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Friday, November 13, 2009

My avatar, my self

Neuroscientists are looking into the relationship between self and avatar. A study of World of Warcraft players in their 20s (14 men and 1 woman) who spend an average of 23 hours a week in the game/world was recently presented at the Society of Neuroscience, reports. From fMRI scans of the players' brains, the study found "next to no difference" in activity in the areas of the brain involved in self-reflection and judgment at times when the players were thinking about their virtual selves vs. times when they were thinking about their actual selves. "Disentangling how the brain regards avatars versus real individuals may help explain why some people spend large chunks of their life playing immersive online games," the study's lead author, Kristina Caudle, a social neuroscientist at Dartmouth University, said. In future, she wants "to study volunteers who spend less time playing World of Warcraft to see if there are differences in how their brains discriminate between real and virtual worlds."

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Thursday, November 12, 2009

Social lives, media in their pockets

If our kids text, 80% of us do too, according to The Nielsen Company. Nielsen doesn't say why, but we all know: Our kids "hear" us better when we text them, and – besides – it's fun to text with them! Here's some more interesting cellphone data from Nielsen:

  • Phone owners are getting younger: Last year kids typically got their first phone at age 10.1; by the beginning of this year 2009, the phone ownership age "was down to 9.7." Same for borrowing: In 2008, the average age when kids started to borrow a cell phone was 8.6 years"; now it's 8.
  • How they use phones: 66% of tween phone owners took photos with their phones in the past year; half played pre-installed games; 40% activated the speakerphone feature; 28% filmed a video clip; 24% listened to tunes. We've already seen this reported, but "the average 13-17 year old sends more than 2,000 text messages per month."
  • Younger phone owners: more than half of 8-year-old owners "used their cell to send text messages in the last 12 months. "That figure soared to 81% for 12-year-old mobile users," with "the vast majority" (90%) of those texts going to friends and family."
  • Parental controls: More than half of cellphone users' parents don't use parental controls. Among the minority who do, "20% limit the number of calls, texts or instant messages, followed by download limits (17%), talk time or voice minute allocations (16%), mobile website access limits (15%), locator services and restricted in/outgoing number access (13% each), time of day restrictions (11%), and alerts to unauthorized texts, IMs or callers (6% each); 60% of parents "forbid downloads onto their children’s phone for financial and security reasons."

    For parents' own views, see also a piece in the Washington Post about when texting becomes nagging; "When Dad banned text messaging" in a New York Times blog; and another mom's view of her kids' texting at

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  • Wednesday, November 11, 2009

    New tool for keeping Web searches safe

    A few simple household rules can help kids at your house avoid stumbling upon inappropriate Web content: 1. If you're not absolutely sure of a URL, don't just type it into the browser window. Use a search engine. 2. Use only our family's search-engine pick (one that offers filtered search). 3. Nobody changes the settings or preferences in the search engine. We've had these rules at our house for years, and they've worked great (we're fortunate to have a pretty rule-abiding crew). But now one search engine, Google, has made family rule compliance a lot easier: It has a new feature that lets parents lock the computers kids use into the strictest SafeSearch setting (as long as Google's the search-engine pick, of course). All parents need to do is log into their Google account on any computer the kids use, click on Settings, then Search Settings in the upper right-hand corner of the page. On the page that takes you to, scroll down to SafeSearch Filtering and click "Lock SafeSearch." The rest will be clear. But here's a little 95-sec. demo. The only thing to remember is that you need to do this with any browser used on that computer – Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari, etc. This is a lighter touch with parental controls that might be a good place to start (and some parents may find it meets their household adult-content-blocking needs). We've found that tech tools are best used when layered on top of parent-child discussions about what is and isn't appropriate for our family and why. Here's Google's Help page on the locking tool.

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    States' report card for school innovation

    The US states' report card for innovation in education wasn't all bad news: For example, "Massachusetts, Colorado, and Rhode Island got gold stars for their policies to promote extended learning time in schools." But all of those states got Ds for tech innovation. The report – "Leaders and Laggards: A State-by-State Report Card on Educational Innovation" – was not pretty, with "most states earning Cs, Ds, or even Fs in such key areas as technology, high school quality, and removal of ineffective teachers," Education Week reports. Sponsored by the US Chamber of Commerce, the Center for American Progress, and the American Enterprise Institute, the report used "state data and existing and original research to assign letter grades to states." Technology grades were based on criteria such as teachers' technology proficiency, student access to tech, whether there are online schools in the state, and whether the state assesses return on investments in technology. Six states got As for technology: Louisiana, Maryland, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Virginia, and West Virginia. Twelve states got Bs; 14 Cs; 18 Ds (including the District of Columbia), and one – Nevada – got an F for tech innovation. A key critic of the report was the 1.4 million-member American Federation of Teachers, which said its recommendations fit with "the factory model of education." The full report can be downloaded from the US Chamber site in PDF format, and the Tech section starts on p. 46.

