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Friday, July 30, 2010

As promised, here is my review of  Both of my kids (12 and 13) created profiles and spent the day yesterday exploring.  I got them connected around 9:30am and when I came home from work at 5:30pm, they were still on.  What does that tell you?

What is A kid-safe alternative to Facebook and Myspace. We all know how dangerous social networking can be for kids. Mary Kay Hoal, founder of Yoursphere, had a great quote that I love: "when our kids wanted to ride a bike, we didn't just get them a bike and drop them off on a freeway and say 'goodbye.' With the Internet we need to apply that same approach." I couldn't agree more. Yoursphere is a social networking environment for kids that provides a safe and creative environment for them to learn the ropes of online social interaction. The "About Us" page from Yoursphere (which, by the way, was very hard to find - come on Yoursphere guys! :-) ) says this: "Yoursphere is about supporting the positive, age-appropriate interests of our children by engaging them in purposeful activities in a social networking community while educating them about good online citizenship and internet safety."  In my opinion, this site does just that.

How does it work?  Kids can create an account in one of two ways:  1. they can go to and click the "Sign Up" button and fill in some information, including a parent's e-mail address.  Yoursphere then contacts the parent, notifying them of the child's request and asking for permission to proceed. 2. Parents can go to and click the "Sign Up" button and create a family account, identifying his/her participating children and giving permission for the accounts.  Once the accounts have been created, kids can set up profiles with safe information about themselves (nothing personal like addresses or phone numbers).  Once a profile has been created, children are free to explore "spheres" which are topic specific categories that have a variety of activities and content.  For example, there is a Photography sphere where kids can post pictures they've taken, read comments about their work, get tips, etc.  Kids can also create their own spheres about anything they want.  My daughter created a sphere about hiking.  Then they can determine whether the sphere is open to everyone or just their friends.  Inside of a sphere a kid can blog, post pictures, videos, documents, etc.

What are the positives? I was actually extremely impressed with Yoursphere.  There are so many of these "safe online environment for kids" sites floating around and most of them miss the mark.  My kids have tried out a few and in their words the majority of them are "lame."
  • Yoursphere is safe -  No one over 18 can join or even browse the environment.  Parents control their kids access and can cancel accounts at any time.  For kids under 13, parents have a real-time dashboard view into what they are posting and who they are talking to.  Safeguards are in place to block bad language and objectionable content, and the site is monitored constantly to look for potential problems.
  • Kids are in control - they choose whether their content is open to just their friends or the whole Yoursphere world.
  • Yoursphere has a BUNCH of stuff - this site is great at cultivating creativity in kids.  There are so many different avenues for kids to safely express themselves.  Kids can blog, they can post pictures, post videos, upload artwork, post poems or stories, and customize the environment to express whatever mood they are in.  It also has games and content focused around sports, fashion, TV and movies, travel, performing arts, animals, and causes (e.g. UNICEF, American Cancer Society, etc.).
  • Cool look and layout - The site is slick and appealing to kids (unlike Facebook or Myspace), as well as being intuitive and easy to navigate.  And so far it is free from ads.
  • Yoursphere put together the right team - I was impressed to discover that the creative force behind Yoursphere is not the typical corporate collection.  Yoursphere includes a cross section of kids, the same age as those using their site, as part of their advisory and editorial staff.  I believe this will help them to stay in touch with kids and remain relevant and credible.  
  • UPDATE - Yoursphere IS free (thanks for the e-mail Yoursphere).
What are the negatives?  Not many.  My overall reaction to the site is very positive, however, there were a few things that caused concern.
  • What is the cost?  The home page of has a very noticeable "It's Free" statement in plain view.  However, online reviews of Yoursphere by reputable sites (like CNET) say it's free for 30 days and then it's either $4.95 per month or $39.95 per year.  Which is it?  Security to the extent that Yoursphere offers isn't cheap and I have NO problem paying a nominal fee to aid in that effort.  But if there is a cost, there was nothing during the sign up process that indicated it.  Yoursphere needs to be very clear about charges from the start and explain any/all things on the site that might require a fee (seems sneaky if you don't).  If there is no fee, then make the "It's Free" statement a clickable link and explain that you used to charge a fee but don't anymore or something to discredit the countless reviews that say you do.
    UPDATE - Already got an e-mail from Yoursphere on this.  They are FREE.  They used to charge but found the fee to be a deterrence.   In the interest of doing good over making money, they have waived the fee.
  • Kids over 13 are out of bounds for parents - The parental monitoring of child activities on Yoursphere is long as your kid is under 13.  I've got one under 13 and one over 13.  My 12 year old's account has a dashboard where I can see everything he does online.  My 13 year old's account does not.  All I can do with her account is cancel it.  I understand why they do this - they want kids to feel empowered and have a sense of privacy.  I get that and kind of agree with it AS LONG AS they are kicking butt at the security stuff behind the scenes.  Taking away my ability to monitor my 13 - 18 year old child's activities puts a great deal of trust in the Yoursphere people.  Some parents will have a real issue with this.  All I can say is the Yoursphere safety people better be doing their jobs.
  • Parents can't poke around - With the "no adults" safety feature (other than the parent dashboard), you can't see your child's profile or content they have posted unless they choose to show you.  First let me say, parents, you should be setting rules requiring your children to let you into their online lives at any moment upon your request.  It is, I believe, your responsibility to enforce this, not Yoursphere's or any other site.  Again, I know Yoursphere does this to give kids a sense of privacy and empowerment (which are important) but I think parents will have a problem with this.  Again, Yoursphere better work very hard at building trust with limits like this in place.
What are kids saying?  Here is a statement from my 13 year old daughter: "I love Yoursphere. It is awesome and so easy to use. I like that there are games and that you can pick who you want to see your profile. I also like that you can write your own blogs, pick who sees them and make spheres. It is so cool that you can upload pictures onto your profile and put links to other websites that you think people will like onto your blogs. Yoursphere is great!"

