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Friday, April 24, 2009

Undercover Mom in Stardoll, Part 2: The skinny on virtual paperdolls

By Sharon Duke Estroff

In case there’s any doubt over which is more fun - trying on real clothes at Bloomingdales or trying on virtual clothes at a Stardoll department store - there shouldn’t be. The latter is the hands-down winner.

Having survived recent bathing suit shopping trauma, I found dressing up MattieLu, my Stardoll avatar, to be a little slice of shopping heaven. Every frock I slipped onto my virtual self accented my many assets. As far as minimizing my bodily flaws, completely unnecessary, as I apparently haven’t any.

When I created MattieLu during my personal Stardoll design process, I was given the option of shaping her frame by choosing body size 1, 2, or 3 - one extreme presumably super skinny and the other more curvaceous. Upper and lower bodies are modified separately so I could theoretically create an apple (heavier on top) or pear (heavier below) framed avatar.

I was fleetingly impressed. Stardoll’s overriding shopping theme may be shamelessly materialistic, its retail offerings, more than slightly slutty, but at least this youth website is cognizant of the importance of building healthy body image in kids. At least it’s doing its part to counteract the counterproductive message (sent children’s way by skeletal tween idols and such) that fame, fortune, and happiness are inversely correlated with body fat index.

Nevertheless first impressions can be short lived. Upon alternating my avatars body type number, I recognized virtually no change whatsoever in her frame. Perhaps that option isn’t right now working, I reasoned.

After much closer inspection, however, I did notice a very slight puffing and unpuffing of MattieLu’s frame with my ascension and descension of number choice. (ee screenshots). Still, if this was the extent of body-type variation advocated by Stardoll, I might as well hibernate for the entirety of bathing suit season.

Does Stardoll’s perfectly proportioned avatars indeed foster unhealthy body image in the young girls who create them? Does its scant, midriff-baring couture encourage excessive dieting?

I think the Stardoll club message boards speak for themselves. (Stardoll members who cyberswear they’re at least 13 years old are allowed to join clubs; each club has its own message board where members post questions, suggestions, and free associative ramblings.) A disproportionate number of posts revolve around topics of physical appearance, weight loss and eating disorders. I came across several dozen clubs that are exclusively devoted to such subjects (see screenshot), but I also came upon weight issue posting in presumably unrelated forums like the “Animal Lovers” club.

Finally, there are sure to be those who argue that Stardoll’s pro-emaciation message is really no different than that of Barbie who’s plagued generations of girls with an impossibly perfect vision of female physical beauty. But as a former Barbie junkie and current concerned mom/undercover Stardoll member, I am going to have to differ on that one. Where there was never any question that Barbie was an inanimate plastic plaything, Stardoll essentially eradicates the line between fantasy and reality, immersing kids in its appearance-obsessed virtual world. As an adult, I intellectually grasped that the Stardoll experience is a product of state of the art computer graphics and technology. Still, I found it difficult to remain impervious to its overriding superficial mindset. On the upside, sampling life as a size 0 did inspire me to dust off my treadmill and lay off the Girl Scout cookies for a while.

  • MattieLu as a No. 1 body type
  • But No. 2 isn't that different
  • MattieLu settles on No. 3
  • Kelly Osbourne, Stardoll-style
  • Signs of anorexia
  • Scary advice on a Stardoll message board

    For an index of the complete Undercover Mom series to date, please click here.

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  • Thursday, April 23, 2009

    Why technopanics are bad

    Remember the predator panic? It's not over, of course - presentations with titles like "Facebook, the Sex Offenders' Catalog" and "MySpace the Predator's New Playground" (actual titles) are still being given at a time when we need to empower young social media users and their parents, not scare them to death (for more on this, see "A new online safety: The means, not the end").

    Now we really need to prevent a sexting panic from developing. I really believe teens themselves will help us end the trend if they're given the facts about current child-porn laws (see "Tips to Prevent Sexting"), which hopefully will undergo revisions, where minors and adolescent behavior are concerned and criminal intent is not (see what's happening in Vermont along these lines).

    "But why are technopanics bad, if there's a chance they'll scare people into safe behavior?" you might ask. For one thing because the Internet is ubiquitous, here to stay, a tool of participatory culture and democracy, and youth are its most active, fluent users - its drivers, in many ways. Young people aren't scared of technology. They know all the workarounds if we get scared and try to ban the Net from their lives. They can easily go "underground" (away from home, at friends' houses, public hot spots, using friends' very mobile connected devices, from smartphones to music and game players), which can actually put them at greater risk, because when they're in stealth mode, we're no longer in the equation, and they need us as backup in their online as well as offline lives.

    And there are macro-level, national and global, reasons why panics are bad. Here's a list, a draft for which your comments and additions are welcome. Technopanics are bad because they...

