Family photo sharing

At the risk of stating the obvious, digital photography is one of the great revolutions of our time. By eliminating the cost of film and developing-and making cameras cheaper, smaller and more readily available-the technology has sparked a renaissance in photo taking.

Now that most cell phones have built-in cameras, digital cameras are literally everywhere and always with us. Even those of us who don’t think to pack our cameras when we leave the house probably have a camera, thanks to cell phones. This, of course, raises some safety and privacy concerns for children and teens.

If your child has a cell phone with a camera, make sure you talk about appropriate use. They should never share pictures that include other people without their permission and should never use those cameras for snapping photos of people who are not dressed appropriately or in compromising positions. Having fun at a slumber party is fine; taking pictures of friends in their nighties or underwear is definitely off limits. And make sure your kids are aware of what others around them are doing with their cameras.

But there are plenty of great things about digital photography. One of the biggest changes is the way we show off our pictures. Until a few years ago, the only way to share photos was through prints, but most digital pictures taken today are never printed.  Instead, they’re viewed on a screen instead of paper or, I suppose, never shared at all.

In some cases, we share our pictures by showing them to our friends and family on our camera or phone’s LCD screen. That gives us that instant gratification that my generation first enjoyed back with Polaroid cameras. But unlike those very pricey Polaroid prints, digital images are free.

Speaking of free, there are also a number of ways to share photos online, including social networking sites like Facebook, MySpace and Bebo, as well as dedicated photo sharing sites like Flickr (part of Yahoo!), SnapFish, Shutterfly, Picasa and Photobucket.

Whichever service you use, you’re sure to find some great features including the ability to create albums that you can share online with friends and family. And if you’re one of those people who like pictures on paper, don’t despair. Most of these services, including Flickr, allow you or your family and friends to order prints.

Training wheels for social networks

I think of sites like Club Penguin and ZooKazoo as social networks on training wheels.

These sites, generally aimed at kids between about six and 12 (Penguin goes up to 14 but it’s hard to imagine they have very many users that age), provide an opportunity for kids to interact in a much more limited way than social networking sites like MySpace, Facebook and Bebo which are off-limits to pre-teens.

In both Club Penguin and ZooKazoo kids represent themselves as “avatars.” An avatar is a cartoon-like character that serves as the surrogate for the child. The image of the avatar (not a picture of the actual child) walks around, “talks” with other characters and engages in various games and experiences. In the case of Club Penguin the avatar is a particular penguin that the child chooses. In ZooKazoo your avatar is called a “zelf” and it can be a monkey, cat, bear or other character.

Children can communicate in these virtual worlds but there are limits. Either they can have free chat or—at the parent’s option—be limited to chatting only by selecting pre-existing phrases. Both sites have filters to prevent “bad words” as well as dumb stuff like when a child tries to type in a phone number.

Even with safety tools in place, parents still need to monitor how their kids are using these services. Exercising good cyber-citizenship (don’t be mean or bully) is very important and it’s also important for kids to know that if anyone is mean to them, it’s not the victim’s fault that someone is being rude and obnoxious

Both sites have limited free memberships but to get full benefits families have to pay—typically about $5.95 a month. The sites do not display advertising.

Interview: David Finkelhor, Crimes Against Children Research Center

LARRY MAGID’S INTERVIEW WITH DAVID FINKELHOR

It’s not primarily having a social networking profile or giving out personal information that puts kids at risk What puts kids at risk are things like having a lot of conflict with your parents, being depressed and socially isolated, being hyper, communicating with a lot of people online who you don’t know, being willing to talk about sex online with people that you don’t know.” – David Finkelhor

In the suicide case of 13-year-old Megan Meier, a 49-year-old mother, Lori Drew, allegedly posed as a teen-age boy to gain the affections of young Megan under false pretenses. After a flirtatious online relationship, this fictitious young man “broke up” with Megan and Megan hanged herself about an hour later. To many, this is a case of cyberbullying, though not a very typical one for several reasons discussed here. David Finkelhor is Director of the University of New Hampshire’s Crimes Against Children Research Center and one of the world’s leading scholars when it comes to the victimization of children both on and off the Internet. In an interview with Dr. Finkelhor, I started by asking him to explain just how common or rare this type of situation happens to be.