In the "social networking for kids" space, there are, in my opinion, only two sites that get it right - Yoursphere and Imbee.  Imbee was very slick and had some really cool features but they have two big strikes against them: 1. They got in trouble with the FTC for violating the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) by storing children's personal info without parents approval.  How can you be a site that advocates child safety and violate COPPA?  Someone didn't do their due diligence  2.  About a year ago they disappeared off the face of the Earth.  I'm not exactly sure why but with no warning to members or prior announcements, they just shut down.  Their website now claims a relaunch in "summer 2010" but now that they have frustrated over 50,000 users, it may be difficult to regain trust. 

Yoursphere is cool and has a great deal of potential.  However, if they are going to keep today's kids interested, I think there are a few things they need (that I'm sure they have thought of and may be planning).
  • Music - Yes, they have a "Music" sphere where information about various artists is posted but that's not what I'm referring to.  If they could somehow offer streaming or downloadable music it would be huge.  I know this gets into some serious licensing issues but word on the cyber-street is that Imbee is planning to do it.
  • TV and Movies - again, yes there is a "TV and Movies" sphere where info is posted and kids can comment but streamed movie trailers, selected episodes of popular shows, movie clips, etc would be very cool.
  • Games - the games Yoursphere has are good but nothing groundbreaking.  The genre of games that both my son and my daughter (and MANY of their friends) are into right now are simulation games like Farmville, Zoo Tycoon, Animal Crossing, Rollercoaster Tycoon, etc. Games where kids create and cultivate something and interact with others while doing it.  These games are entertaining and they keep kids coming back.
  • Limited Adult Access - Imbee used to have a feature where parents, teachers, camp counselors, youth ministers, etc. could create pages and post content related to a certain activity.  This included class information and homework help, upcoming events, useful information, etc.  The ability for a "safe" adult to create an educational, cause oriented, or otherwise helpful sphere would be awesome.
    UPDATE - Again thanks to an e-mail from Yoursphere, I discovered I was not entirely correct in this bullet item.  Yoursphere does allow educators to create class-based spheres and post educational content to them.  Teachers can then interact with the class as a whole but not one on one with students (that kind of interaction belongs in the classroom anyway, right?).

Here's the link:

Overall, I am extremely impressed with Yoursphere and definitely recommend it. On a scale of 1 to 10, I give it a 9 and with a little work, it could be a solid 10.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Great Write-Up on

Wow!  I got a very gracious write-up on's site.  You can read the article here.

If you don't know what is, stay tuned.  I'll write more about it tomorrow.

Ok, I know I promised you more today but once I got into this, I discovered it has so much stuff, I decided to take more time looking around.  I signed up for a parent account and signed my kids up for accounts and am letting them bang around on it for a while.  I will report back more when I have spent some time with it.  All I can say now cool!

Thanks to Mary Kay Hoal for the kind words.

McAfee Family Protection 2010 Review

On a scale of 1 to 10...I'd give it a 5.

In 2009, McAfee added a product called Family Protection to their suite of security tools.  This product is strictly a parental control product that allows parents to monitor and filter the online content that their children access.  It is not an anti-virus/anti-malware product (nor was it advertised to be) so don't make the mistake of installing this and thinking it's going to completely protect your computer.  It won't and wasn't designed for that.  What it will do...or should I say what it claims to do, is allow parents to monitor the websites, instant messaging, chats, and e-mail that their children are visiting, set up filters to block objectionable content, set time limits as to when children can access the Internet, and helps parents prevent kids from sharing personal information.

I really wanted to like this product when it came out.  It was a great idea and I'm a fan of McAfee because I am familiar with their genuine efforts to help people and advance the cause of Internet safety.  Sure they make money from Internet safety but they also do a good amount of pro bono work raising awareness, especially in area of child protection.  I have been impressed with them numerous times in the past.

I downloaded the latest version of product (Family Protection 2010), installed it on a machine, and spent the next few weeks testing it out.  I was actually surprised at it's shortcomings.  McAfee usually "gets it" but it seems like this product was something they rushed out the door without thinking it through.  It missed the mark on some important features AND they seemed to use an underhanded marketing ploy to sell it (I'm not sure if that was McAfee's fault or the online retailers), boldly proclaiming that it helps parents mitigate threats from cyber-bullying, communication with strangers, and posting confidential information; and then in the fine print saying "as long as you block social networking sites where these activities can happen".  Come on!  I can mitigate those threats by switching my computer off, but computer manufacturers don't sell that as a feature of the off switch.

Here is my experience with it:

It took me three tries to install it on my Windows 7 machine.  Twice it hung in the middle of the installation process (I waited 2 hours on it and nothing) and the third time it told me that I had to close Firefox (which wasn't open) and after closing that message box 3 or 4 times it finally worked.  Once I got it installed I started poking around.  Windows 7 seemed to stumble on the different accounts I set up in the software, requiring multiple login attempts before I could get each account to work.  After about 20 minutes of fiddling with it, it seemed to start working correctly.

It's easy enough to use - very user friendly.  It didn't take much time or tech savvy to feel comfortable navigating around the interface.  Basically it works by setting up accounts for each family member and then determining the limitations of each account.  Great concept.  I set up a few test accounts and configured them for different levels of filtering and monitoring.  At first it seemed like it was working very well.  It blocked the sites I told it to block for each account, it recorded an AOL chat, it allowed me to see what I had done on Facebook in one of the accounts.  It was highly configurable and flexible.  Very cool.

Then I did what any mildly competent kid would do:  I Googled ways to beat the tool.  First thing that came up...the software only works if your kids are using Internet Explorer or Firefox.  Google's new "Chrome" browser is completely uninhibited by the limits set up in the software.  You may or may not have heard of Chrome but it is a freely available and increasingly popular browser that millions of people are using worldwide.  I downloaded Chrome to my test machine and sure enough, I was able to go to any site I wanted to despite the limits set up in Family Protection. I wonder how McAfee missed that?!?  It also doesn't work with Safari - Apple's free browser that installs when you update your iTunes (in fact, you have to uncheck the Safari checkbox when you update iTunes if you don't want Safari).  Yes you can block access to Chrome and Safari altogether with the software but come on, that's a cop out (that's like making tires that only drive on asphalt and not gravel, dirt, or concrete).