  • Cause fear, which interferes with parent-child communication, which in turn puts kids at greater risk.
  • Cause schools to fear and block digital media when they need to be teaching constructive use, employing social-technology devices and teaching new media literacy and citizenship throughout the curriculum.
  • Turn schools into barriers rather than contributors to young people's constructive use.
  • Increase the irrelevancy of school to active young social-technology users via the sequestering or banning of educational technology and hamstringing some of the most spirited and innovative educators.
  • Distract parents, educators, policymakers from real risks - including, for example, child-pornography laws that do not cover situations where minors can simultaneously be victim and "perpetrator" and, tragically, become registered sex offenders in cases where there was no criminal intent (e.g., see this).
  • Reduce the competitiveness of US education among developed countries already effectively employing educational technology and social media in schools (for an international view, see Joan Ganz Cooney Center/Sesame Workshop's "Pockets of Potential: Using Mobile Technologies to Promote Children's Learning").
  • Reduce the competitiveness of US technology and media businesses practicing good corporate citizenship where youth online safety is concerned.
  • Lead to bad legislation, which aggravates above outcomes and takes the focus off areas where good laws on the books can be made relevant to current technology use.
  • Widen the participation gap for youth - technopanics are barriers for children and teens to full, constructive participation in participatory culture and democracy.

    What am I missing? Please add to or comment the list - via the ConnectSafely forum, commenting here, or email to anne(at) We are literally all in this together, don't you think?!

    Related links

  • Prof. Henry Jenkins: "Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century," Fall 2006
  • "Living and Learning with New Media," a summary of findings (qualitative and quantitative) form the MacArthur Foundation-funded Digital Youth Project, by Ito, Mizuko, Heather A. Horst, Matteo Bittanti, danah boyd, Becky Herr-Stephenson, Patricia G. Lange, C.J. Pascoe, and Laura Robinson, Fall 2008.
  • "Critical Information Studies for a Participatory Culture," Dr. Jenkins's list of factors that block the full achievement of a more participatory society, 4/10/09 post on his blog
  • The skills of new media literacy
  • For a bit of history, see my first item on this, "'Predator panic'," in 2006 and "The latest technopanic" last August (before "sexting" was a word), linking to Alice Marwick's definitive paper on moral panics.
  • "Enhancing Child Safety & Online Technologies," the 12/31/08 report of the Internet Safety Technical Task Force at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society, and my post about it
  • "Pennsylvania case study: Social networking risk in context"

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  • New DSi = new iPhone for kids?

    That's what the Youth Trends research firm's calling this third version of Nintendo's handheld game player. "The $170 DSi fully embraces the two biggest trends in gaming: customization/personalization and multi-player interactivity," writes its Gen Digital blogger. By customization, the blog's referring to all the little features that are putting the new DSi in competition with the iPod Touch - 2 easy-to-use built-in 0.3 megapixel cameras, photo editing, game downloading, music recording, wi-fi, and Web browsing - features that I think do make the DSi (with its 850 games to choose from and not so many to download yet) just that much more attractive to young gamers. Interestingly, with this device, Nintendo's targeting "women, adults, and non-gamers," according to Wall Street Journal blogger Courtney Banks, but her review makes it sound like those users would much prefer the iPod Touch's better Web and photo-sharing functionality (browsing on the DSi is very slow, she couldn't play video, and "any time I attempted to load Gmail I was greeted with an "insufficient memory error" message).

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    Wednesday, April 22, 2009

    Sony's new virtual world & parent guide

    Is Sony's Free Realms, now in beta testing, a virtual world or a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG)? The latter is what Sony calls it, but I think it's both. Available online through a Web browser, the free version is more virtual world (with eight environments to choose from) which includes mini games in 14 categories (e.g., cooking, kart racing, mining, demolition derby, and music conducting). The $4.95/mo. version is the MMORPG involving quests and leveling as in the multi-million-player World of Warcraft. With both versions, you choose an avatar or "job." Member jobs sound a bit like some of WoW's - wizard, blacksmith, medic, archer, and warrior; free ones to be available at launch ninja, brawler, chef, miner, kart driver, card duelist, pet trainer, and postman (the game includes trading cards). Both members and free players can buy virtual goods for their avatars through "micro-transactions" with credit cards. Since the game's for all ages (likely starting at age 7 or 8), there are pretty robust-sounding parental controls (if kids are truthful about their ages). If you or your child would like to beta test Free Realms, email me at anne(at), and I'll forward your request. Meanwhile, Sony has just released its "Let the Kids Game" guide for gamers' parents. The free booklet, downloadable here, offers advice for healthy gaming and pulls together third-party research about the positives of videogaming, saying it "can help kids socialize, improve cognitive abilities, and strengthen family ties."

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    Child protection in virtual worlds

    Some 70 million people under 16 will have accounts in virtual worlds by the end of this year, the New York Times reports. That's twice last year's figure, it adds, citing the research of UK virtual world consulting firm K Zero. And there are more than 200 worlds such as Disney's Club Penguin, Cartoon Network's FusionFall, and Helsinki-based Habbo in place, in the planning, or in development, the Times cites Virtual Worlds Management research as showing. The key to keeping all those kids' in-world experiences safe and constructive and this growing business thriving is moderation. There are two kinds: human and technological. Both kinds have to deal with the "continuing game of cat and mouse between the young people and the technology designed to protect them" - such as profanity filters, chat limited to predetermined phrases, and abuse reporting. Please see the article for details on the changing interplay between human moderators and the technology that supports their work. [See also "Top 8 workarounds of kid virtual world users."]

