a database where approved Web sites can cross-check their users' information and weed out any potential predators," Newsday cites Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), who introduced the original legislation, as saying. Offenders who don't provide all Internet identifiers "face the same penalty as those who fail to register their home address - up to 10 years in prison." The second law Bush signed, the "PROTECT Our Children Act of 2008," "requires the Department of Justice to create and implement a national strategy, as well as a new task force, for tracking down predators on the Web and prosecuting them," a PC World blog reports.

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    All Oz to have filtering

    Soon all Australians' Internet access will be filtered, "under the government's $125.8 [about $85 million US] million Plan for Cyber-Safety," TechWorld Australia reports. The Australian government is requiring all Internet service providers to provide "a clean feed" to households, schools and public places with Internet access available to children. By this report, it appears some Australians thought they'd be able to "opt out" of the filtering, but reportedly not. There will be two levels filtering that blocks content inappropriate for children (not clear how that's defined) and filtering that only blocks illegal content, which presumably means child abuse images. ISPs told TechWorld that the blanket filtering "will cripple Internet speeds because the technology is not up to scratch." The government's about to run a field trial to iron out any kinks, according to TechWorld.

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    Monday, October 13, 2008

    Watch out for 'clickjacking'!

    The problem is, it's hard to detect, and - according to Trend Micro - virtually all Internet users can be victimized by clickjacking. What is it? A computer-security attack that tricks people into clicking on a link that appears only briefly on their screens, such as in a little game (see this illustration on YouTube). Clicking on it could cause your browser to download malicious software or allow malicious hackers "to open the microphone or Webcam on your PC to eavesdrop," CNET reports. TrendMicro says the only good news is that one protective measure is available, but it's kind of a geeky one: install the Firefox browser's NoScript plug-in and enable "Always Forbid iFrames" in its options ("use the latest version of NoScript v1.8.2.1 with the ClearClick technology"). In any case, tell your kids to be really suspicious of offers to play or download little Web games, especially ones they've never heard of before. Here's more from computer-security experts' blog and coverage from NewsFactor.

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    US's new IP law

    What surprised me about this new law, just signed by President Bush, is that it creates a Cabinet-level position for intellectual property enforcement coordination, CNET reports. The "Pro-IP Act" also "steepens penalties for intellectual-property infringement [though the penalties against families of P2P file-sharers, who probably will also be affected, seem to have been stiff enough], and increases resources for the Department of Justice to coordinate for federal and state efforts against counterfeiting and piracy." The US Chamber of Commerce told CNET that American intellectual property is worth more than $5 trillion and "accounts for more than half of all US exports." The law was backed by the US Chamber, the Recording Industry Association of America, large media companies, and the AFL-CIO. Opposition came from, among others, the American Library Association, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and Public Knowledge.

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