Instant messaging was also something that came up on my Google search.  Apparently the tool only allowed parents to control chats on AOL, Yahoo, MSN, and ICQ.  Any other Instant messaging service was immune to the product and allowed kids to do/say whatever they wanted to whomever they wanted.  Using the IM feature in Skype, I was free to spew obscenities to complete strangers (not that I actually did that).

At this point I was remembering that scene from the movie Independence Day when the oddball director of research on the alien craft said "we've been down here 15 you can imagine, they don't let us out much."  Are the McAfee designers secluded in some underground lab with no access to the real world?  In our online society right now there are 4 popular browsers and about 15 different instant messaging services.  McAfee chooses to address only half the browsers and a fourth of the IM.  I should also note that the product claims to provide control over webcam access but in truth it only provides such control if your webcams are being used via one of the instant messaging services it knows about OR if you just block the webcam software altogether (again...cop out).

My next investigation was into something else kids would gaming.  I was playing a variety of online games through the product and on some games (like Warcraft and a few other multiplayer games) it would randomly drop the connection.  I know this isn't a big deal to parents but think about this: The more frustrated your child gets with the product, the more motivated he/she will be to seek out workarounds. 

Another complaint I will add is not my own, but that of a coworker who owns the product.  His installation process failed miserably and he had to call McAfee's tech support.  According to him the tech support experience was a nightmare.  He invested over 6 hours of time to resolve his issue - that issue being that the product wouldn't install correctly if you have AVG (free antivirus software) installed. His take away was that you probably better have some McAfee product as your primary antivirus software or you are wasting your money buying Family Protection 2010.

Ok McAfee...come on!  This product has some real potential and a few features (like YouTube filtering) that are super cool.  You need to put some more time and thought into this tool before you rush it out to retail.  You've earned a better reputation than this with your other products and families deserve better.  I'm a big fan of your company and I know you can improve this product.  Let's see it.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Youth Safety on a Living Internet - Sorry Guys, You Missed

A year or so ago, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) put together a special "work group" whose purpose was to research and formulate usable strategies for Internet safety among children in the U.S.  This work group, titled the Online Safety and Technology Working Group (OSTWG), was comprised of some of the top names in Internet technologies (people from Microsoft, Yahoo, Facebook, Verizon, etc.), online safety organizations (WiredSafety, Internet Keep Safe Coalition, National Cyber Security Alliance, etc.), child behavior and psychology experts, family services organizations, and legislators.  In short, the member list was a "who's who" of the Online Safety for Kids cause.

The result of their effort was a report that came out in June of 2010 (which you can download and read here) entitled Youth Safety on a Living Internet.  I have recently completed reading the 139 page document and definitely have some opinions about their efforts and especially their recommendations.

My overall reaction to the report was a contrasting mixture of applause, annoyance, and frustration.  I was thrilled that this topic was important enough for the Federal Government to put together such an impressive task force with the obvious vigor and concern that they did.  This wasn't a lame attempt at creating an image of concern to appease voters and taxpayers.  This was a genuine, well executed effort focused on the well-being of children in the U.S..  Never before has our government approached this topic with such energy.  The statistics and results that came form the research were extremely valuable and concise.  I was impressed.  However, the recommendations the group produced as a result were, I believe, mild and ineffectual.  After all of the excellent research they did, their list of suggestions was the same old list of "feel good" actions that any online safety site suggests: teach children to be good digital citizens, educate parents and teachers, improve parental controls in software, etc.  These are important concepts to be sure, but they certainly aren't ground breaking and they don't really help us advance the cause.  In summary, the group proved there was a definite, growing problem around the increasing risk to child safety online.  Their suggested solution...."keep doing what you're doing...just do more of it."  That just doesn't cut it for me.  Their own research proved that what we have been doing isn't keeping pace with the growing threat.  If it were, there wouldn't be a growing threat, right?  So, in light of the old saying "you're either part of the problem or part of the solution," I will offer my own input as opposed to being someone who just complains and offers no solution.

The first problem I saw with their solution set was that it seemed out of touch with the real online world.  While their research was very clinical and thorough, it didn't really exist in a credible plane.  What do I mean by that?  A good example is their proclamation that "we need to teach kids to be good digital citizens."  I agree with that statement but the statement in itself, nor what it implies is a solution.  40 years ago we were dealing with traditional bullying (as opposed to cyber-bullying) and there was a big push inspired by Jane Elliott's study "A Class Divided" to teach children to be better citizens and promote respect.  It was definitely a hot topic item in the early 70's.  Did it make a difference? Sure - Awareness among teachers and parents was definitely increased.  Did it inspire any dramatic changes in children?  Not really.  Has bullying decreased on playgrounds since that study?  No.  The results of any study can't be taken alone as a solution.  Kids don't care about statistics.  Reporting a rise in instances of bullying nationwide will not influence a class of 6th graders on whether or not they should bully each other.  Saying "our study shows that A & B are bad so we need to teach children to avoid A & B" is a cop out.  Yes, you should inform children and adults about A & B but you should also deal with A & B.  This study made some very valid points and brought some great information to light.  But the recommendations lack substance and, I believe, it is primarily due to their avoidance of some of the basic truths you must admit to when tackling the topic of Internet Safety.