FINKELHOR: Bullying happens an awful lot. As far as we know, it’s not typically adults who are bullying and harassing young people. It tends to be more often young-people-on-young-people, so this case was somewhat unusual in that sense. But the Internet does allow a lot of permutations that we might not have thought about in the area when children are more confined to their own kind of ghetto of childhood, so this is something that we might see more of.

MAGID: Moving away for a moment from the adult issue, how common is cyberbullying among children and teens and how much of an impact does it have on them?

FINKELHOR: We’re really getting our legs on this topic in trying to understand more about it. Bullying in general takes a terrific toll on children. In fact, when we talk with young people in an interview, this is one of the perils that they are most concerned about, and certainly many studies have shown it to have serious psychological impact. Our studies of harassment online suggested that it can have an impact on kids as well. But how serious it has to be and how long it has to go on before it really begins to kind of be corrosive, I don’t think we know all of that yet.

MAGID: What’s the difference between and schoolyard bullying and cyberbullying?

FINKELHOR: A lot of comparisons have been made, but I think we are still learning more about this. People like to emphasize the degree to which bullying can be anonymous online and the degree to which it could be amplified by being disseminated to large numbers of people. And [these factors] certainly increase the seriousness. But on the other hand, the physical intimidation dimensions aren’t quite as great as in face-to-face bullying. And we don’t know if there might in fact be some substitution of online bullying for old fashioned face-to-face bullying which means that it is somewhat less scary in some of its dimensions.

MAGID: I believe it was you, who reported that roughly 32-33% of youths have received some type of online harassment. Is that the case?

FINKELHOR: Right. That’s what our survey shows, but there’s been some use of the term “bullying” applied to that, and that’s probably not correct because the bullying authorities like to restrict that term to harassment and threats that occur over a continued period of time and that involve an imbalance of power between the perpetrator and the victim. And most of these online harassment situations don’t involve those two elements.

Predator Risk is not what a lot of people think

MAGID: This [Meier case] isn’t what you would typically call a predator case – although it is a case where an adult is posing as a child, but in this case not for sexual purposes but to otherwise harass. But let’s talk for a minute about predators. Because, if you look at some of the media reports, it seems almost as if there’s a predator behind every keyboard. How prominent is it?

FINKELHOR: “Predator” is not a word that I like to use a whole lot myself. “Offenders,” “perpetrators,” “abusers,” I think, work a lot better. There’s an image that developed in the media and to some extent in the educational programs that there are these Internet predators who trail all over the Internet looking for innocent young children who inadvertently log their personal information into a service online and then, using that information, they stalk these kids; they pretend to be other kids and lure them to meetings where they abduct them, rape or murder them. That’s not really, I think, a good description of the majority of the sex offenses that we see adults committing against children online. They primarily involve adults who are offending against teenagers. We see very few cases of young children, so primarily it’s 12-, 13-, 14-, 15-year-olds. There was a perception that people tend to think these adults usually are hiding the fact that they’re adults and eventually the kids come to see that they have a sexual interest in them as well, even if they don’t make that clear at the very beginning but certainly do when a meeting occurs.

MAGID: You’re saying that kids usually aren’t surprised. If they do actually wind up with a face-to-face meeting they’re not terribly surprised once they get there.

FINKELHOR: The kids typically go to these meetings and know that this is an encounter with somebody whom they’re romantically interested in or whom they are looking for an adventure with and where sex is on the agenda. These much more fit the stereotype of what you might call statutory sex crimes than either child molestation or forcible rape.

MAGID: In 2000 you did a study that reported that 1 in 5 youths had received an unwanted sexual solicitation and when you repeated that in 2005 it went down to 1 in 7, which is good. But I’ve read some reports in the media and from politicians that have used the word predator, that is, 1 in 5 or 1 in 7 young people have been approached by an online predator. Could you put that into some perspective?

FINKELHOR: In that survey we did find that 1 out of 7 young people who use the Internet [received] an unwanted sexual solicitation or inquiry from someone online. But those aren’t all predators by any stretch of the imagination. I like to say it’s more like 1 in 25 kids who encounter what we call an aggressive solicitation, somebody who sent them a kind of sexual message and is trying to follow that up in some way by actually trying to meet them or arranging to contact them offline as well.

