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Friday, December 11, 2009

'Claiming' & social norming in social sites

When she found that about half of teens' social media posts "refer to drinking, sex, or violence," University of Wisconsin pediatrics professor Megan Moreno wondered how much of those posts were just claims, reports. She still wonders – hard data is hard to gather – but she "thinks some of it is, some is nonsense, and some is a 'gesture of intention'," where someone might be thinking about partying more and is "testing the waters by putting up pictures or writing about it." What she does know, though, she says, is that these posts have a negative "social norming" effect on peers and young children. "Kids do think that what they see on social media sites is real, and the younger they are, the more they believe it. That's important, because teenagers are powerfully influenced by the behavior of their peers." Here's a useful flag for parents and educators and a great new-media-literacy lesson for younger kids: Peers' posts could be more claim than reality, and thinking critically about the posts of people they know is a great step toward exercising similar critical judgment about what's reported in the overall media environment, from blogs to TV news. [See also "Fictionalizing their profiles."]

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Thursday, December 10, 2009

FTC's milestone report on virtual worlds

This is pioneering stuff on the part of the US government. The Federal Trade Commission today sent to Congress its close study of 27 online virtual worlds – 14 for children under 13 and 13 aimed at teens and adults – looking at the level of sexually explicit and violent content and what the VWs were doing to protect children from it. I think it's important for parents to keep in mind when reading the study or just the highlights here that "content" in virtual worlds means user-generated content (which is why, in "Online Safety 3.0," we put so much stress on viewing children as stakeholders in their own well-being online and teaching them to be good citizens in their online and offline communities). Here are some key findings:

  • The FTC found at least one instance of either sexually or violently explicit content in 19 of the 27 worlds – heavy (sex or violence) in five of them, moderate in four, and "only a low amount in the remaining 10 worlds in which explicit content was found."
  • Of the 14 VWs for kids under 13, 7 contained no explicit content, 1 had a moderate amount, and 6 had a low amount.
  • Nearly all the explicit content found in the kids' VWs "appeared in the form of text posted in chat rooms, on message boards, or in discussion forums."
  • The Commission found more explicit content in VWs aimed at teens or adults, finding it in 12 of the 13 in this category, with a heavy amount in 5 of them, moderate in 3, and a low amount in 4 of the 13.
  • Not just text: Half the explicit content found in the teen- and adult-oriented virtual worlds was text-based, while the other half appeared as graphics, occasionally with accompanying audio.

    The report goes into measures these 27 VWs surveyed take to keep minors away from explicit content, including "age screens" designed to keep minors from registering below a site's minimum age (what the FTC calls "only a threshold measure"); "adults only" sections requiring subscriptions or age verifications (see "'Red-light district' makes virtual world safer"); abuse reporting and other flagging of inappropriate content; human moderation; and some filtering technology. "The report recommends that parents and children become better educated about online virtual worlds" and that virtual-world "operators should ensure that they have mechanisms in place to limit youth exposure to explicit content in their online virtual worlds." In the two pages of Appendix A (of the full, 23-page report + appendices), you'll find a chart of all the virtual worlds the FTC reviewed. [See also my VW news roundup last week and "200 virtual worlds for kids."]

    This is a great start. As purely user-driven media, virtual worlds are a frontier for research on online behavior. The FTC was charged by Congress "merely" with determining the level of harmful content, not behavior – I really think because adults continue to think in a binary, either-or way about extremely fluid environments that are mashups of content and behavior. Where is it really just one or the other, what is "content" in social media, and how do we define "harmful"? We also need to define "virtual worlds." Some of these properties are largely avatar chat, some are games (with quests), some are worlds with games but not quests in them. Still, we've got some great talking points and very useful data to build on.

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  • Students on digital activism, citizenship

    Parents and educators interested in what 21st-century learning and "Online Safety 3.0" look like should take a look at "Three Years of Digital Activism," a 15-min. video collection of projects by middle and high school students participating in the Camilla, Ga.-based Digiteens project. This is the new, digitally-enabled project-based (and "passion-based," as lead teacher Vicki Davis puts it) learning. Included is a section about driving while texting, called "Dangerously Connected," reporting that people who text while driving are 4 times more likely to injure themselves than drivers who aren't texting, and 37% of all car accidents are caused by driving while texting (DWT), compared to 14% of accidents from driving under the influence (DUI). See also a 20-min video presentation by a humanities teachers and a library services director about a successful 6th-grade project using "Web 2.0 tools." [See also "Online Safety 3.0."]