What are these truths?  Here you go:

1.  The online world is fluid - it is always changing and it is always in motion.  Think about this:  The Internet as we know it was born in 1983 when the TCP/IP protocol was introduced.  It took 7 years for technology to catch up to it enough that it was usable to the public.  In 1994, the IMG tag was added to HTML and the first image appeared on a public website.  That's 11 years from the appearance of the Internet to the appearance of the first image file.  From 1999 to 2003 we saw the introduction of music file sharing (Napster), instant messaging, chatting, video posting, and wireless networks.  In the past four years we have been publicly immersed in Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, Skype, YouTube, online multiplayer video games, iPods, smartphones (with cameras and video), iPads, eBooks, GPS, the list goes on and on.  The point is, we are now experiencing more change and new technologies in a span of a few months than we did in a few years, 10 years ago.  The rate of change is already outpacing our ability to keep up from a safety perspective and it will only get worse.

2.  We face the biggest crisis right now - Most parents, educators, and other responsible adults today were born before the online era.  We remember when there were 3 or 4 TV stations, rotary phones, and Polaroid cameras.  The online world being thrust upon is now is alien to us.  In the OSTWG report, Mike Donlin of Seattle Public Schools referred to this group of adults as being "digital immigrants" and that kids today were "digital natives."  At best we can only learn this foreign language but our children are completely fluent in it.  The adults that are trying to teach children the correct way to navigate the information super highway don't know the road or the equipment like the kids do.  It is far too easy for kids to outsmart and out maneuver adults online and that makes our task of keeping them safe extremely difficult. Some experts say "the good news is that when these kids are adults, they'll be better equipped to control things."  Maybe...but think about this:  The more they get away with now, the more the objectionable becomes mainstream.  By the time they are adults, what will "acceptable use" be?

3. The online world doesn't change human nature - It amplifies certain elements of it.  It's far too easy to blame the Internet for bad things such as pornography, sexual predation, and bullying.  But the truth is those things happened long before there was ever an Internet and they will continue with or without it.  We have to be willing to admit some behaviors as attributes of human nature, especially in children, and accept them if we are ever going to deal with them correctly.  For example, the biggest consumers of online pornography in the US is boys between the ages 12 and 17.  Will taking away online pornography reduce the drive boys feel to explore the female body?  When I was that age, it was boys waiting for the opportunity to sneak into someone's father's closet and look at Playboy magazines.  The Internet didn't create the desire, it only made the object of the desire more accessible.  The same is true with bullying.  Bullying has existed probably as long as humankind has walked this Earth.  "Cyber" didn't create "bullying" it simply changed its delivery.  Creepy perverts are going to exist whether they are cruising neighborhoods in beat up old vans or they are cruising the Internet with state of the art computers.  Online is not equal to evil, it is just the latest tool-set being used for the same old purposes.

4. Kids will seek out ways to defy rules - Has it ever not been this way?  It is, in kids minds, part of the passage to adulthood.  By defying rules and society's conventions, they are declaring their independence and showing their ability to break away from their parents (or so they think).  The pursuit of things that are considered "taboo" by kids has always existed for this reason.  In the 50's it was smoking, drinking, and sex.  In the 60's it was sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll.  Today it's pornography, sexting, chatting/flirting with strangers, playing graphic/violent video games, exploring counter-cultures (like anorexia or suicide sites), cyber-bullying, etc.  Our teens and pre-teens are striving to differentiate themselves from their parents in the hopes that they will be recognized by their peers as adults.  Being online doesn't cause this, it's just a medium that makes it easier.

So, what do these truths have to do with creating a practical strategy?  Anyone trying to formulate a plan to improve online safety for children MUST embrace these concepts as reality and plan around them.  This group did not.  When a group of intelligent people spend over a year doing research and recommend things like "the improvement of parental control software" as a viable solution, it proves they haven't admitted these truths.  At the exponential rate at which technology is changing, by the time they have improved parental controls, a new technology will be released that wasn't accounted for.  In other words, by the time their new safety software comes out, it's obsolete.  Their own research proved that change is accelerating online. How is a solution that is currently not keeping up (we are already producing/improving parental control software like NetNanny and Cyber Sitter hand over fist) going to improve the situation in the future?

Another suggestion produced by the OSTWG is to "better educate adults (parents and teachers) about the online risks and ways to prevent order to enable them to teach children to be better digital citizens."  WE are going to guide THEM?  That's like having a Boy Scout teach a Navy SEAL about survival and combat tactics.  Most adults today know little about the online sandbox their children play in.  Teachers and parents lack the credibility to influence children's online decision-making and behavior.  The minute a child can say "you don't know what it's really like" you've lost.  True, this may not be an issue 10 years from now as the adults then will be digital natives.  But we still have to do something now.

I could go on and on citing examples of how the OSTWG nailed the conclusions and botched the suggestions but enough negative.  I know what you are thinking "...Alright smart guy, you seem to have all the answers, how would you solve these problems?"  Well, I don't have ALL the answers but I have two ideas that might work if we (as a society) can think a little outside the box.

First, someone has to come up with a digital "stamp of approval" for online content.  One organization sets one standard (this would be a great job for the OSTWG).  For a website to get this digital stamp of approval, they have to meet a strict set of criteria that defines their content, including restrictions about other sites they link to.  Get a company like Microsoft or Google to make a browser that only opens "approved" sites and have schools (and parents) only use that browser on their machines.  Safe search sites could be set up to only show results that have the "stamp."  One of the good suggestions by the OSTWG was to encourage industry leaders like Yahoo, Microsoft, Apple, Google, Verizon, and others to assist in online safety efforts by adopting policies recommended by the group.  Well, here is their chance.  I believe any reputable site that hosts educational content would absolutely go through the process of getting their site approved so their sites could be viewed in schools.  In the 80's and 90's Apple recognized the value of indoctrinating children in their technologies by providing free or low cost computers to schools.  Their hope was that the familiarity would generate revenue as children grew into adults and purchased Apple machines.  I believe other sites like Google and Microsoft would also benefit from such an arrangement and therefore would be willing to create kid-safe, "approved" sites.  And once the giants lead the way, other organizations are sure to follow.  What would the federal government's role be in this scenario?  Aside from possibly facilitating the definition of standards (via the OSTWG), they could also legislate very severe consequences for organizations that abuse the system (e.g. changing their content after they have earned the "stamp of approval").  I know that similar systems such as digital security certificates for websites have floundered over the past few years.  Opponents could say the same thing will happen in my scenario.  But part of their problem is that digital certificates are complicated, aren't well understood by the general public, and many people are willing to risk visiting a site that doesn't have a digital security certificate if they think the site has what they want (and lets not forget that you can continue on to a site despite its lack of a certificate).  It is a system that is not well defined, not well promoted, not well enforced, and not really cared about.  If done correctly, a system utilizing a digital "stamp of approval" could work well.  You could also extend the functionality to smartphones, iPods, and video gaming systems.  Individuals could get "approved" so that they could access safe chat rooms and social media and then sites could be set up to allow people to report them if they abuse their "approval" (thereby losing it).  There are many possibilities with a system like this.