MAGID: Right. But some of those 1 in 7, some of them are either minors – about half, I think – and then some of them, as you said, are non-aggressive, that the kids just deal with in some way?

FINKELHOR: Yeah, you can imagine, given the anonymity of the Internet, there are a lot of people who are just being fresh, I think. They’re asking kids, what’s your bra size? Or they’re making some rude sexual comment to them, it’s not necessarily a prelude to an attempt to meet them or sexually seduce them even.

MAGID: And then finally when you talk about the 1 in 25, and when you look at other data about “at risk kids,” it appears and again this is from looking at much of your research, that there is a pattern of risk and there are certain activities that kids engage in that tends to increase the risk. It’s more or less sociological or psychological conditions under which kids find themselves. And I am wondering whether we can begin to get a better understanding or have a better understanding as to who is at risk and what can be done for this particular population?

What puts kids at risk

FINKELHOR: That’s a good question. It’s not primarily having a social networking profile or giving out personal information that puts kids at risk. What puts kids at risk are things like having a lot of conflict with your parents, being depressed and socially isolated, being hyper, communicating with a lot of people online who you don’t know, being willing to talk about sex online with people that you don’t know. I think also, for example, having sexual orientation questions probably puts kids at risk

MAGID: Being in doubt about your sexual orientation?

FINKELHOR: Yeah, cause kids are online kind of looking for help on that and that makes them vulnerable. These are kids who have encountered trouble and are having difficulties in various places in their lives, probably because they don’t have good relationships, or they are in conflict, don’t have people to confide in. They’re out there and more vulnerable to these sexual exploitations.

MAGID: This doesn’t sound like a new story. This sounds like something that people have been talking about for decades in terms of kids at risk. Is there anything special about today’s high-risk kids versus the ones who were around 20, 30, 40 years ago?

FINKELHOR: That’s a good question. They certainly have many of the characteristics of kids that we’ve always regarded as being high risk. Although because the Internet maybe has not penetrated to some of the lower socio-economic strata yet these kids just may be kind of better off than the troubled kids that a lot of our social programs have been oriented towards in the past.

MAGID: And that brings up the final question, which is social problems. What can be done? I mean, do we need to educate the entire population or do we really have a sub-section of the population that needs some kind of special service in terms of online-safety education?

FINKELHOR: I think we need to do both. Both what you’d call primary and secondary prevention. I think that there are good Internet citizenship and safety skills that probably everybody should have. But we need a second tier of prevention programs that really are targeted to kids that might be at high risk or might be thinking about doing more edgy, dangerous kinds of things. They might be having some kinds of problems, and helping them to see what some of the consequences might be [would be helpful]. As for that group in particular, I think we need to say talking to their parents about how to better control and supervise them may not really work. These are kids who frequently are not amenable to parental control or maybe don’t have a very good relation with their parents. So we need to find ways, I think, to reach them more directly.

MAGID: David Finkelhor, the Director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, thank you very much.

FINKELHOR: Thank you. That was a good conversation.

Verifying age online doesn’t solve all problems

by mebelimebeliLarry Magid

I’m happy to be a member of a recently formed Internet Safety Technical Task Force, but it has caused me to feel a bit of a disconnect. One of the major goals of the task force is to explore whether it’s possible to use technology to verify the age of people signing up for social-networking sites like Facebook and MySpace to give parents more control over whether their kids can use these services and to avoid inappropriate online contact between kids and adults. Yet, at its first full meeting on April 30th, the experts who addressed the task force painted a picture that causes me to wonder if such technology would be helpful even if it could be employed.

The task force was formed in February as a result of an agreement between MySpace and 49 state attorneys general. The group consists of representatives of major Internet and social-networking services including MySpace, Facebook, Bebo, AOL, Google and Yahoo, along with officials from companies that offer age- and identity-verification technology. Several non-profit organizations are also represented, including ConnectSafely.org, which I co-founded with Anne Collier. (Disclosure: ConnectSafely receives financial support from several social-networking companies.)

The task force is a welcome intervention into what has been a nasty war of words. For the past couple of years, several attorneys general, lead by Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Roy Cooper of North Carolina, have been hammering at MySpace and other social networks because of the perceived danger of predators using the sites to contact children.

