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Friday, July 10, 2009

States' anti-sexting legislation

Right now in Illinois, a teen who takes and sends a nude self-portrait on a cellphone can "be charged with production and/or manufacturing of child pornography," resulting in "mandatory sex offender registration," Suburban Chicago News reports. So State Rep. Darlene Senger has filed legislation that would keep a sexting case involving a minor out of court. Representative Senger told the News that the aim is accountability appropriate to the age and intent of the sexter (assuming it was neither malicious nor criminal) - e.g., "community service, writing term papers, apology letters, curfew regulations and allowing parents to install software on their cell phones to closely monitor their child." Here's the view from Illinois teens in the Naperville Sun. In Colorado, the CBS4 News headline is "'Sexting' Now The Same As Internet Luring In Colo.", because Colorado is adding cellphones to its child-sexual-exploitation law, but I think CBS4 didn't understand the legislation authors' intent simply to add phone-based photo-sharing to the Web-based variety. Meanwhile, anti-sexting ed is in the works for Colorado youth. Jefferson County District Attorney Scott Storey's office (in the Denver area) is working to develop a "6-to-9-month program that children will have to go through that educates them about boundaries if they're caught sexting." Brochures for school distribution are also in the works. [Vermont recently passed a law that decriminalizes sexting by minors (see "Sexting legislative update" for more).]

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Thursday, July 09, 2009

The power of play: Cyberbullying solution?

Stuart Brown, founder and director of the National Institute for Play in Carmel, Calif., tells the story of what happened between a hungry, 1,200-pound polar bear and a husky tied up at a camp near Hudson Bay, late one October day. The bear approached the group of dogs with his eyes fixed in a predatory stare. Amazingly, one of the huskies greets him in a "play bow," wagging her tail. Dr. Brown, a psychiatrist and neurologist, describes how the two animals begin a "play ballet" – beautifully illustrated by German photographer Norbert Rosing here – that literally disarms the hungry bear in a situation that otherwise would've been a "short fight to the death." Brown says "you see them in an altered state, a state of play," where time drops away."And it's that state that allows these two creatures ... [to begin] to do something neither would've done without the play signals," he later tells public radio host Krista Tippett – "a marvelous example of how a differential in power can be overridden by a process of nature that's within all of us."

That stopped me in my tracks, hearing Brown say that a power differential, a basic component of bullying and cyberbullying, can be overridden by the playfulness or desire to play, which his research has found to be biologically inherent in each of us. Could play – in virtual worlds, in the backyard, and on the school playground (where Brown says kids learns as much as if not more than in classrooms) – itself be protective, be a solution to online harassment and cyberbullying?

Brown's earliest work was back in the late '60s, when he was asked to be the psychiatrist working on the case of Charles Whitman, the "Texas Tower murderer," who Brown found to have grown up with "severe play deprivation." "The progressive suppression of developmentally normal play," he says, made Whitman and other homicide convicts whose lives he studied "more vulnerable to the tragedies they perpetrated."

On the other hand, playfulness and play signals, like those of the husky in the story above, provide a sense of safety, invite communication, and "humanize" or lower inhibition in a good way by exposing more of who the other person is. [BTW, the bear came back to play with the husky every evening that week, Brown says, and nobody got hurt.] "Nothing lights up the brain like play," he said: "three-dimensional play fires up the cerebellum, puts a lot of impulses into the frontal lobe, the executive portion of the brain, and helps contextual memory to be developed," good health, and many other benefits Brown lists in a TEDTalk he gave last year. And there are so many kinds of play – solo play, social play, body play, object play, imaginative play, spectator play, exploratory play, ritual play, rough-and-tumble play (the Institute has organized them into seven patterns of play. In his talk, he shows a photo of a 15th-century painting of people in a courtyard engaged in more than 100 kinds of play. "We may have lost something in our [contemporary] culture," Brown said. "Play is hugely important to the learning and the crafting of the brain; it's not just something you do in your spare time," and he adds that, by definition, it's purposeless. "If the purpose of play is more important than the act of doing it, it's probably not play," he said. The opposite of play is not work, but depression, he added, and play is vital all through life, not just for children.

All forms of play have value, Brown seems to say, and he doesn't exclude videogame or virtual-world play in his interview with Tippett this past week, "Play, Spirit and Character." The more 3-D they are and the more body movement they involve the better, he indicates. Of course these elements are being added to tech-based games. And we're seeing that the richer and more unpredictable the virtual environment, the more imaginative, experimental, and exploratory play are involved. So I would love to get some great virtual worlds I've encountered – e.g., Dizzywood, WeeWorld, and Teen Second Life – talking and participating in research with the National Institute for Play. We need to know more about the role of virtual worlds in the beneficial effects of play for people of all ages - as well as about how play can mitigate antisocial behavior.

If you can catch the Brown interview, listen for what he says about parenting throughout too, especially the part, about halfway through, where he says that taking risks (though certainly not excessive risk) is an important part of play, "necessary to the well-being and future of the species. I think it's safer for the person who is a player to maybe take a few hard knocks ... in childhood than it is to insulate them from the possibility of that. I think [insulating them] constricts their psyches and their futures much more," Brown said. He also talks about the problem with helicopter parenting, sounding a bit like Lenore Skenazy, author of Free-Range Kids, and the New York Times's Lisa Belkin in "Let the Kid Be."

I've long felt that empathy training and other efforts to reduce the impact of online disinhibition (helping kids understand those are human beings with feelings behind those profiles, screennames, avatars, and text messages) are important keys to beating cyberbullying. But now I'm thinking there's probably a role for play!