Second, channel the message through a credible source.  I work for an IT consulting company.  Our clients are some of the top companies in the US (very smart people) and they readily admit that they don't have credibility in planning and executing large IT projects.  That's why we remain in business.  The same principle applies here.  We as digital immigrants don't have credibility to guide kids through the process of being good digital citizens.  What can we do?  Bring in consultants.  We need people who are old enough to be responsible and "get" the bigger picture of our cause but are young enough and hip enough to maintain credibility and an aura of "coolness" among kids.  I'm talking about college kids.  I'm talking about the older brothers and sisters of our online children.  I'm talking about people who are still in touch with what kids today are going through and are equally familiar with the technologies.  Churches figured this out long ago.  How many churches have college kids as counselors in summer camps?  It's a concept that is sound in principle and has been proven to work.  Parry Aftab of WiredSafety, with all of her national resources, would be the perfect person to spearhead something like this.  Summer or weekend camps, weekly workshops, etc. where kids get together in a safe environment, to play games and interact with each other online and then take time to talk about their experiences with each other and with counselors who have credibility - counselors who can guide them through proper usage - by example not by lecture.  It is the typical retreat/summer camp scenario applied to the online world.  There are organizations out there that are dabbling in this as PART of their camp or retreat curriculum.  Now is the time to stop dabbling and make it mainstream.  It is, I believe, the best way to get the message across.  Of course, for this to work, the counselors would have to be the "right" kind of kids.  But this is also true of church camps and they have accomplished proper selection for years.

No, these two ideas will not completely solve the problems we face.  Both efforts would take a great deal of work to implement and be slow moving at first.  But you have to start somewhere.  We can't keep doing what we are doing (just more of it).  We are dangerously close to being lapped by the bad things lurking on the information super highway.  Online technologies gain popularity because they are new and different - their creators have thought out of the box.  It's time we do the same.

Holy cow that was a long post!

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Disney Joins the Cause (Barely)

I'm not sure how long this site has been around.  I've never come across it before.  In any case, Disney has a site devoted to keeping kids safe online.  It's not very substantial and most of the content is a clone of the same old stuff you find a lot of places (in fact I think most of their content came from  Honestly, I think with their reputation for excellence, Disney could and should do better than this "luke-warm" attempt.  Maybe this is just their first step into the pool. But at least they're in the game right?  Here is the address:

FOLLOW UP: A reader who works at one of Disney's resorts e-mailed me and said this: "...this site was created as part of Disney Guest Services.  Most resorts have Internet access and Disney felt if children are getting online while on Disney property, they should post something to notify parents and kids about potential dangers.  It was never intended to be a serious resource, more of a warning or disclaimer."

That makes more sense.  However, I still think Disney should make a strong effort.  Who better than them to help advance the cause of Internet safety for kids?

Monday, July 19, 2010

Facebook's New Child Safety Features...Am I Missing Something?

Several articles last week touted Facebook's latest step toward making children safe on their site.  Facebook has partnered with the Child Exploitation and Online Protection (CEOP) Centre from the UK to offer "a new suite of features designed at keeping the Facebook experience safe for kids."  I spent a few hours looking into these new features and honestly....I don't get it.  I can't figure out how these new features are going to offer any real protection for kids while on Facebook.

The big problem for me is that I can't find any clear description about what CEOP is bringing to the table.  The language describing the partnership is very vague.  Here is an example (this text is posted on both Facebook and CEOP's sites):

"Access to the ClickCEOP button will be provided via an application that users can add or bookmark so that it appears on their homepage as not only a constant source of help and reassurance for them but also as a strong visual signal to their friends, family and others that they are in control online."

The appearance of an icon or button on someone's page doesn't actually do anything.  From what I understand, when clicked, the button takes the child to an "information page" where they can also report abuses.  Reporting abuses sounds promising until you learn that Facebook is making no commitment to do anything about reported users and CEOP is only building a database of reported incidents (for what purpose, no one seems to know).  The "information" they refer to is a list of the standard Internet safety advice you can find on a thousand different websites (like mine).  In other words, the button does nothing tangible that can help a child at the crucial moment when their safety is being threatened.

Here is the link to the description of the service:

From what I understand, here is what it doesn't do:
  • It doesn't block offensive content
  • It doesn't block unsolicited messages from strangers
  • It doesn't prevent children from "friending" strangers
  • It doesn't give parents any control or even access to their child's profile or content
Seems to me that these are the things you need to do to make Facebook safe for kids.

Is a 14 year old going to respond to bullying or a sexual advance by searching the CEOP site for "relevant information?"  Do these people even know what a teenager is?  Will teenagers continue to use the "reporting" feature once they realize it does nothing?  Is a sexual predator going to leave a child alone just because of a bookmark that appears on the child's profile page?

Maybe I'm missing something here and I would love for someone from Facebook or CEOP to fill in the missing pieces.  If the information I have is incorrect or incomplete then Facebook needs to do a better job communicating to their user base.  My current opinion is that this is a smokescreen to divert attention from the reality that Facebook is still a fairly unsafe place for kids.  Since the 2007 lawsuit from the State of New York over child safety, Facebook has struggled against a lot of bad press about kids and their site. I hope this is more than just a lame attempt to improve public opinion.  Kids and parents deserve more than that.