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    Wednesday, December 09, 2009

    Facebook's privacy changes

    Facebook has been known to make a few waves when it announces changes to privacy features, so it's probably hoping that, now with more than 350 million users, the latest changes won't make a tsunami. This week's redesign, which has been in the works since last summer, is meant to both simplify things and give users more control – "more granular control over who can see individual pieces of content while making some basic profile information available to everyone," as ConnectSafely's Larry Magid put it in his CNET blog. [Facebook's three levels of privacy are "Friends," "Friends of Friends," and "Everyone." Parents will want to know that, for users under 18, "Everyone" means at most Friends and Networks, not everyone at all.]

    As for what's entailed: Everybody will eventually experience a little "wizard" window that'll pop up and say they have to configure their settings (if they've already done so, they can keep their current ones, and the wizard will show you what they are). Having seen the process, I can say it's very easy – if it seems annoying, only a small annoyance. All in all, the changes – straight from the horse's mouth – are:

  • A limited amount of profile info publicly available for all users (name, profile photo, gender, current city, Facebook networks, friend list, and Page affiliations)
  • Simplified Privacy Settings page
  • The three basic levels of privacy mentioned above
  • Apps and Facebook Connect sites can access publicly available info as soon as you interact with them (but they have to ask permission for additional info you haven't made publicly available)
  • Regional networks are going away (they were more viable as a privacy tool in an earlier "era" when Facebook had millions, not hundreds of millions, of users).

    Facebook says these changes "have no impact" on the site's advertising system or how it makes money. For the company's own thinking behind the changes, see Facebook's Ana Muller's blog post here, and pls see Larry's CNET piece for much more detail than I have here. In related news, has been appointed to Facebook's new Safety Advisory Board. Here's CNN's coverage.

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  • Tuesday, December 08, 2009

    Net-safety leadership: UK Council unveils strategy

    Where dealing with children's online safety is concerned, the UK continues to impress. Clearly it was no easy task, but on the recommendation of psychologist, professor, TV personality, parent, and author of the Prime Minister Brown-appointed Byron Review Tanya Byron, the September 2008-launched UK Council for Child Internet Safety – made up of a staggering 140+ companies, organizations, and individuals – this week released its first safety strategy: "Click Clever Click Safe." A lot of the executive summary is music to my ears. Here's what I read:

  • Safety in context - safety's role not only in protecting but also enabling children's full, healthy participation in participatory society (I would only add: as active good citizens, not just digital ones, and stakeholders in their own well-being and that of their communities online and offline)
  • Safety takes a village (maybe even more than raising a child does), requiring the expertise of all stakeholders: chief among them youth, but also parents, educators, the Internet industry, mental-health and risk-prevention practitioners, law enforcement, policymakers, and clergy – many of these skill sets are represented on the Council. And hear, hear!: "By working together, learning from one another’s experience and reinforcing one another’s messages we can achieve more than the toughest legislation, the biggest company or the most caring charity ever could alone."
  • The child-protection village is global. Again, hear, hear!: The Strategy says, "We need to make links between international, national and local efforts to help children.... Work done here must be done with and alongside international efforts to improve child online safety."
  • Practical intelligence: How little have I seen this level of realism in our news media: "As in the offline world, we can never keep children completely safe, and this is not about imposing unnecessary restrictions that undermine the Internet’s benefits," the Strategy states. I would only add this bit of practical intelligence: that all forms of safety need to be addressed and, hopefully seen eventually to be children's rights and responsibilities online. The forms of safety are physical, psychological, legal, reputational, and personal (identity and property).

    Clearly, we have kindred spirits across the Atlantic (see some similar thinking in ConnectSafely's"Online Safety 3.0: Empowering & Protecting Youth"). But what we all need to consider adding, now, to our work on both sides of the Pond, I feel, is a *layered* approach to online safety education, mapped to the need and the audience and based on the research showing that not all youth are equally at risk, and the young people most at risk online are those most at risk offline....