But that’s not what the task force heard from a panel of experts who actually know something about how kids can be harmed online. At its meeting in Washington on Wednesday, members heard from researchers Michelle Ybarra, from Internet Solutions for Kids; Janis Wolak, from the University of New Hampshire Crimes Against Children Research Center; Amanda Lenhart, from the Pew Internet & American Life Project; and Danah Boyd, a Ph.D. candidate at the School of Information at the University of California-Berkeley and a fellow at Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society.


CBS Technology analyst Larry Magid talks about social networking safety on KCBS radio with Jane McMillan and Ed Cavagnaro

Drawing from several surveys and studies, all of the researchers said the risk of a child being forced into sex from an online predator is almost non-existent. And in the relatively few cases where a youth does engage in sex with someone they first met online, both the meetings and the sex are usually voluntary.

That doesn’t excuse the adult – having sex with someone under the age of consent is rightfully a serious crime. Youth, says Wolak, typically have “little experience with romance and intimacy” and “less ability to negotiate with partners about sexual activity.”

But as part of what we need to know to better protect kids, it’s important to realize that deception is rarely involved. Most teens are aware of the approximate age and intentions of the adults who contact them. Only 5 percent of the offenders pretend to be teens. In some cases, the kids themselves are being aggressive and sexually suggestive and pose in ways to make them look older than they are.

When unwanted sexual solicitations do occur, most youths deal with them appropriately. Two-thirds of youths didn’t view the solicitations as serious or threatening and “almost all youths handled unwanted sexual solicitations easily and effectively,” according to data reported by Wolak.

Researchers reiterated that the overwhelming majority of kids who are sexually exploited are victims of people they know from the off-line world. And they pointed out that children have a far greater chance of being harassed or “cyberbullied” by peers than by adults. Nearly half of the cases of sexual solicitation were teen to teen.

To put Internet sex crimes into context, Wolak pointed out that of the 68,000 arrests in 2000 for sex crimes involving child victims, only 1,000 were Internet related. And in half of those cases, the victims knew the perpetrators.

Please don’t interpret these findings as being soft on predators or oblivious to the dangers on the Internet. Everyone in the room was deeply committed to protecting kids from the very real harms that do exist. But in the interest of safety it’s important not to confuse the perceived risks with the likely ones. To do so would be like worrying about some horrible but rare disease while failing to wear seat belts, washing your hands and flossing your teeth.

The task force’s main mandate is to explore age-verification technology that would make it a lot harder to claim you’re 14 when you’re actually 12 or that you’re 17 when you’re really 40. Social networks have age restrictions (typically kids have to be at least in their teens) but they now rely on user-supplied birth dates.

Some attorneys general want to see the electronic equivalent of showing an ID at the door. There are companies represented on the task force with tools that might be able to accomplish this including Aristotle, IDology and Sentinel Tech. But Sentinel Chief Executive John Cardillo told me age- and identity-verification schemes typically rely on credit reports and other data that is accessible for most adults, but generally not available for people under 17. One could, in theory, access school, birth or Social Security records, but for a variety of good reasons these databases are off-limits to private entities.

Though the task force has yet to hear from any age-verification vendors, I’m keeping an open mind about the efficacy of the technology. Yet, even if age verification is possible, I still need to be convinced whether it’s desirable. I worry about some teens – including abuse victims and youths questioning their sexual identity – being harmed because they’re denied access to online support services that could help them or even save their lives.

Google technology could save exploited children

This article by Larry Magid originally appeared in the San Jose Mercury News

Listen to Larry’s CBS News Podcast with Google Sr. Scientist Shumeet Baluja and National Center for Missing and Exploited Children President Ernie Allen

Working with law enforcement, analysts at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) in Alexandria, Va., spend their days doing something no one should have to do. They look at what is called “child pornography,” but the photos and videos are actually evidence of children – in some cases infants – being sexually abused.

They do this work to help rescue children who may still be in the clutches of a predator, to help catch and prosecute perpetrators and to send a message to would-be child abusers that exploiting children will not be tolerated. The online locations of suspected child pornography are reported to NCMEC via the CyberTipline by Internet service providers and members of the public. Images are submitted by law enforcement agencies across the country.