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    Tuesday, November 10, 2009

    Filters for classroom management?

    No. Really not a good use for filters, writes instructional technologist Bud Hunt at St. Vrain Valley School District in northern Colorado, where they've been filtering less since the beginning of the school year. Hunt's thoughtful response to requests from teachers and other staff to block resources that are distractions in the classroom is that "we will no longer use the Web filter as a classroom management tool. Blocking one distraction doesn’t solve the problem of students off task – it just encourages them to find another site to distract them. Students off task is not a technology problem – it’s a behavior problem." Hunt later adds that the best filters in a classroom are the people in it. I do agree. Here's why – but don't miss Bud's complete response to technological-classroom-management requests, linked to above. It's not that there's anything inherently wrong with filtering, just with uncritical use of it, or any technology. [See also "Filtering critics, issues in 3 countries."]

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    Social gaming cleaning up its act?

    Well, some social gaming companies, it appears. If you're not sure what's meant by "social gaming," you may've heard of Farmville, an extremely popular little game in Facebook. TechCrunch recently ran an exposé that called this gaming ecosystem "scamville" - great family-discussion fuel. He wrote that the games "try to get people to pay cash for in-game currency so they can level up faster and have a better overall experience. Which is fine. But for users who won’t pay cash, a wide variety of 'offers' [that get] them to pay far more for in-game currency than if they just paid cash (there are notable exceptions, but the scammy stuff tends to crowd out the legitimate offers)." A week later, TechCrunch reports, Farmville's parent, Zynga, has announced it will "remove all offer advertising from their games [right away]. This isn't a meaningless action. Offers account for 1/3 or so of Zynga's rumored $250 million in revenue." But social media – which is a blend of user-produced and professionally produced media – is all about lack of control by the companies that host it. So here's the tricky thing about this situation: Zynga itself can't control the offers or ad content in its games, its CEO Mark Pincus said, which is why it's just deleting them for now. Zynga also participated in the latest Online Safety & Technology Working Group meeting in Washington – an added sign that, like other corporate members, it believes that corporate responsibility ultimately pays off.

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    Monday, November 09, 2009

    Media sharing's upside, downside & advice on what to do about it

    Why do people share innermost thoughts, unretouched photos, and rants and what they ate for lunch in texts, photos, and blogs? And why is this not just a narcissistic passing fad like streaking or something, a baby boomer, someone who grew up with mass media, might ask? Consider this: "In part, it is the very human need to be heard and to connect with others. It is the desire to make a difference, to influence the world around us.... And it is the ongoing quest for authenticity in a world governed by image." That was from The Nielsen Company's Pete Blackshaw in a talk he gave for the Children's Advertising Review Unit last month. [I agree. I think authenticity-seeking is one of the forces behind social media's momentum, probably in more concentrated form where young people are concerned.]

    Interestingly, while some are calling it a major media shift, Blackshaw called social media a movement, as he cited the cellphone's contribution to it: "Mobile devices represent a major impetus behind the social media movement, driving part of the 250% audience increase for the year ending February 2009."

    Two governments and a whole lot of other adults, however, are concerned about the downside of this media-sharing, user-produced epoch that's upon us. Canada's Privacy Commissioner has a site for youth headed: "myprivacy. mychoice. mylife," including "mycontest": Canada's 2009 "My Privacy and Me" national video competition. The Australian government launched a campaign aimed at youth whose centerpiece is the downloadable brochure, "private i: Your ultimate privacy survival guide." For the parent-child team, I agree that "the privacy conversation starts before the cell phone or the Club Penguin account," as the Togetherville blogger writes. The blog then reprints's great tips for avoiding oversharing, but the originals are here. And the NYLawBlog cuts right to what people need to know about a possible outcome of nasty oversharing: "What you need to know about defamation and Web 2.0."

    Two related links are: "Not actually extreme teens" (about the need to be always-on teen "PR machines") and "Social networkers = spin doctors (I hope)."

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