    One thing I'd add: Levels of Net-safety ed needed

    A logical way to organize Net-safety education is to map it to the levels of prevention which the risk-prevention community has adapted from disease prevention, I realized in talking with risk-prevention practitioner Patti Agatston of the Atlanta area's Cobb County School District. In a conversation started by Nancy Willard of the Center for Safe & Responsible Internet Use, it dawned on me that this tiered approach is exactly what online-safety ed needs as well – and I hope colleagues agree. The levels are simply:

  • Primary: Not "primary" as in school but as in universal – tangible prevention in the form of new-media literacy and citizenship (as mentioned above), taught pre-K-12, throughout the curriculum (based on research published in Archives of Pediatrics that youth who engage in aggressive behavior are more than twice as likely to be victimized, indicating that critical thinking and civility are preventive if not protective).
  • Secondary: More focused prevention education aimed at mitigating cyberbullying, sexting, cutting, anorexia, substance abuse, etc. represented or reinforced online as well as offline. This level of prevention can also be applied to specific events or incidents that need to be turned into "teachable moments" at school, either with a whole-school approach or in working with focused groups of students – e.g., a unit in health class about the psychological and legal implications of sexting.
  • Tertiary: Prevention AND intervention for the minority of youth who already have established patterns of risky behaviors disrupting their lives. At this level, the risk-prevention practitioners themselves need the training – in social media use – so they can fold this knowledge into their work with young people.

    Key take-aways: School, industry, child services

    As for the headlines in the UK, the most common was that, starting in September 2011, it'll be compulsory in British schools for kids aged 5+ to be taught Internet safety (see The Telegraph's). I hope the universal education piece will evolve quickly to new media literacy and citizenship (online and offline), which by definition include the critical thinking about potentially harmful incoming messages from mean peers, adult strangers, and all sorts of manipulators as well as harmful outgoing messages from young stakeholders in constructive community at school and home and online.

    The strategy calls on the Internet industry to move beyond the self-regulation it had apparently hoped for. According to the Times Online, "child safety campaigners have been locked in months of tortuous negotiations with internet industry leaders over what companies could do to make children safer. The industry has agreed [to] a range of new requirements, such as offering parents more rigorous privacy settings which, for example, include a secret password," including "reluctant agreement ... to have progress on safety assessed independently by one of the big consultancy firms."

    And for everybody who works with children, the 140-member Council pledges that: "In England and Wales by March 2010 we will include online safety in the ‘Common Core’ of skills and knowledge for people who work with children and work to make sure this is reflected in qualifications for people who work with children." The next step is to teach the same experts (mentioned in the Tertiary level above) how to function easily in the media environments youth love (texting, virtual worlds, online games, social network sites, etc.). A clinical psychologist I met in Mexico City couldn't get an extremely shy teenage boy to talk with him until he went to see the boy in World of Warcraft, where the latter felt comfortable to talk with him; then the boy was able to talk with the psychologist in his office. I heard a similar story from a Texas mother, who was able to keep in touch with her college-student son once they played World or Warcraft together on Sunday afternoons (he at his distant college and she at home).

    Some key data in the report

    The Strategy reported that...

  • 99% of British 8-to-17-year-olds have access to the Net.
  • 76% of young people say the Internet means their friends are there whenever they need them.
  • 18% of children have come across harmful or inappropriate content online
  • 50% of children encountering harmful or inappropriate content say they did something about it.
  • 82% of children say their school has taught them how to use the internet safely.
  • 67% of parents have rules for their children’s internet usage.
  • 33% say their parents don’t really know what they do on the internet.
  • 79% of UK parents say they talk to their children about online safety, but only 52% of children agree.

    Related links

  • The indispensable multi-year, pan-European online-youth research at "EU Kids Online," based at the London School of Economics and funded by the EC's Safer Internet Programme
  • "From users to citizens: How to make digital citizenship relevant"
  • "Social norming & digital citizenship"
  • Proposed definition of digital literacy and citizenship"
  • "Europe's amazing Internet-safety work"
  • "Net safety: How social networks can be protective"
  • "Social media literacy: The new Internet safety"

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  • Quest Atlantis, VWs & academic situational awareness

    In a virtual world, science students can be scientists. In Quest Atlantis, students explore scientific problems or quests, so that – in addition to learning scientific content on quests – they find themselves in situations where they have to put that new knowledge to actual use. In other words they're being scientists, not just learning science. What a "science class"! Prof. Sasha Barab, one of the creators of the Quest Atlantis educational virtual world at the University of Indiana School of Education, calls this "transformational play," reports Cindy Richards at the MacArthur Foundation's "Spotlight on Digital Media and Learning." Maybe also transformational learning? [BTW, I love the term "situational awareness," feeling it has so many applications - social, academic, developmental (parenting) - online and offline. Online – like digital citizenship and media literacy – it's protective as well as promotive of academic success. Just as in Quest Atlantis, you learn what it's like actually to be a scientist or environmentalist, in social network sites you can learn what's it's like to be a good friend online and offline – what words, photo-tagging, or behavior has the potential to support or hurt others. We think about situational awareness a lot at our house. For example, some language that's common in Xbox Live is not at all appropriate in other situations, including at ice hockey practice! Developing the awareness that can make that distinction has a lot of athletic and social benefits!]

