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Friday, August 14, 2009

1 view of kids' top Web searches

Though some of the news coverage called the results of Symantec's survey of kids' Web searches "shocking," I don't think they'd surprise too many parents (or anyone who was once a kid). The results suggest that kids really like watching videos on YouTube, want to sell stuff and make a little money, are curious about sex and certain body parts, like social-network sites a lot, want the latest on certain celebrities like Miley Cyrus and the Twilight stars, and are looking for the latest video from Fred, the uber-popular kid character on YouTube with the really high voice. Though we all remember a developmentally appropriate interest in sex when we were kids, one reason why "sex" and "porn" were in the Top 10 (spots 4 and 6, respectively) could well be kids testing the system: the study was of young people with a monitoring product called OnlineFamily.Norton installed on their computers. Symantec, which makes the product, isn't releasing the number of kids in the study (though it said the results are based on 3.5 million queries by those 8-to-13-year-olds). The software, which parents configure for kids' maturity levels, alerts the account holder when a child tries to access inappropriate sites (involving violence, sex, drugs, etc.), but what I like about it is that it's designed as a source of talking points for family discussion about the online part of kids' lives. Ideally, that's the best use of monitoring software (and it can be a good deterrent when kids know it's installed).

One little surprising thing about the survey noted in a great analysis at ReadWriteWeb was that kids were searching for easy-to-remember URLs like Facebook, MySpace, and Yahoo. "Some may say that this points to children not entirely grasping the way internet addresses work, but it's more likely an example of the trend where search has replaced typing in URLs for navigating the net." Here's coverage at the BBC and Reuters.

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Undercover Mom in BarbieGirls, Part 4: Peer pressure to pay up

By Sharon Duke Estroff

Among the cardinal (albeit unfortunate) rules of the schoolyard social jungle is that the more cool, expensive stuff you have, the higher you climb on the food chain. And what kid doesn’t wish to become king or queen of the jungle? Children’s virtual worlds like Barbie Girls understand this fundamental truth about their target audience, so they lay the groundwork for a social caste system by offering privileged paid memberships (i.e. Barbie Girl’s VIP Club) - and let peer pressure take care of the rest.

While I was allowed as a non-paying member to select a single stylish outfit on sign up, purchasing additional attire requires a premium membership. With only the clothes on my back, I couldn’t swap out my wardrobe on the quarter hour like my VIP peers. I couldn’t catwalk the contents of my closet through town - or accessorize with funky jewelry and purses. Instead, I was forced to wear the same lame sundress 24x7, a Barbie Girl social faux pas of the highest order.

I faced similar stresses over my Barbie Girls room, a loft-looking studio apartment with a double bed. Not that my room wasn't nice. The floors were hardwood and my comforter was swanky. But my VIP pals' pads were lavishly furnished from wall to wall and decked out with Jacuzzis, entertainment centers, and indoor hammocks strung between breezy palm trees. I cringed at the prospect of hosting a party in my spare, humble abode. But, alas, it was a non-issue, since subprime citizens such as myself cannot invite guests to their rooms.

Truth be told, the materialistic messaging and pressures I encountered on BarbieGirls weren’t really any different than those that kids face daily in our consumeristic contemporary culture. Yet in this particular virtual-world setting - a societal microcosm populated by mallrats and would-be super models - the overall effect was admittedly more intense.

But here's the sparkly silver lining: provides modern parents with an ideal (albeit unlikely) teaching tool. So sit down with your tween and explore the Web site together. Use the magical hyperbole of Barbie's online world as a launching pad for essential parent-child conversations about marketing and materialism; possessions and popularity; friends and peer pressure; happiness, gratitude, and balance. Help her understand that while glitz, glamor, and fabulous clothes can be cool and lots of fun, our personal worth and value ultimately come from the inside out - and not the other way around.

Related links

  • Screenshots that show what Sharon means, for example, the difference between BarbieGirls Basic and BarbieGirls VIP at a glance
  • "Paying for Points" broadens out this picture. It's an analysis of payment and reward systems (and the social hierarchies they create) in virtual worlds, starting with WeeWorld - by analyst and blogger Tim Howgego in the UK .

