Post in our forum for parents, teens - You! - at

Friday, February 20, 2009

Undercover Mom in ClubPenguin, Part 1

The first installment of contributor Sharon Duke Estroff's inside look at kids' virtual worlds (here's last week's intro)....

by Sharon Duke Estroff

The first time my eight-year old asked me how to spell "penguin," I felt a wave of pride (a spelling bee champion in the making!). The second time I just felt curious (hmm, an Antarctic unit at school?). But the third time - in the midst of a playdate with his best bud, no less - I felt a touch of concern (what are those kids up to?!). "Penguin?" I asked hopefully, "as in Mr. Popper's Penguins"?

"No," my son clarified. "As in Club Penguin. Sam wants to show me his igloo and we can't get to the Web site." My second grader's age of digital innocence had come to an end, and we both dove headfirst into junior cyber-social world.

I do mean both of us. Because after my son went to bed that night (giddy with excitement over the creation of his penguin alter ego, or "avatar"), I opened a Club Penguin account of my own, officially kicking off an ultra-eye-opening, slightly chilling undercover mom investigation.

While Club Penguin may be a current "it" site for kids (so much so that Disney bought it in 2007 for $700 million), it's hardly an only. Rather, it's part of a rapidly expanding new genre of child-oriented virtual world - part social networking, part online game, part Saturday-morning cartoon - that millennial kids are all over like peanut butter on jelly. There are currently more than 150 of these sites either live or in development. By next year, projects Nic Mitham, CEO of UK-based K Zero, a virtual-worlds consulting firm, 150 million children will be members of said (for more on this, see this).

Perhaps the best way to describe the virtual world experience is, it's like tumbling down Alice in Wonderland's rabbit hole. One minute you’re sitting in front of the computer and the next you're in the middle of a virtual ski village complete with simulated snow tubing, swanky alpine shopping, and a cyber-disco.

Unlike traditional videogames, where even the most screen-addicted kid recognizes a distinct separation between himself and the animated character he’s maneuvering with his joystick, your virtual world avatar is you - your virtual self. My Club Penguin avatar is a hot pink-clad go-getter named ChilyLily437 (not to be confused with ChillyLily1 through ChillyLily436). I have my own digital igloo, wardrobe, and penguin posse; I sunbathe, snowboard, and work odd jobs. I even pick up my daily cup of joe at CP's version of Starbucks. All in a perpetual state of social overdrive.

I'm not sure what I expected to find during my two weeks of undercover penguinhood; but whatever it was, I didn't find it. In fact, the brave new world of children's virtual socialization was - for better and for worse - nothing I expected it to be. In the coming issues of Net Family News, I explain what I mean by that as I document ChillyLily437’s adventures. The observations I make will be subjective, of course, but I’ll do my best to ground my reflections (which I'll call "Mom Breaks") in sound research (in the manner Anne Collier). My hope is that this information will help us millennial parents begin to grasp the subtleties and complexities of the digital childhood - along with the impact of social media on our children’s present and future well-being - so that we may begin to find our way along this winding, uncharted parental path.

Next Week: Undercover on Club Penguin Day 1 - Let’s Get this Party Started!

Web courseware raising good Qs

Are they a) learning aids, b) Cliffs Notes lookalikes, c) intellectual property theft, d) none of the above, or e) all the above? One thing's for sure: open courseware projects and sites are universal. They range from MIT's famous OpenCourseWare, putting all coursework on the Web for free, to RipMixLearners, a wiki for sharing class notes and other courseware at University of the Western Cape in South Africa, to the largely US Ivy League-focused with class notes and study groups. And so many others, e.g., Course Hero, Knetwit, PostYourTest, Koofers, blogged about in the Digital Natives blog. Some of the content - for example, problem solution keys and old exams - raise healthy ethical questions that lend themselves less to yes/no answers than to excellent, class and family discussion. The blogger, a science major, wonders, for example, "if the availability of solution keys feed a kind of 'get the answers and the answers only' kind of mentality – an unhealthy focus on the solution rather than the process.... Canny students can usually find the solutions online, whether in freely available old exams/problem set solutions or more involved digging through archived course sites.... Say I find the instructor’s solution manual to my math textbook online – is it okay for me to use it? To copy my homework? To check my homework? If it’s freely available online, am I really taking advantage of an unfair edge? But there's also, arguably, the karmic payback, when it comes to an exam and one hasn’t really learned the material."

Labels: , , ,

Thursday, February 19, 2009

NJ to address bullying of gay students

The New Jersey Governor's Commission on Bullying will soon be looking into bullying, particularly against gay students, and what schools are doing to stop it, the Daily Record reports. Commission chair Stuart Green "said gay students are perhaps the most vulnerable when it comes to bullying, and that schools have not done enough to address the issue.... School officials have been saying for a couple of years that they have just begun to deal with gay and gender identity issues, long after other diversity issues had been addressed." The commission will consider what educational programs and teacher training are needed and - pointing to the online part of bullying - "whether school officials should do more to punish actions that take place outside of school but have an impact on the classroom, as allowed by state law."

Labels: , , , , ,

Social networking growth in India

India has a population of 1.1 billion, out of which a mere 19 million people visited social network sites this past December, comScore reports. Still, social networking growth was significant last year: 51% overall. Google's Orkut, popular in Brazil, is No. 1 in India too, at 12.8 million visitors in December, an increase of 81% over the previous year. Facebook, at 4 million December visitors, is No. 2 (150% growth). Indigenous sites (88% growth) and were in 3rd and 5th places, respectively, but ibibo lost ground, traffic-wise, between Decembers 2007 and '08. In 4th place, San Francisco-based had the highest year-on-year growth at 182%. Meanwhile, the Times of India reports on the Internet as "a great social research tool."