Next week: Play, Part 2: Violence in videogames

Related links

  • "The Serious Need for Play" in Scientific American
  • Play deficit: In a just-released Harris Interactive survey for KaBOOM, "96% of parents said that playing outside was critical to keep kids physically fit, but only 17% thought children played enough outside." Parents say their children spend less than an hour a day engaged in unstructured play outdoors, on average, and "92% of parents say that children today spend less time playing outside than they did when they were growing up."
  • The opportunities lifelong play presents, according to the National Institute for Play: transforming Education, Personal Health, Relationships, and Corporate Innovation
  • "You Play World of Warcraft? You're Hired!" in Wired and "Home-schooling with World of Warcraft" earlier here in NFN
  •,, and Teen Second Life

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  • Snapshot of parental-control use

    Parents seem to have a love-hate relationship with parental-control software. "Four out of five parents that use parental control software don't turn it on, despite being concerned about their children's online safety," reports, citing a survey by McAfee computer security company. In other highlights, 52% of parents "admitted they never changed the security settings on their parental controls software"; nearly two-thirds haven't talked about "online security" with their kids; just under half say they monitor kids' online activities but 30% said they leave the kids alone in their rooms when using the Net, and 26% of all 5-to-7-year-olds have a computer in their rooms.

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    Wednesday, July 08, 2009

    Drive-by downloads & kids' media literacy

    Current events and computer security increasingly have a lot in common. Put top news stories like the death of Michael Jackson and Web surfing habits into family discussions or dinner-table chat, and it's win-win for everybody. Kids gain a little in media literacy, and family computers avoid infection. "How can that be?" you might ask. More and more Web sites – including those of the best media companies and nonprofit organizations – are getting hacked and "booby-trapped," the San Jose Mercury News reports. "A human isn't required to click on an email link or to agree to install any software. Instead, the sites automatically download software onto visitors' computers" - called "drive-by downloads." Where do big news stories or Michael Jackson come in? Cybercriminals target the sites that get the most traffic. Computer security firm TrendMicro tells us that "this past week, we did see a lot of cybercriminal activity designed to take advantage of the rush to the Web, and search for information and posting of tributes to Michael Jackson. We tend to see this a lot for celebrities and big events (elections, Olympics, you name it). Where the people go, so do the pickpockets." A particularly egregious recent example - specifically targeting kids - happened on the discussion boards for Neopets; FoxNews reports. It's called social engineering: "The ploy is simply using normal human behavior (curiosity + rushing to the Web to popular places for info) against people," TrendMicro adds. Users click around unthinkingly. "It's like driving by an accident - our urge to satisfy our curiosity actually could put us in danger ourselves on the road." Drive-by downloads = valuable new-media-literacy lessons. Mindful surfing, downloading, and uploading can be taught again and again in different ways, with the top news stories as talking points and teachable moments.

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    Tuesday, July 07, 2009

    Online 'walled garden' aimed at tween girls

    Here's an innovative idea for parents (of girls 8-12) who are concerned about predators: My Secret Circle. It gives new meaning to the safe playground or walled garden idea, because - with this hardware product, the My Secret Circle Access Key (pictured here), which plugs into a computer USB port - groups of real-life friends can socialize online while being completely closed off from the Internet and vice versa. As the site explains it, "My Secret Circle Friend Code Generator generates a unique 12 digit number" that can only be exchanged through an "invitation system," which allows the user to trade her code with a friend in person. "In order to become 'friends,' each girl must own an Access Key" and go through the code-exchange process herself. John Biggs at the CrunchGear blog seems to like it. The only problem is, the whole concept is based on the premise that the most common risk to online kids is adult predators. Research shows, however, that the most salient risk is cyberbullying and harassment - mean things peers say to each other; friends becoming ex-friends and violating trust; sharing passwords and impersonating peers; etc. Keeping adults out of girls' "secret circles" could actually have the opposite effect to what its creators intended: completely safe socializing. Here's the report of the Internet Safety Technical Task Force, which contains the cyberbullying finding among others in a full review of online-safety research thru 2008.

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    Teacher's Facebook 'teachable moment'

    I loved The Ethicist's answer to the question of how an 8th grade teacher, who has been "friended" by a lot of her students, should deal with issues like underage drinking when they come up in students' Facebook profiles: "She should carpe that diem," Randy Cohen writes in his New York Times column. "Were she simply to bust these online doofuses, she would squander a chance to convey something of lasting importance and leave them feeling that she had betrayed their trust. In short, her essential role is educator, not cop." I, too, wonder what suspension or other discussion-free discipline accomplishes, when there's an opportunity for students to add some life literacy to their tech literacy. [See also "Zero tolerance = zero intelligence: Juvenile judge," "Schools: How to handle group cyberbullying?," "Facebook: No. 1 tool for parenting? Maybe. Use wisely.", and "Anti-cyberbullying teachable moment."]

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    Monday, July 06, 2009

    Russia's avid social networkers

    Russians are the most engaged social networkers in the world, spending an average of 6.6 hours in social sites a month, based on comScore's survey of online social networking in 40 countries. "Of the 1.1 billion people age 15 and older worldwide who accessed the Internet from a home or work location in May 2009, 734.2 million visited at least one social networking site during the month, representing a penetration of 65% of the worldwide Internet audience," comScore's press release says. The rest of the Top 10 countries in May were Brazil (6.3 hrs), Canada (5.6), Puerto Rico (5.3), Spain (5.3), Finland (4.7), UK (4.6), Germany (4.5), US (4.2), and Colombia (4.1). Russia's Top 3 social network sites were (18.9 million people or 45% of Russia's Net users), (24%), and Mail.Ru-My World (20%). Facebook (2%) and MySpace Sites (1%) were 7th and 9th place, respectively.

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