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Friday, February 13, 2009

Mom undercover in kids' virtual worlds

How would you like to go in-world and experience ClubPenguin's igloos, icey games, and penguin pizzeria first-hand (well, almost first-hand)? You can, if you haven't already, with ChilyLily437, aka writer, former elementary teacher, child development expert, and mom of four (ages 6 to 16) Sharon Duke Estroff in this month's issue of Good Housekeeping. Her article, "I Was an Undercover Penguin: What One Mom Learned in Her Journey Through Kiddie Cyberspace - and What Every Concerned Parent Needs to Know," "even spurred some very positive changes to the ClubPenguin Web site following its release," Sharon told me.

While writing the article last July, Sharon called me for an interview, and I interviewed her back! I didn't want to wait six months for those insights into elementary-school kids' behavior on virtual playgrounds, which Sharon found pretty much mirrors what happens in real-world schoolyards, hallways, classrooms (when the teacher's not looking), family rooms, and backyards (see "Top 8 workarounds of kid virtual world users"). This is the grade-school version of social networking, and these are just additional - digital - environments for growing up, playing, expressing oneself, being a friend, testing boundaries, working out social norms, and exploring identity.

That interview last summer was the start of many fun conversations that 1) revealed a shared philosophy about youth, parents, and social media and 2) got us to thinking we should collaborate! So I'm pleased to announce a new series for NetFamilyNews: weekly installments from Undercover Mom about her experiences with fellow avatars of all sorts - "eye-opening guided tours through some of the most popular cyber-locales" of today's elementary school-aged kids. "Expect a balanced perspective and practical advice," Sharon writes, "as we delve into this uncharted parenting terrain together." This brings a new kind of balance to NetFamilyNews too, because my coverage has always been a little more focused on tweens' and teens' experiences with social media than those of 4-to-10-year-olds.

Avatar anthropology

Undercover Mom is not a spy, though. She's really a cultural anthropologist in kid virtual worlds, one with nearly 20 years' experience as a schoolteacher and educational consultant and 16 years' experience as a parent. "My intent is to give parents an understanding of what it means to be a child in the digital age," Sharon wrote me, "to help bridge the gap between digital natives and their parents with insights into the subtleties and complexities of digital childhood - not from the point of view of the media, which is perpetually hyperfocused on the dangers of Internet predators and online porn, but through the eyes of a fellow engaged parent focused on the well-being of the whole child."

Related links

  • "200 virtual worlds for kids"
  • "Good citizens in virtual worlds, too"
  • New digital citizenship primer for parents: Raising a Digital Child, by Mike Ribble At Kansas State University
  • "New sites & services for kids, tweens, teens"
  • Another new site along the lines of and "GirlAmbition integrates tweens to Web," reports WESH TV in Orlando, with lots of screenshots from
  • MN might ban sex offenders from social sites

    Minnesota state legislators want to help social network sites keep predators off their sites. A committee of the state House of Representatives approved legislation this week that would prohibit any registered sex offenders from "logging on to sites like Facebook or MySpace," Minnesota Public Radio reports. "Participation in Web-based chat rooms would also be banned," the public radio service added, which would not be a bad thing, since - based on Pennsylvania's experience, anyway (see "PA case study: Social networking risk in context") - most sexual contact between sex offenders and minors seems to happen in chatrooms. Minnesota legislators say that, if it passes, the law would actually help keep offenders from going to social sites in the first place - "state officials could warn sex offenders about the ban in a regular notification of prohibited activities."

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    Thursday, February 12, 2009

    The Net effect

    Just why do we need to think before we post and text? A logical question your kids may be asking you. Here's a possible answer: because...

  • online socializers and media sharers have invisible audiences
  • those audiences could be small or huge (tough to tell)
  • those readers, viewers, friends, acquaintances, potential ex-friends and employers can copy, paste, do just about anything they want with our content in other places online and on phones that we may never even have heard of
  • what we post and share is out there pretty permanently and can probably be found - indefinitely - with a search engine
  • and we can't really be sure of how private it is.

    These conditions, some very familiar to many of us but neatly packaged by social media scholar danah boyd in her just-released PhD dissertation, is what I call the "Net effect." It's how digital media and technologies change the equation - even though much of the behavior (adolescent or adult) is age-old. As danah (who lower-cases her name) explains, the different contexts in which we used to speak and behave - e.g., home, school parking lot, Xbox Live, classroom, Thanksgiving Dinner - are all mashed up. According to the New York Times, "much of the danger lies in the fact that, increasingly, our 'friends' on social networking sites are actually a mix of people - friends, family, acquaintances, colleagues - with whom we would normally share only a piece of our lives." This is one of the real "online safety" issues for 99.9% of online-youth population (and about that many adults) - a better umbrella term is probably "digital citizenship" or "online safety 2.0." It's about growing up with the Net effect in place, for example, as the Times put it, "learning how not to share." Find out how Sarah Illman - who, when she graduates this spring, "will be among the first Canadian university students to have lived her entire post-secondary academic career on Facebook" - managed all this in the Toronto Globe & Mail article.

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  • Digital body art

    A great metaphor for the Net effect on digital natives' lives is used by the University of British Columbia, which has a whole Web site about the "digital tattoo," with a tutorial on how to "Protect," "Connect," "Learn," and "Work" with the Net effect. Here's how UBC explains it: "Just like a tattoo, your digital reputation is an expression of yourself. It's highly visible, and hard to remove. Explore how your online identity affects you, your friends, your school and your job - for better and for worse - and how to make informed choices." I found out about this resource in a Toronto Globe & Mail article, "Chances are your kids are savvier online than you think."