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    Monday, December 07, 2009

    Virtual-world news update

    A lot of news about virtual worlds has crossed my laptop lately, so – since this is a big growth sector of cyberspace (with the global VW population growing from 186.5 million now to 638 million by 2015, according to Strategy Analytics) – I thought I'd package it up for you....

    1. Avatar PR

    Now (if not yesterday or last year) is a good time to fold avatars into family discussion about reputations and self-representation online. Even if your child's favorite avatar is waddling around in Club Penguin, it would be good to ask to see the penguin, if you haven't already, talk about that penguin's favorite activities in-world, how many friends it has, and what sorts of things they do together. Why am I telling you all this? Early lessons in social Web spin control – not to mention early prep for the business world.

    By the end of 2013, 70% of businesses will have behavior and dress code policies for employees whose online avatars represent their organization," Virtual World News reports. Gartner recently published "Avatars in the Enterprise: Six Guidelines to Enable Success," CNET reports.

    As for the littlest VW citizens, Virtual Worlds News recently reported that, at 27% growth between now and 2015, children aged 5-9 are the biggest growth sector of a global virtual world population (which itself will grow from 186 million to 640 million by 2015). VW News was citing Strategy Analytics figures. For insights into day-to-day life in a teen virtual world, check out this YPulse interview with Gaia Online's Joe Hyrkin.

    2. Two new arrivals

  • Israel-based where kids 4-10 draw and animate their own animal avatars, which can then be turned into real stuffed animals! There's a bit of a Webkinz model, but this is much more appealing to kids because they're the producers. Here's coverage at Virtual Worlds News.

  • Omaha, Nebraska-based for 7-to-12-year-olds is a virtual world that aims to teach kids and tweens about the real world so they can help make it better. The company, Green Bein' Productions, Inc., wants to team up with other organizations that work to empower kids (e.g., schools, after-school programs, scouting). Here's Virtual Worlds News.

    3. Second Life's booming economy

    On average, users of virtual world Second Life spend 100 minutes in-world per visit, adding up to more than 1 billion hours so far, PC World reports. Even more interesting, though, is the virtual world's very real economy. "The equivalent of more than US$1 billion has been transacted between residents in Second Life, who purchase virtual goods and services from one another." The in-world economy grew 54% year-over-year (between third quarter 2008 and third quarter this year), Virtual Worlds News reported more recently. This is a multinational economy: "Users from the United States accounted for 37% of the economy, followed by Germany and Italy at 8% each, France at 7%, and the UK at 5%." Here's a list of dozens of businesses that have a presence in Second Life – in retail, manufacturing, technology, travel, real estate, finance, communications, etc. (I couldn't find anything more recent than this, but I doubt the number has gone down.)

    4. Avatars in MySpace

    MySpace, which has always been as much a self-expression tool as a social utility is expanding those self-expression features. In an arrangement with the newly profitable teen virtual world Meez Nation, MySpace users can now create avatars, Ad Week reports (CNET mentioned Meez's profitable status).

    Meez and MySpace have music and other media sharing in common, Meez CEO John Cahill said in an interview with YPulse. "Our users watch popular videos together, listen and dance to music together, and we're always offering new virtual goods and "Roomz" tied to events like Halloween, for example. See YPulse for more.

    5. Virtual worlds in the movies

    Hollywood's all over it – not so much making money in virtual worlds as telling stories about them, the San Jose Mercury News reports. There's Second Skin (which I blogged about here), recently released Gamer and Surrogate, James Cameron's Avatar in December, and next year's Tron Legacy from Disney and Christopher Nolan's Inception. [See also "'Red-light district' makes virtual world safer."]

    Related link

    KZERO, a virtual worlds research and consulting firm in the UK, has a slide show showing more than 10 dozen companies marketing in virtual worlds (with screen shots of their locations) here. [They put out great resources but are not great at returning press calls.]

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