Labels: , , ,

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Facebook's about-face on terms of use

Facebook was smart to go back to its previous terms of use while it conducts this terms-of-use-updating experiment in a spotlighted Petrie dish in what seems like the middle of Mumbai's Victoria Station at rush hour (see CEO Mark Zuckerberg's "Update on Terms"). And this is indeed a giant (global) societal experiment, as we the people (the content producers and distributors) and they the companies (the content co-distributors and hosts) - not to mention policymakers and other overseers and observers - figure out who is responsible and to what degree for protecting the content producer, aka user. Because the social Web is largely a user-produced and user-controlled medium, clearly (to me, anyway) the responsibility is shared. Educating users about that is a challenge all by itself, witness the general lack of close attention to privacy options (see "10 privacy settings every Facebook user should know"), but factor in developing teenage brains learning impulse control and shared responsibility at the same time, and the user-protection challenge grows significantly (see PBS Frontline's "The Teenage Brain").

I said Facebook's smart in my lead up there because, in going back to its previous terms-of-use version, it's buying time for the process of folding user input into the new terms' development process and this giant experiment is also about user (and societal) education. It needs time. There are factors involved that only a few of the privacy bloggers are writing about (e.g., author Daniel Solove), including the tension between consumer privacy pressures and those from law enforcement to hand over as well as retain user data after users have closed their accounts. But time is short, too. Though this social and media experiment - and consensus-building in general - take time, Facebook doesn't have a whole lot, given the climate outside the Petrie dish. The predator panic recently brought into perspective by the Internet Safety Technical Task Force is a good illustration of how worst-case scenarios and fears tend to eclipse the public discussion about the social Web - to the detriment of child safety (see the New York Times and my post on that). Why to the detriment? Because kids usually want to get far away from scared, worked-up parents; they go "underground" online, where parents aren't in the mix. Never the best scenario. [Thanks to UK privacy researcher Tara Taubman for pointing out a few of the links below.]

Here are other reports and commentaries worth reading:

  • Audio interview with both Marc Rotenberg, head of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), and Facebook chief privacy officer Chris Kelly by CNET/CBS tech analyst Larry Magid (Larry is also my co-director at
  • A lawyer's view on Facebook's 180 and how enforceable terms of use are anyway (Maxwell S. Kennerly in Philadelphia)
  • University of Wisconsin information studies Prof. Michael Zimmer's very critical view of Facebook's process
  • Internet consultant and blogger David Silversmith on the technical and monetary realities and then "plain old reality"
  • The Guardian on how people definitely do read the "fine print" in social sites (vs. grocery store loyalty cards)
  • Coverage at the Washington Post and New York Times.
  • The Internet Safety Technical Task Force report

    Labels: , , ,

  • Tuesday, February 17, 2009

    FTC's new behavioral-ad guidelines

    The Federal Trade Commission has just issued guidelines for behavioral advertising, a practice in which a marketer targets ads at a person or group based on their online activities, the San Jose Mercury News reports. The guidelines say Web sites must disclose to their users the data they're collecting on their activities "and give them a chance to opt out" of the data collection. "Privacy advocates immediately criticized the guidelines, which rely on the online advertising industry to regulate itself, as failing to adequately protect consumers. The four nonbinding principles laid out in the 48-page report are for industry self-regulation and "do not have the force of law," the Mercury News reports.

    Labels: ,

    Facebook, terms of use & privacy

    The biggest news over the holiday weekend besides the economy was the buzz about Facebook's recent terms of service update. Facebook said it was all about consolidating and clarifying "what people could and could not do" on the site (see CEO Mark Zuckerberg's blog), but the ruckus raisers said it was about what Facebook could and could not do with users' content, CNET's Caroline McCarthy reports. I think the update and the ensuing flap are much more about what users can do with and for their privacy - and society getting used to a bottom-up, user-driven, user-controlled medium. Here are two important takeaways on user privacy: 1) If you want to delete your own account and all the personal info therein, you can certainly do so, but Facebook can't automatically delete information you post in other people's profiles (because it's on their wall, not yours); 2) if by using Facebook you "license" the site in effect to own and share your content, its use of your content is subject to how you set your privacy settings, so users need to pay attention to and proactively set those privacy options; and 3) that last point is even more true now that Facebook Connect "allows users to 'connect' their Facebook identity, friends and privacy to any site" and Facebook of course cannot control or protect user info in other sites. In his blog post, Zuckerberg wrote, "There is no system today that enables me to share my email address with you and then simultaneously lets me control who you share it with and also lets you control what services you share it with."

    Labels: , , , ,

    Virtual helicopter parenting

    We've all heard of helicopter parents, people who hover a lot over every aspect of their children's lives. Well, now there's some hovering happening in cyberspace too, with parents setting up social-networking profiles and attempting to friend their children and all their friends. It's a bit much, and it can get creepy too (and not just from a teen's perspective), when the result is like insisting on being present at their social circle's every hangout. Author/blogger/parent Sharon Cindrich has a great list of tips for guarding against parental Facebook faux pas - "a few basic rules for parents" of social networkers. The overall rule of thumb, I think, is to try to think about how our teens would feel about having a friend's mom's every tidbit of workday and PTA "news" on their "wall" all the time. Check out Sharon's blog for some very good reasons for not letting this happen - and finding a happy medium between helicopter and fly-by parenting.

    Labels: , ,