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Saturday, August 01, 2009

Adults' social networking doubled

The number of US adults who use social network sites has actually more than doubled since 2007, Mashable reports, citing a new Forrester Research study. Forrester found that just under a third of adults, or 55.6 million people, visit social sites at least monthly, up from 15% in 2007 and about 18% last year. Video viewing, shopping, and email are still more popular than social networking, but SN growth is steady. That, watching/streaming online video, and listening to/streaming online audio are the only three of ten Net activities that show steady growth over the last three years in a Forrester chart. You'll find more Mashable social-media numbers here.

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Great social-media resource in Oz

Looking for nice, clear definitions of social-media tools like blogs and wikis? Check out a new resource in Australia recommended in an educators' bookmarking group I subscribe to: the Technology Guide in the Australian government's Cybersmart site. That's just one piece of a very comprehensive resource that includes online-safety advice and curricula as well. What I like about it is that it also gets at how youth use technology (it doesn't present technology as a problem). There's a "Cybersafety Help" button for Australians in the upper-right-hand corner of every page. Americans seeking such help can go to, Canadians to, and Britons to CEOP.

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Friday, July 31, 2009

Undercover Mom in, Part 3: To pay or not to pay?

By Sharon Duke Estroff

The vast majority of children’s virtual worlds (and certainly the materialistic pinkpalooza at are commercial – not public-interest ¬endeavors. So while these Web sites may have excellent intentions in creating safe, kid-friendly online playspaces, they are, at the end of the day, in it for the money, of course.

Some virtual worlds (like Nickelodeon’s Nicktropolis and Pearson Education’s Poptropica) generate profit through paid advertisements. Kids are allowed to play for free, but their fun is laced with overt and covert commercial messaging (i.e. Apple Jacks banners surrounding the screen and playing hockey using M&M candies as pucks, respectively).

Other virtual worlds, like BarbieGirls, employ a pay-to-play model, meaning that cash flow comes not from outside advertisers but from paid memberships. While anybody can open a free BarbieGirls account with limited play capabilities, only those acquiring paid VIP memberships are allowed (to quote directly from the site) “special access to all the hottest stuff!”

Crown jewels
: Some sites I’ve visited as Undercover Mom reserve the privilege of clothing one's avatar and furnishing his or her online abode for paid members only. Not so in Barbie Girls, where I was allowed to select a stylish, size 0 outfit ¬– and flooring, wallpaper, and a bed for my loft – from the get-go. Yes, I might have signed up for a free account, but I could strut my virtual stuff about town without feeling like I was donning a scarlet “Non-Member” tiara. For kids who cannot afford to pay (or whose parents refuse to pay) for VIP membership but still want to be included in the fun, this is a significant perk, in my book.

Skeletons in the closet: Although my lack of VIP citizenship may not have been glaringly evident to the masses, it certainly was to me; BarbieGirls dishes out constant reminders to non-members of their subprime status. Sure, I could window shop to my heart’s content – even try on glamorous outfits and accessories – but there was a sales attendant on hand at every store reminding me that I couldn’t buy a darn thing unless I coughed up $5.99 a month. In Paw Pawpalooza, a popular region of, I was denied access to both the Tail-Shakin' Treehouse and the Jungle River Boogie ride. The only place I was welcomed was the Posh Pets shop, where I wasn’t allowed to adopt a pet. A similar caste system ensued in Extreme Dream Park where I could not enter the Sparkle Coaster Place, “a magical land filled with treasures and surprises." I was, however, allowed to enter the Purple Parlor where I could get my fortune told. Once a day. Honestly, If I were a tween girl on BarbieGirls, it wouldn’t have taken me 10 minutes to start badgering my parents to let me become a VIP. [Big pressure to be a VIP doesn't only come from Barbie Girls corporate; get the full scoop in my next installment.]