The work is emotionally draining and challenging. But thanks to some new technology from Google, these analysts now have a tool that could greatly enhance their effectiveness.

A disclosure: I serve as an unpaid member of NCMEC’s board of directors. When it comes to NCMEC’s work, I’m not objective. I passionately share the non-profit organization’s commitment to protecting children. I’m also a strong free-speech advocate, but the images they deal with are not protected by the First Amendment. Production, distribution and possession of “child porn” is illegal in the United States and many other countries.

The concept behind Google’s software is simple, but the implementation took four engineers thousands of hours over the better part of a year, according to Google’s senior research scientist Shumeet Baluja, who is the technical leader of the project.

The software allows an analyst to highlight a pattern somewhere in an image. It could be a calendar on the wall, a logo on a T-shirt, a prominent tattoo or perhaps the pattern of the carpet. It then looks for that pattern in other images and when it finds a match or a likely match it presents those images to the analyst. In some cases it will analyze the entire image to look for matches or near matches. NCMEC President Ernie Allen said the organization reviewed 5 million images and videos in the past year and more than 13 million since 2002.

Without this software, the only ways to make a match is to depend on the memory of analysts or to find an exact copy of the image with a file’s “hash mark.” But the hash mark – the digital fingerprint of a file – doesn’t follow all images. If an image is edited or compressed, for example, the hash mark changes.

We humans may be more perceptive than computers and better able to distinguish similar or unique characteristics. But computers have much better memories. As a NCMEC board member, I have heard amazing stories about analysts and police officers who have matched photos based on characteristics they remember from pictures they may have seen months ago. But I think that they all would appreciate a little help from machines.

Baluja says the technology will work even if the images are modified, if a photo has been changed from color to black and white, or if the pattern is at a different angle or position in the photo or video. It can also pick out a single pattern in a video, even if it’s a compilation of many shorter videos.

Google engineers and scientists were able to work on the project using what the company calls “20 percent time.” Google allows all of its employees to dedicate 20 percent of their work time to projects they initiate. Some of those projects benefit Google stockholders, some benefit end-users and some might wind up not benefiting anyone. This project has the potential to benefit thousands of children.

The engineers didn’t have to start from scratch. The technology is an outgrowth of the anti-piracy software Google developed to help its YouTube division ferret out videos suspected of being posted without the permission of copyright holders.

Google representatives are quick to point out that they don’t always take down copyrighted video flagged by software because in some cases there is a legitimate “fair use” case for it being posted. But what I find interesting about this is that a technology developed to protect intellectual property rights could be applied to protect children.

I’m sure that most people share Google’s motto of “do no evil.” But there are some people on this planet who are very evil toward children. Let’s hope that the efforts of these Google staffers and the hard-working people at NCMEC result in more of these evil people being sent to a place where they can no longer harm children.

If you come across videos or images of child pornography, don’t save them – that’s against the law. But do report their location to NCMEC’s CyberTipline at www.cybertipline.com

JuicyCampus is a haven for cyberbullies

LIMITS OF FREE SPEECH ARE TESTED BY WEB SITE’S HURTFUL, HATEFUL POSTS

By Larry Magid

San Jose Mercury News

The online gossip site JuicyCampus.com carries this slogan: “Always Anonymous . . . Always Juicy.”I’m a strong advocate of free speech, and I recognize that there are legitimate reasons to protect people’s ability to be anonymous on the Internet. But JuicyCampus.com is exercising these rights in ways that are hurtful and possibly dangerous. I also understand the interest in gossip. But there’s a difference between gossip among friends, or published gossip about celebrities, and spreading nasty rumors about private citizens.

The site, which was reportedly founded by a 1995 Duke graduate, encourages students at selected colleges ranging from the Air Force Academy to Yale to anonymously post “juicy” comments about other students. And some of these comments can be downright vicious.

All of this is under the veil of anonymity. In support of its slogan “Always Anonymous . . . Always Juicy,” the site’s privacy and tracking policy states that “it is not possible for anyone to use this website to find out who you are or where you are located.” It further warns people who want to be “extra-cautious” that “servers do, as a matter of course, keep logs” that can include geographic information and IP addresses, the string of numbers that identify a computer on the Internet. It goes on to recommend ways to find free services that shield IP addresses.