Oh, and by the way, you now have to be just 13 to have a Facebook page.

Friday, July 16, 2010

The Danger of "The Fade"

Typical scenario:

Dealing with a 6 year old

A responsible parent wanting their 6 year old to be safe online - isn't extremely tech savvy but is willing to learn. The parent does some research, purchases filtering software, sets up parental controls, and moves the family computer to a "public" area so that they can monitor the child while he/she is online.  The parent takes the time to learn which sites are safe for kids and sets up bookmarks to kid-friendly sites for games and activities.  In short, the parent is very involved in the child's digital life.

Dealing with a 16 year old

Responsible parent cant keep up with all of the different ways their child is connecting online - cell phone, video game console, iPod, not to mention the laptop their school requires them to have which they take into their room or over to friends house to do homework.  Child has MySpace, Facebook, Meebo, and Twitter accounts and two different e-mail addresses. When parent tries to set up parental controls or filtering software the child complains.  When the parent asks the child about their online activities they get resistance and accusations of "invasion of privacy."  In short, the parent gets frustrated and gives up.  I call this "The Fade" as it represents a parent who was very involved and eventually faded away.

The scenario above is extremely common.  In fact, it has been documented in many cases that have ended tragically.  In released court documents in the case of a Long Island teenager who took her own life as a result of cyber-bullying back in March, the mother is quoted as saying "I didn't watch what she did online.  Every time I tried or asked she would get angry..."  It's so easy for parents to be involved in their children's online lives at age 6.  At that age, children expect guidance and rules from parents and honestly, many 6 year olds don't have the socialization to be tech savvy yet.  That means they probably can't even get online without Mom or Dad's help.  16 year olds on the other hand typically don't want Mom or Dad's help and would prefer if their parents left them alone to do as they will.

The irony in all of this is that the time your kids are resisting your involvement in their online lives is the time when they need your guidance the most.  At 6, the online avenues to harmful content are extremely few.  When my kids were 6 we had links to sites like Webkins, Popcap, and National Geographic Kids bookmarked in the browser.  When the kids got on the computer, they clicked one of those buttons and went to that site (and remember, the computer was in the kitchen so even if they stumbled onto something bad it could be addressed immediately).  At 6 kids don't know about what else is out there and they don't care.  All they want to do is entertain themselves.  6 year olds are typically not entertained by bullying people online or pornography.

At 16, it's a different story.  They are much more interested in content that could be harmful to them.  The largest consumer of Internet pornography in the United States is boys between the ages of 12 and 17.  I've got a friend whose son injured himself pretty badly trying to copycat some idiot online who posted a YouTube video on how to make a bomb out of a plastic bottle and some Draino.  The teenage years are when the cliques are forming and the mean-spirited harassment of other kids really kicks into high gear. It is also the time when more and more understandable options are available to them to connect online.  A 6 year old would probably lose interest in Twitter pretty quickly or be confused by all of the configuration required when setting up a Facebook page.  Teenagers aren't so inhibited.  They seek out new avenues to gain popularity, express themselves, and explore their adulthood.

We also have to keep another truth in mind.  The teenage years are the hormonal years.  Various urges are waking in kids that make them do things they've never done before.  Boys will likely seek out information on the female body online.  Girls will seek out social media sources to chat about boys and ultimately bicker about boys (which can lead to cyber-bullying).  Their minds and bodies are actively...hungrily seeking out new stimuli.

So lets go back to our scenario above and word it a little differently.  Just when your child has reached an age where they know how to use every source of social media and Internet connectivity available...just when they reach the age when they are seeking to exhibit their own adulthood by exploring things that are "taboo"... just when they reach the age where they are hormonally supercharged... the parent decides to give them free reign of the Internet?

As a parent, I understand how difficult it is to struggle with your teenagers to get anything done.  You say "pick up your dirty laundry" and they seem tho throw more on the floor.  The teenage years are the most difficult for many parents because it is when their authority is most challenged.  I know it's hard to stay involved in your children's online lives but think about it this way:  You've got a pipe bringing fresh water into the house.  If your teenager decided to take a bucket and collect water from a dirty, oil filled puddle along a road somewhere and then bring that water home to drink and bathe in would you allow it?  What if they said "I'm an adult and I should be allowed to make my own choices?"  Would you back down?  Probably not.  Then why do you back down when they challenge you about their online lives?

Let's not forget something are the parent, they are the children.  You pay the bills, you own the house, you provide them with a wide variety of services (food preparation, laundry, clothing, education, etc.).  You are certainly permitted to have rules and they are obliged to follow them.  Parents seem to step up and get tough when their kids do something stupid that could physically harm themselves but for some reason, the Internet is overlooked.  Is it because that computer, cell phone, or video game console doesn't explode if they misuse it?  Would it change your mind if it did?  Misuse of the internet can cause depression, suicide, anxiety, misdirected sexuality (and in some extreme cases, rape), abduction, violence, vandalism,...the list goes on and on.  Are these not threats to your child's health and well being just like contaminated water would be?

The teenage years are when you should be most involved in your child's online lives.  Know who they interact with online. Make them provide the login credentials (username and password) for their social media (e.g. Facebook) and e-mail accounts.  Reserve the right to get onto their phones or iPods at any time and poke around.  And above all else, you have to actually do these things (not just say you might).  Think of the Internet as a potentially contaminated stream of information that could harm your child.  Guide them through it.  Your job as a parent is to protect them, even if they don't like all of the choices you make.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

McAfee Continues to Impress Me

I received a very kind comment from Tracy at McAfee about my posting highlighting McAfee's "Secret Lives of Teens" study.  Tracy is the author of McAfee's Security Insights Blog.  I am embarrassed to say that I didn't even know the blog existed (sorry Tracy).  I do now and I'm hooked.