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    Tuesday, April 21, 2009

    Anti-bullying & -cyberbullying reports, projects

    So far this year there have been four suicides in the US because of bullying, writes Chicago mental health examiner Jerilyn Dufresne, marking the suicide of 11-year-old bullying victim Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover in The Examiner. His mother is asking her state government, Massachusetts, to investigate the school Carl attended, reports. The family of a 17-year-old bullying and suicide victim in Ohio is suing their school district for violating the boy's "civil right to safety, as well as the family's 14th Amendment rights to raise and educate Eric [Mohat] in a safe environment," the [northern Ohio] News-Herald reports. In the UK, counselors at BeatBullying, a nonprofit organization, have trained 700 teens to mentor bullying victims in both face-to-face meetings and through a new Web service called CyberMentors, reports. adds that "over the next two years, the new CyberMentors project will be brought to other schools across the country as part of the national peer mentoring pilot announced by the Government." The New York Times recently zoomed in on Scarsdale [N.Y.] Middle School's strong emphasis on empathy training to reduce bullying. It refers to the Character Education Partnership, a nonprofit group in Washington, saying that "18 states - including New York, Florida, Illinois, Nebraska and California - require programs to foster core values such as empathy, respect, responsibility and integrity." Another such approach is the "CAPSULE" anti-bullying instruction program that has been tested in both US and UK schools (see my earlier post). And there's a new children's book out about cyberbullying, Don't Hit Send Just to Fit In. Here's background on US case law where cyberbullying and schools are concerned, from attorney and educator Kathleen Conn in Educational Leadership and London-based Childnet International's wonderful anti-cyberbullying resource (and moving video) at

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    Asst. principal tells his own story

    Two months after his boss, the principal of Freedom High School in Loudoun County, Va., told him to store a photo of a semi-naked girl on his computer "in case we needed it later," Asst. Principal Ting-Yi Oei was charged with "failure to report suspected child abuse" and put on administrative leave (he hadn't been able to ID the girl because the photo was taken from the neck down). That was last May, he writes in a commentary in the Washington Post. Only this month did his legal ordeal end, with the charges against him thrown out of court, as earlier reported (here's my post). Thought you'd like to get his take on what happened. It's a long story, so I'll leave the details of this latest misapplication of child-porn law in a sexting case to the teller.

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    Monday, April 20, 2009

    'Suddenly Susan' & *social* mass media

    If you aren't among the tens of millions of people who've already viewed Susan Boyle's performance on Britain's Got Talent (their American Idol-like talent show), give yourself a nearly 10-minute-long smile and watch her floor the judges and audience with her gorgeous rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream" from Les Miserables. As of this writing, that recording on YouTube has been viewed nearly 34 million times (another version in the top 5 search results for Boyle has been viewed 9+ million times) and is on track to pass the 100 million mark, Mashable reports. More than 3,300 stories about Boyle in news outlets worldwide turned up today in a Google News search. Though this doesn't seem like the kind of story I usually blog about, it actually is: 1) Boyle sang for her mom. This was the first time she could sing since her mother's passing two years ago, The Times reports. 2) Those among her fans who've been bullied need to know that she has been too; she suffered mild brain damage as a baby, had learning disabilities in school, "became a target for bullies ... but found sanctuary in her [large] closeknit, religious family," the Times adds (and probably in her singing talent), all of which appears to have stood her in good stead as she faced visibly skeptical judges and audience members (don't miss watching the metamorphosis on all those faces). 3) Boyle's story is a brilliant example of the new mass media - *social* mass media, when all the online views, tweets, profile comments, blog posts, retweets, and talk show plugs, probably add up to "a bigger audience than the U.S. viewership of the Super Bowl," blogs Time media columnist James Poniewozik. "It also means that more of the power, and the influence over how those moments are received, falls to the excerpters and commentators who reproduce, repost and embed the videos." See also "Suddenly Susan: Singer's Town Is Agog," Washington Post UK correspondent Mary Jordan's online discussion with Post readers about her visit with the singer in her Blackburn, Scotland, home.

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    Key US study on youth videogame addiction

    In what's being described as the US's first nationally representative study on videogame addiction, an Iowa State University researcher found that 88% of the US's 45 million 8-to-18-year-olds play videogames, and 8.5% of them show "multiple signs of behavioral addiction," the Washington Post reports. That means that 3 million young people are either addicted or "'at least have problems of the magnitude' that call for help," the researcher, Douglas Gentile, said. Symptoms include "spending increasing amounts of time and money on videogames to feel the same level of excitement; irritability or restlessness when play is scaled back; escaping problems through play; skipping chores or homework to spend more time at the controller; lying about the length of playing time; and stealing games or money to play more," the Post reports. It's important, I think, to note Gentile's remark that the study doesn't show that videogames are bad or even addictive, but that "some kids use them in a way that is out of balance and harms various other areas of their lives." The research is now in the journal Psychological Science.

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