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

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  • Thursday, August 13, 2009

    IL bans sex offenders from social sites

    Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn has signed into law a bill that bans registered sex offenders from social network sites, PC World reports. Sounds like a good idea, but the law is problematic for a number of reasons, analysts are saying: This is a state law concerning an international medium. It concerns registered sex offenders, the definition of which covers a vast array of offenses in Illinois. The law "does not distinguish between violent criminals who have served prison time for rape – and adults who are registered sex offenders because of youthful hijinks," reports CBS/CNET law writer Declan McCullagh. It creates a false sense of security, since the vast majority of child molesters are people kids know in real life, not much in social sites, research shows. It also raises questions such as: Does this require all sites with social-media features somehow to match all site visitors to a sex offender database, how will Illinois enforce it, and does this law really accomplish what it was written for? Here's the view from Larry Magid of and at CNET and a commentary in [Also related is my post earlier this week about US sex-offender registries.]

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    World of Warcraft, MMORPGs in school

    At Peggy Sheehy's middle school in Suffern, N.Y., the introduction of World of Warcraft (WoW) is going like this: first it's the focus of an after-school club, then "others joining us will be implementing it with the 'at-risk' student population [and] the 'gifted' student group," followed by regular classes "for specific content-area projects," Sheehy, a teacher and media specialist, said in an interview at As a high-level player of this multiplayer online game (or MMORPG) and guild founder herself, she's been exploring what can be taught with the multiplayer online game because she has already done a lot of teaching of everything from literature to body image for a health class in and with the virtual world Teen Second Life, and she saw some new opportunities in WoW, for example the opportunity to increase student engagement by teaching within a graphically compelling virtual environment. When that happens, she says, even reading levels go up: "My kids, who are 13 years old, are reading on a sixth-grade or a fourth-grade level in school when tested, but ... if you test them with the same methodology that you would test reading a John Steinbeck novel in school ... on World of Warcraft content, all of a sudden their scores are higher." Here's a site, created by educators (a collaborative Web site called a "wiki," as in, that's dedicated to developing lesson plans and other instructional tools incorporating World of Warcraft - so far for teaching math, writing, social interaction, digital citizenship, online safety, and 21st-century skills. [See also "Play, Part 2: Violence in videogames" and "Homeschooling with World of Warcraft", and "Can World of Warcraft make you smarter?" at MSNBC (for more on the body-image project, see Sheehy's answer to Question No. 13 on this page at]

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    Documentary on multiplayer online games

    If parents want to understand what's so appealing about MMORPGs ("massively multiplayer online role-playing games"), they might check out a new documentary on the subject, Second Skin. Of the 50 million people who play multiplayer online games, 50% feel they are addicted, the doc reports. It offers insights into who plays these videogames, such as EverQuest and World of Warcraft (the latter grosses $1.2 billion a year, Second Skin reports). Viewers meet all kinds of players, from those who say they're addicted and how they became so to players who've fallen in love with each other in a game (before meeting offline) to "disabled players whose lives have been given new purpose to gold farmers, entrepreneurs and widows," its creators say, adding that "Second Skin opens viewers' eyes to a phenomenon that may permanently change the way human beings interact." On the subject of dating, the doc (which is about 90 min. in length), says one in three women gamers date someone they met in a virtual world and that, for every one female gamer, there are 10 single male gamers. The Guardian gives it a thumbs-up. If you have the time and interest, it's free for the viewing today here.

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    Wednesday, August 12, 2009

    US sex-offender laws, registries not conducive to child safety

    The US's burgeoning sex-offender registries are becoming more of a problem than a solution. "Because so many offences require registration, the number of registered sex offenders in America has exploded," The Economist reports in a thorough look at the subject. "As of December last year, there were 674,000 of them, according to the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children. If they were all crammed into a single state, it would be more populous than Wyoming, Vermont or North Dakota. As a share of its population, America registers more than four times as many people as Britain, which is unusually harsh on sex offenders."