I took some time to read over the blog and am very impressed with both Tracy's writing and the effort by McAfee to provide useful information to the public, free of charge (doing the right thing because it's the right thing to do).

The blog focuses on cyber-safety.  Some of the postings are on content similar to this blog and others are on topics such as keeping your computer safe from hackers, virus and malware prevention, Internet privacy, personal data security, etc.  So for those of you who regularly ask where they can get information that is not directly related to keeping children safe online, here is your source.  And for the rest of you, Tracy's blog is a great source more more information about online safety for kids.

Thanks Tracy.

Here is the link to the blog:

WHIO Channel 7 in Dayton

For those of you who live in the Greater Dayton OH region, I will be on Channel 7's Sunday morning community service program on Sunday, July 25 at 11am, discussing Internet safety for children.  Eventually I am hoping to get the video to post here.

Thanks to WHIO for helping me get the message out.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Internet Safety Blog Mention

Hey look.  My blog was mentioned on another blog.  Very cool.  They got everything right except the gender of my kids.  I have a boy and a girl, not two boys.  Still a good article though.

The Secret Lives of Teens (Online)

Back in 2008, McAfee, the maker of the popular antivirus and computer protection software, partnered with several research agencies to conduct a study titled The Youth Online Behavior Study.  This study focused on online behavior patterns of children age 12 to 17 - in other words, what sites were they visiting, how were they using online media, how were they getting around safeguards, and what were they hiding from their parents.  The study came out roughly in the same time frame as a study by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) and despite the fact that each study focused on a different geographic region, their findings were very similar.  Together they provided a very good base of knowledge about the online habits of teens.

Last month, McAfee conducted a followup study called The Secret Lives of Teens.  Since two years had passed...and more importantly, since the technological landscape changed so much with the advent of new social media (e.g. Twitter) and the explosion in popularity in chat sites and services like Facebook, McAfee wanted to bring these new technologies into the fold and include relevant statistics.  They also were curious how the numbers had changed from 2008 to 2010.

I won't list a bunch of statistics from the study - you can and SHOULD read the study yourself (available below).  The bottom line result of the study reinforces the same lesson internet safety advocates have been preaching for years...parents and educators MUST put the time in; they must get involved in the online lives of children and they must extend beyond their comfort zones and keep up to date with evolving and emerging technologies if they want their children to be safe.

What I think lends merit to the study and gives credibility to McAfee is this: here is a company who sells software designed to keep your computer and your family safe from online threats.  It would be to their benefit to say that their products "automate" online safety - that their tools make it so easy and do all the work for you.  But they don't do that.  In fact, their study shows the opposite.  No matter what tools you use, you have to be willing to put the time in.  No software product or online service will take the responsibility out of the hands of parents and guardians.

Take some time and read this study.  It's not horribly long (10 pages), it's very easy to read, and it is loaded with valuable information.  I wasn't surprised by any of the findings but I am immersed in these statistics every day.  However, there may be some surprises for you.

Kudos to McAfee for taking the time to do the study and making the results freely available to the public.

Click here to read/download the 2010 study The Secret Lives of Teens.

Or you can read a summary of the report on this article from McAfee.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

I am increasingly impressed with They are a non-profit collaborative partnership between state and local governments and agencies as well as industry leading corporations. I have downloaded and looked over their free content and it's pretty good. If you are an educator or school administrator looking for curriculum for Internet safety, they are a good source. There are also resources for parents and for kids as well. Here is the "About Us" statement from their website:


Internet Keep Safe Coalition

The Internet Keep Safe Coalition is a broad partnership of governors and/or first spouses, attorneys general, public health and educational professionals, law enforcement, and industry leaders working together for the health and safety of youth online. iKeepSafe® uses these unique partnerships to disseminate safety resources to families worldwide.

To give parents, educators, and policymakers the information and tools which empower them to teach children the safe and healthy use of technology and the Internet.

To see generations of the world’s children grow up safely using technology and the Internet.

iKeepSafe educational resources teach children of all ages in a fun, age-appropriate way, the basic rules of Internet safety, ethics, and the healthy use of connected technologies.

Resources for Elementary Grades
Through the storybook adventures of Internet safety icon, Faux Paw the Techno Cat®, elementary school children learn about:

  • Internet safety basics
  • How to handle cyber-bullying
  • Balancing real life with screen time
  • The risks and dangers of downloading

The website reinforces the lessons taught in the books with educational materials, including PowerPoint® presentations, activity sheets, coloring pages, quizzes, and educational games available for free download.

The Faux Paw® curriculum is based on research from Harvard’s Center on Media and Child Health and created in partnership with the iKeepSafe Global Research Team, Penn State University Department of Education, and the University of Maryland. It is central to a nationwide Internet safety campaign with pilot programs running this year in Australia, China, and India. Faux Paw stories are also available in Spanish, French, Mandarin, Cambodian, Vietnamese and other languages.

Resources for Teens

  • Comcast’s Emmy award-winning “Student Voices” on cyber-bullying
  • ‘Tween and teen video presentations and tutorials

Resources for Parents
Parent resources are available in the Parent Resource Center, including:

  • Video tutorials on current Internet safety topics:
  • 10 Actions Parents Must Take
  • Social Networking Sites
  • How to Handle Cyber-bullying
  • MySpace Safety Know-how
  • Family Fun Lessons: to help parents teach Internet safety at home
  • DARE Activities: coloring pages, activities, and instructions for parents
  • Online Safety Digest: recent news stories covering online safety issues

Most iKeepSafe resources are available for free download.

The Internet Keep Safe Coalition is a registered 501(c)3, non-profit organization founded by Jacalyn S. Leavitt, former First Lady of Utah (1993–2003).