The bottom line: This week’s Undercover Mom adventure drives home an important reality (for both parent and child) that there is no such thing as a free lunch in kids’ virtual worlds. I asked consumer guru Clark Howard, author of Clark Smart Parents, Clark Smart Kids, if he had any suggestions as to how parents might best handle the pay-to-play dilemma presented by BarbieGirls VIP memberships. He suggested: “Sit down with your child and explain that this Web site wants her to pay money to be there, and that if she would like to use her money – or work it off by doing chores around the house – she can; but she needs to understand that, in choosing the membership they will be giving up X,Y, and Z.” It’s Howard’s hope that Congress will eventually pass a law disallowing such direct marketing to children under 14 years of age.

Related links

  • Screenshots illustrating Undercover Mom's points about BarbieGirls this week

  • Paperdolls to avatars: "Girls used to grow up with their dolls; now they are growing up with their avatars," The Guardian reports in an update on virtual worlds in general. It compares kids' and newer grownup virtual worlds with Second Life and explains why VWs, unlike social network sites, actually make money (see also "Virtual economies & kids").

  • Wired's GeekDad on the virtual world Pixie Hollow: "The game allows users to create a Tinker Bell-like character and then use this fairy to explore the land of Pixie Hollow, buy items at stores, make friends with other pixies, buy items at stores, play games and buy items at stores. While my son has really enjoyed playing another of Disney’s MMOGs, Pirates of the Caribbean Online, playing Pixie Hollow with my daughters has left us feeling a little empty."

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

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  • Thursday, July 30, 2009

    iPhone app pinpoints sex offenders

    "Offender Locator" is the 4th most popular paid application in Apple's App Store, according to USATODAY. Users can type in their zip code and get a map pinpointing the addresses of the registered sex offenders within five miles of that location. The app also provides the offenders' names and photos and the crimes for which they were convicted. Users can also request text alerts saying when a registered sex offender moves into their area. The iPhone app costs 99 cents. A BlackBerry version costs $2.99. "Laws in many states limit where convicted sex offenders can live, and ... such laws have been criticized as being so restrictive that they force offenders underground," USATODAY adds. Users might want to note that the app can only provide info on convicted and registered sex offenders and that research shows that the vast majority of child sexual exploiters are people the victims know, so this app shouldn't provide a false sense of security. But it's equally important to note that, according to the latest figures available from the National Data Archives on Child Abuse & Neglect, overall child sexual exploitation decreased 51% from 1990 to 2005.

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    Basic iPod mutating away

    Apple anticipated what would replace the iPod practically when it came out with the first model, if we're to believe Arik Hesseldahi at And I do. I remember Steve Jobs talking about the iPhone as a great music player at a conference of tech execs a few years ago. "Anticipation of the [iPod's] drop-off is 'one of the original reasons' Apple developed the iPhone and the WiFi-enabled iPod touch, Apple Chief Financial Officer Peter Oppenheimer said on a July 21 conference call with analysts," Hesseldahi writes. The iPod needed to become a full-blown connected platform, and it is already – a platform for apps, games, video, and Web info-gathering as much as for music-playing. Also needed now, Hesseldahi says (predictions, probably) are: a mic (for talking via Skype and making recordings without the pesky headset) and a still and video cam. What all this says and what Apple apparently got long ago is that the future is sharing (and producing) as much as consuming media.

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    Wednesday, July 29, 2009

    Texting & teen sleep deprivation

    Sleep specialists are concerned about teens keeping cellphones on all night, right by their beds and under their pillows – because of "how important sleep is to their developing brains," the Charlotte Observer reports. It tells of a 17-year-old in California was getting "near-debilitating migraine headaches throughout the day." The first thing her doctor checked was her eyes. No problem. Then a CAT scan. "It came back clear." He was stumped. What finally came to light was that she slept with her phone at bedside "just in case a friend called or text-messaged her in the middle of the night. Sometimes, she said, she would receive calls or messages as late as 3 a.m. – and she would wake right up to call or text right back." The article doesn't say, but I hope the prescription was that the teen turn off her phone at night. Other problems specialists cite as resulting from sleep deprivation: "impaired concentration, weakened immune systems, crankiness, increased use of nicotine or caffeine and hyperactive behavior often misconstrued as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder." And one other added by Dr. Carolyn Hart at the Presbyterian Center for Sleep Disorders: a decline in school performance and risky driving while drowsy. [See also "House rules for teen texting."]