    The problem is when people "assume that anyone listed on a sex-offender registry must be a rapist or a child molester. But most states spread the net much more widely. A report by Sarah Tofte of Human Rights Watch found that at least five states required men to register if they were caught visiting prostitutes.... No fewer than 29 states required registration for teenagers who had consensual sex with another teenager. And 32 states registered flashers and streakers." Only a small minority of registered offenders are the "predators" so widely referred to in the news media. Take Georgia, for example. That state "has more than 17,000 registered sex offenders," according to The Economist. "Some are highly dangerous. But many are not. And it is fiendishly hard for anyone browsing the registry to tell the one from the other." The state's Sex Offender Registration Review Board found that “just over 100” of the 17,000 could be classified as “predators,” "which means they have a compulsion to commit sex offences."

    Disinformation and fear are not conducive to calm, constructive discussion about young people's online activities - in families or in policymaking circles. Overreaction by parents causes kids to go into online stealth mode (which gets easier and easier with proliferating access points and connected devices) at a time when child-parent communication is very much needed. Focusing too much on registered sex offenders causes people to forget that most child sexual exploitation is perpetrated by people the victims are related to or know in their everyday lives, most likely people who haven't been arrested, much less convicted, and therefore not people in sex-offender registries (see "Why technopanics are bad").

    But the trend is bigger and bigger registries. "Sex-offender registries are popular," the Economist reports. "Rape and child molestation are terrible crimes that can traumatise their victims for life. All parents want to protect their children from sexual predators, so politicians can nearly always win votes by promising curbs on them. Those who object can be called soft on child-molesters, a label most politicians would rather avoid. This creates a ratchet effect. Every lawmaker who wants to sound tough on sex offenders has to propose a law tougher than the one enacted by the last politician who wanted to sound tough on sex offenders."

    Writes parent and public-policy analyst Adam Thierer, "If you want to keep your kids safe from real sex offenders, we need to scrap our current sex-offender registries and completely rethink the way we define and punish sex offenses in this country." For example, a case I mentioned last April: 18-year-old Phillip Alpert will be in his state's sex-offender registry until he's 43, CNN reported. He is no predator, the way CNN tells the story. He had just turned 18 when he made what turned out to be probably the biggest mistake of his life. He and his 16-year-old girlfriend of two and a half years had had an argument. He told CNN he was tired, and it was the middle of the night when he sent a nude photo of her (a photo she had taken of herself and sent to him) to "dozens of her friends and family." Under current child-pornography and sex-offender laws, this scenario could be repeated in many other states. "Thirty-eight states include juvenile sex offenders in their sex-offender registries," according to CNN. "Alaska, Florida and Maine will register juveniles only if they are tried as adults. Indiana registers juveniles age 14 and older. South Dakota registers juveniles age 15 and older."

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    Tuesday, August 11, 2009

    School-based social networking in multiple countries

    Great idea: Help students avoid cyberbullying by requiring them to sign up for a moderated social network site. That's what Baranduda Primary School is doing, the Border Mail reports. It's among 100 schools in Australia trying out SuperClubsPLUS, a UK-based site designed for school use by kids aged 6-12 and now also in use in Europe, Kenya, Malaysia. Features include chat, email, blogging, discussion boards, and building Web pages (maybe profiles?), according to the Border Mail, which adds that "La Trobe University researcher Jennifer Masters, who is helping co-ordinate the launch in Australia, said [the site gives] children a deeper understanding of Internet ethics." Teachers are involved in the site moderation (though the Border Mail piece doesn't make it clear if they're local to member schools or employed by the site in the UK). An even better idea, I feel, is using Quest Atlantis, an educational virtual world designed at the University of Indiana, in schools. The program trains teachers before they use it in their classrooms. It also monitors all student activity in-world, but most effective in teaching positive social development and good citizenship is collaborative learning in the form of the virtual world's curriculum-tied quests. One could argue (and kids do) that learning citizenship is boring; learning it as you're learning social studies, science, etc. in an environment that kids find very compelling – a virtual world – is a whole lot less boring! [Meanwhile, the Australian government will soon be piloting a $3 million (Australian) anti-cyberbullying project in 150 schools. reports but without much detail on the actual program, though saying it's not without its critics.]