Friday, July 9, 2010

Making an iPad Safe for Kids

I've had a couple of people ask me about parental controls for the iPad.  Here is a good video from CNET on just that topic.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

PC Pandora Review

I want to thank the people at PC Pandora for commenting on my Capitol Hill posting. The rule with this blog is that, unlike other bloggers, I DO allow some sales-based comments if I think the commenter is making a genuine effort to comment intelligently (hence the presence of PC Pandora's comment).  However, if you are a company who is using a comment to promote your product, that product will most likely get an open and honest review from me or one of my associates.  You may not like everything I have to say but my job is to keep the best interest of kids and the people who protect them at heart.  So PC Pandora...sorry for the bad pun but you opened the box :-).  Here is your review.

First,  what is PC Pandora?  It is software that invisibly monitors and records computer activity and content (like a Tivo for your PC) and offers administrators (or parents) some controls for blocking objectionable content and sites.

I have to say that I didn't feel qualified to review the product alone.  My only experience with PC Pandora is in a corporate setting among my company's clients.  From that perspective I can tell you that as a tool for stealthy monitoring of daily computer activity, it does it's job extremely well.  In the three companies where I know it is being used, the employees don't even know it's there.  The only comment from the administrators (and I wouldn't call it a complaint) is that their large employee base requires them to purchase great amounts of storage (hard drives) to save the records and data created by the software.  But they were prepared for that going in so it's certainly not a negative against the manufacturer.  One company in particular saved themselves a great deal of money in legal fees after an employee tried to sue for wrongful termination.  The records produced by PC Pandora allowed them to prove the employee spent over 3 hours a day on non-work related websites (mostly MySpace).  So from a corporate perspective, PC Pandora is great, but keep in mind that the goal in the corporate world is not to use the software to block sites and content like a school or parents would (corporate firewall and network security software usually takes care of that).

Because of my lack of experience with this product in regard to children, I asked around and discovered that one of my colleagues, a technology coordinator in a suburban Dayton, OH school district, is using the tool in her district.  She was more than willing to share her opinion about the product.  Here are her comments (thanks Angela):

"Our initial purchase of the software was unfortunately due to a suspicion about a teacher, not any students.  There was a rumor circulating and eventually a complaint from a parent that one of our teachers was sending inappropriate e-mails to students and accessing inappropriate websites on a classroom computer while children were present.  Our first attempt to investigate without the Pandora product revealed nothing.  However, the teacher was known to be tech savvy and could have very easily deleted his browsing history.  We installed Pandora and recorded the PC for a month without the teacher's knowledge.  The data revealed no inappropriate e-mails sent to students (from that machine) by the teacher and though the computer did attempt to access several offensive websites, none of the attempts were made using the teacher's login credentials and many of the attempts were made when a substitute teacher was present.

Given our success with the product for that particular case, we decided to try it in other applications.  Our standard content filtering software does a good job blocking bad sites, however, for various reasons, there were a few machines in the district that seemed to ignore the filters put in place and allowed students to access offensive material on a regular basis.  In some cases is was due to students' technical know-how and in others it was the age of the computer that made it incompatible with our security software.  So we thought we'd try Pandora and see what happened.

The filtering/blocking features worked ok but didn't filter as much as we would have liked.  One of our biggest problems is kids accessing chat sites at school and most of the popular chat sites couldn't be blocked by Pandora for some reason.  We also found the interface for administering the controls a bit confusing.  In addition, we discovered that if a website is a secure HTTP site (which many members-only pornography sites apparently are), Pandora couldn't filter them out either.

Overall, my opinion is that if you are looking for a tool to quietly monitor what's happening on a PC, there is no better product than Pandora.  But if you want to filter/block content, there are several better options."

PC Magazine offered a similar review to Angela's.  You can read it here:,2817,2247334,00.asp.

Here is a link to PC Pandora's website:

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

An Opinion about Internet Safety from Capitol Hill

My family and I just got back from a very educational and tiring vacation to our nation's capitol.  Though I try to abstain from politics and would never use this blog as a forum of support for any political figure or candidate, I do have to acknowledge the courtesy and hospitality extended by our Congressman's (John Boehner) office during our visit.  We wrote Mr. Boehner's office before the trip and arranged a tour of the Capitol Building (very cool) and though we didn't get a chance to meet Mr. Boehner (he had just left for the holiday weekend), we did get to spend some time talking to members of his staff.

As a history fanatic, I had a million questions for the aide that conducted our tour.  When we got back to Boehner's office, we spent some time talking to other members of his staff.  We were fortunate enough to spend a few minutes talking to one of his senior staff members (who I will not name out of political courtesy) and I told him about my efforts around keeping kids safe online and asked him this question: "what do you think the federal government's position should be in promoting or enforcing internet safety for children?"  I thought you would all be interested in the answer.  And though I will not claim this to be a word-for-word quote/response, I will say that it is very close to the answer I received:

The topic you are asking about has definitely come up many times.  It is a politically ambiguous and somewhat dangerous topic as any effort to enforce regulation along such lines could very easily stray into infringement of First Amendment rights.  As much as most public servants in government find pornography and other content that might be harmful to children objectionable, the right to produce and display it is guaranteed by the same Constitution that guarantees our right to object to it.  I believe, and Mr. Boehner might agree, that the role of the federal government is to promote a safe environment for children online by facilitating safety and education through grants and well-conceived programs that encourage and enable content and sites that operate in the best interest of children.  The content available online, just like printed content, is not within the power of the government, nor should it be, to regulate or censor. It is and should be the responsibility of the parent, school, or any adult who allows children to connect to the Internet to monitor and control the information that their children are allowed to access. 

From a legislative standpoint, the government should be willing to create laws that protect children once the reach and impact of objectionable content goes beyond the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment. Luring children to objectionable sites, pushing offensive content out to minors, the use of communication media for illegal activities, and certainly the use of the internet by sexual and other predators is the province of the government and along those lines, every member of Congress agrees that efforts should be made to dissuade offenders and create harsh consequences for those that use social and public media to violate the rights of others.

As much as I think this answer is politically safe, I agree with it. I'd love to know what you all think.