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    Wednesday, February 11, 2009

    Virtual, real 'Global Sim' class

    Ever thought of doing a non-virtual sim of the world, a mini Planet Earth, in a football stadium? Prof. Michael Wesch did. It's his Anthropology 204 class at Kansas State University, the Christian Science Monitor reports. Actually, his class's World Sim is in a giant rodeo arena, not a football stadium. It's designed "to push students to stop asking, 'What’s going to be on the test?' and to contemplate bigger questions: Why are some people poor and some rich? How does the world work?... to create an environment where students can expand their capacity for empathizing with and loving those who are different from them." The sim's also a big mashup of virtual and real-world spaces and tools (wiki, digital video, big arena, people), with student collaboration and decisionmaking (40% of the sim's rules get jettisoned at the end of each course to make room for the next class's rules development) - also a simulation of how young people use social media and mash it all up with the rest of their lives. Do not miss another class of Wesch's on the anthropology of YouTube (see "Watch this video, parents").

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    Teens best adults on privacy

    At Facebook, 60% of teens use privacy controls compared to 25-30% of adults, a sitepoint blog cites Facebook numbers as showing. Computer Associates offers some confirmation with a recent study finding that "79% of teens aged 13-17 who are members of a social networking site like MySpace or Facebook protect their profiles from the general Internet in some way (i.e., only allow friends or friends of friends to view their information), according to the blog. The study also found something not so surprising: that teens "are very likely" to post photos of themselves online. That may be why they're more careful about privacy. Good news!

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    Tuesday, February 10, 2009

    JuicyCampus: Good bye, good riddance

    Citing tough economic times as the reason, gossip site JuicyCampus has shut down. "I'm not shedding any tears for [founder Matt Ivester, who made the announcement]," my ConnectSafely co-director Larry Magid writes at "What he refers to as 'lighthearted gossip of college life' was, in many situations, vicious innuendos, hateful messages, and downright lies. In covering the site ... I saw postings that went so far as to call someone a willing slut and publish her cell phone number and address," he says. Let's hope a similar cyberbullying opp - the little social-network app Honesty Box - meets a similar fate. If anybody knows of any downside to losing these venues for anonymous comments about peers, pls email anne(at), and I'll consider publishing their points.

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    Pact for solid social Web safety measures in Europe

    This is timely news for global Safer Internet Day (today): 17 social-media companies across Europe have struck a deal with the European Commission to put in place safeguards for young social networkers by April, The Guardian reports. US-based Facebook, MySpace, and YouTube are among the signatories. [Brief editorial comment: this is much more viable an agreement than trying to impose age verification on sites based only in a single country, which is what the US attorneys general are pushing for and which the EC has already ruled out as a solution for safer social networking.] Safeguards include prominent "report abuse" buttons; under-18 profiles private by default; clear, prominent privacy instructions; under-18 profiles not searchable; and keeping underage users (usually under-13s) from setting up accounts, reports paidContent:UK (MySpace and Facebook already have these in place). "The agreement brings a number of small sites into line with their bigger rivals - signatories also include Bebo, French video website DailyMotion and Habbo Hotel, the popular virtual world for children," according to the BBC, which adds that the safety measures are similar to those in the British Home Office's best practices guidelines, put forth last April (see this item). Meanwhile, Commission today kicked off its first cyberbullying-awareness campaign with a one-minute video (see the top of this BBC piece). [Another brief editorial comment: More evidence of online-safety enlightenment in Europe while a step forward here - the Internet Safety Technical Task Force's report released last month - is being discredited by the state attorneys general.]

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    Monday, February 09, 2009

    Teen's alleged online sex scam

    Of course the worst news gets the most coverage - more than 500 news outlets in the US, Canada, UK, New Zealand, India, Australia, and Bosnia Herzegovina, among other countries, turned up in a Google News search on this. But there is something to be learned even from this sex extortion story about an 18-year-old in Wisconsin, described by a "shocked" friend to a Wisconsin radio station as a "goody-two-shoes kind of guy" but accused of "posing as a female on Facebook in a plot to trick at least 31 male classmates into sending nude pictures of themselves and then using the images to blackmail them into performing sex acts, The Register in the UK reports. The takeaway is that even when the site you use is all about socializing with friends in "real life" - which is usually a pretty good protection measure - don't develop a false sense of security. Not everyone is on the up and up even in real life. The other takeaway: that this, as The Register put it, is just "the latest graphic example of the heap of trouble waiting for naive teens who send sexually explicit images of themselves over the email or text messages. Last month, six high school students in Pennsylvania were charged under state child pornography statutes for sending and receiving nude images of each other using cell phones. Last year, a 15-year old girl was arrested on felony child pornography charges for allegedly sending nude pictures of herself to classmates."

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    Scams aimed at social networkers

    It's the digital version of boy-cries-wolf, and it's a shame, because social network sites via computer or cellphone are a great way to broadcast a friend's (or one's own) real call for help. I remember a story a year or so ago about a journalist who was jailed in Egypt, shortly thereafter to be released because his text messages mobilized friends to get the US Embassy involved. I'm sure most social networkers are smart enough to distinguish between real calls for help and what happened the other day to friends of Bryan Rutberg, though they were scammed pretty convincingly. MSNBC tells of how Bryan's profile was hacked so that a bulletin was sent to his friends saying he's been held up at gunpoint overseas and had no money to get home. Responses to test messages sent to the person posing as Bryan were convincing enough that one friend sent money. I would definitely not hurt to sit down with social networkers at your house and go over three solid tips for social-networking malware avoidance from ComputerWorld.

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