    Sunday, August 09, 2009

    MySpace's metamorphosis?

    That MySpace is "showing flickers of life," as the Los Angeles Times puts it, is quite an understatement, especially to music fans. Year-over-year traffic to MySpace Music "has increased 1,017%" since the music site launched last September, World Market Media reports, and it ranks third behind AOL Music and Yahoo Music and ahead of MTV Networks Music and

    MySpace has big plans for its music channel, which just could become the tail that wags the dog. The music site's president, Courtney Holt, who left MTV for MySpace Music last November, "plans to make the site a data goldmine for figuring out what's going to be the next big thing in pop music – helpful not only to artists and users, but producers and agents, too," reports the New York Observer. MySpace's music community will "publish trends, track influencers and create lists of top-played and playlisted content of not only major bands and artists but also of all the independent work on millions of MySpace artist pages," the Observer adds. "If done right, they could create a new kind of Top 40 hit list for online music."

    My husband Ron, an avid music fan, said, "I'm surprised it has taken MySpace this long!" and I think he's right. It is, after all, a social site where tunes are talking points in ongoing conversations between artists and their fans. "They could blow iTunes out of the water – iTunes is too corporate, and Genius [its software that finds new songs according to users' past purchases] is robotic," Ron added. It's like a videogamer playing against software in the game as opposed to other gamers in multiplayer online games. Dealing with fellow humans is just a lot more interesting. As if to confirm this, Gigaom reports that "iTunes needs to get social" and is planning to provide provide "a more interactive album-purchasing experience."

    MySpace's built-in opportunity

    Anastasia Goodstein over at seems to agree that MySpace is at a turning point. "Everything I've read lately about how MySpace is planning to reposition itself makes me optimistic that the site could emerge stronger than ever by literally going back to its roots of being a hub for young tastemakers," she writes.

    Certainly Facebook "won the social networking war," as Anastasia put it, but Facebook is more a utility (a social utility) that everybody needs than the self-expression tool or canvas that MySpace has always been, something that works better for a smaller, more vertical user base (my last post on this is here) and as such can look messy at times. Its new CEO, Owen Van Natta, recently said in London that it intends to be a “window for the youth (16-30) to reflect all their creative talents,” The Telegraph reports. That fits the latest Nielsen research, since "people between the ages of 12 and 17 were 2.4 time more likely than the average active Internet user to visit [last month]," and visitors 18-24 were 2.2 times more likely to.

    I'm not idealizing things – it's a full range of self-expression, from porn-queen wannabe pages to serious graphic design (of MySpace profiles). But there are many opportunities for positive self-expression in MySpace, as well as for exposure to creativity represented in the service's media communities. [See also "MySpace's PR problem" and "Boys & girls on Web 2.0."]


    Eszter Hargittai at Northwestern University recently release some fresh data comparing MySpace and Facebook use among first-year college students. She relates two main findings: 1) Besides a general increase the use of Facebook since 2007 (when 79% of first-year students surveyed used Facebook, compared to 87% now; compared to 55% using MySpace then and 36% now), 2) "we continue to see ethnic and racial differences as well as different usage by parental education (a proxy for socioeconomic status). Students of Hispanic origin are more likely to use MySpace than others and less likely to use Facebook than others. Asian-American students are the least likely to be on MySpace." For danah boyd's findings on ethnic and socioeconomic differences, from talking with teens around the country, see also "Does Social Networking Breed Social Division?"

    "Regarding parental education," Hargittai writes, "the relatively small number (7%) of students in the sample whose parents have less than a high school education are much more likely to be on MySpace and much less likely to be on Facebook than others." Here's one mother's very balanced view of social networking.

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