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    Texting + driving = bad news: Study

    We all instinctively knew this, but now data has finally been released: People who text while driving are 23 times more likely to crash than "nondistracted drivers," CNET reports, citing new findings from the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute. But the researchers didn't just look at texting. Mounting cameras inside vehicles, "they studied where drivers' eyes were looking as they did various things, such as texting, dialing a cell phone, talking on a phone, and reaching for an object. Not surprisingly, the numbers showed that the tasks that took people's eyes off the road caused the greatest amount of danger." The average eyes-off-the-road time for texting was 4.6 seconds – time enough to "travel the length of a football field at 55 mph." Talking on a cellphone, on the other hand, presumably with eyes on the road, increased the chance of crashing 1.3 times - that's talking, not dialing, of course. See CNET for more interesting findings. Here's the New York Times's coverage.

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    Tuesday, July 28, 2009

    Teens' illegal music downloading going down

    It's great to get free music, TV, and film off the Internet, but it's even better when you can get it fast – and that it's legal too maybe be a bonus but isn't a key issue. That's my take-away from a passel of recent stories and blog posts. Which spells a turning point for the music industry: piracy may have peaked. Thirteen-year-old Josh in New York may've said it all. His dad, a VC and a blogger, asked Josh how he's seeing all the episodes of his favorite TV show, "Friday Night Lights," afraid Josh will say "BitTorrent," the file-sharing technology millions of people use for free illegal downloading, but Josh just said "BitTorrent's too slow." He streams the shows with the family's Netflix's $24.95/mo. subscription. His dad wrote: "The good news is that, as the media business wakes up and puts all the media we want out there in streams available on the Internet (paid or free - this is not about free), we see people streaming more and stealing less." [Brad Stone of the New York Times picked up this story.] The Guardian cites a survey showing that Josh is not alone: "The number of teenagers [14-18] illegally sharing music has fallen dramatically in the past year." They're "using services such as YouTube and Spotify [the latter with 6 million users in Europe and now trying to break into the US market]." The Times also mentions MySpace Music and imeem among popular sources of licensed media streaming. In December 2007, 42% of teens were illegally downloading music, down to 26% this past January, The Guardian adds. Another study by NPD Group in the US found that teens 13-17 "illegally downloaded 6% fewer tracks in 2008 than in 2007, while more than half said they were now listening to legal online radio services like Pandora, up from 34% the year before," the Times reports. Here's similar coverage from ZDNET.

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    Monday, July 27, 2009

    Virtual economies & kids

    Virtual worlds make their money very differently from social-network sites - mostly from selling virtual objects. Though Disney's Pixie Hollow and Webkinz and Webkinz, Jr. sell real objects such as "friendship bracelets" and plush toys, the economies of most virtual worlds (and multiplayer online games) rely on objects and artifacts such as clothing, furniture, and other property. Social sites, which to date have focused more on display ads, too, are moving into virtual-object retail (see this about Hi5 selling virtual gifts). A figure cited by The Economist indicates everybody may be moving in this direction, though there's much to be learned about this business model. The article mentions that users at a popular VW aimed at teens, Gaia Online, "spend more than $1 million per month on virtual items." Gaia recently hired a full-time economist, The Economist says, "to grapple with problems that are well known in the real world, such as inflation and an unequal distribution of wealth" (maybe child psychologists will need to employed too!). The British news magazine otherwise paints a more measured picture of virtual-world popularity than do other news outlets, but the figure it cites is "regular visitors," not overall registered users. "In America, nearly 10 million children and teenagers visit virtual worlds regularly," it refers to eMarketer as finding. Virtual Worlds News earlier cited data from Strategy Analytics projecting an overall global population of 186 million now, growing to 640m by 2015 (users of all ages - I blogged about that here). My most recent post on VW population is here.

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