A quick look at the site revealed a number of posts that use derogatory terms to out people as homosexuals, whether true or not. There were also posts suggesting that specific women students are sluts, often giving details about their supposed sexual activities. In some cases, these posts contain a phone number or even a dorm address, encouraging others to seek contact with the person. Other comments are sexist, racist, hateful and downright mean. Many mention names of what appear to be real students. Some postings might be best described as virtual terrorism. One posting implied a certain named female student was available for sex with strangers and included her cell phone number and dorm information. If not terrorism, this is at the very least cyberbullying. Posting false information about people, impersonating others or simply being mean are all classic examples of cyberbullying.

There is nothing new about Web pages that contain rumors or lies about people. ConnectSafely.org, a Web forum I help run, receives regular reports about such postings on legitimate social Web sites.

In some cases there is nothing that can be done – free speech does give people the right to say what they think. But if the postings are libelous, defamatory, hateful or otherwise contrary to the site’s terms of service, we are typically able to get them taken down. The same is true if there is evidence that the posting or profile is impersonating someone else.

Michael Fertik, CEO of ReputationDefender.com said the Communications Decency Act of 1996 protects the owner of the site against prosecution or civil action for user postings but doesn’t protect individual users. In other words, if you post something libelous or defamatory, you can be sued by the victim.

Trouble is, says Fertik, it’s a “right without a remedy” as there is often no practical way to find out who did the posting. It might be possible to find someone from their IP address, but that doesn’t always work. Besides, as JuicyCampus points out, there are ways to hide your IP.

Ironically, said Fertik, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act provides victims of copyright infringement greater protection than the Communications Decency Act gives victims of libel or defamation. A record company has a better chance of getting a judgment against a college student sharing music than a college student has against someone jeopardizing his or her reputation, privacy or even safety.

It’s tempting to argue there ought to be a law against sites like this. But before reacting too quickly, we need to think about the unintended consequences of going after this type of site.

I don’t think we want to outlaw all forms of gossip, nor do I think it’s a smart to require authentication before anyone can post anything online. That could have negative consequences on political dissidents, whistle-blowers and others for whom anonymity can be vital. But just because something is legal doesn’t make it right. As a parent, I would discourage my kids from using a site like this, and I think it’s reasonable for college campuses to at least discuss what they ought to do about sites that encourage hateful comments.

About the only good thing I can say about JuicyCampus is that on the two days I tested it last week, access was extremely slow. Perhaps it was overwhelmed because of all the press coverage. Whatever the reason, it’s the first time I’ve ever been happy about a site being hard to reach.

Signs of Net Adiction

by Anne Collier
NetFamilyNews

Last year a person who works for a psychiatric hospital and specializes in adolescent care posted in our forum at ConnectSafely.org asking if anyone had developed screening for “Internet addiction.” No one in the forum had, and I suspected this person was pioneering something, pointing to a challenge for social services and the health care profession for which there is little research. It has since occurred to me to put this question to Dr. Jerald Block, a psychiatrist in Portland, Ore., who has worked with patients on game addiction.

Here’s our email conversation, illustrating the challenges this question poses to the medical profession (but stick with him, parents, because below the challenges is some helpful thinking for you):

NetFamilyNews: “Have you ever put together a screening list for ‘Internet addiction’ and ‘online porn addiction’ – what a parent or caregiver might look for to decide if a child needs help toward a better balance of activities? I’m sure there’s the usual sleeplessness, suffering grades, etc., but I’d appreciate a comprehensive list if you have one. ‘Game addiction’ too – all three would be great, but especially this blanket term we’re hearing, ‘Internet addiction’.”

Dr. Block: “I’ve given this a lot of thought and it is more difficult than I’d like to admit. I have made my own ‘testing instrument’ to detect ‘Pathological Computer Use,’ but it has not been ‘standardized.’ That is, essentially, the issue.

“Lacking clear diagnostic criteria, we also lack a scientific test. Also, even using proposed criteria, we still need to compare the test to the gold standard – a clinical interview. You have to do this with a great many people, and that many interviews cost money. It also takes effort to find the representative patients.

“The only people that have done this that I trust are the South Koreans, who have spent bundles on the issue, and some psychiatrists in Taiwan. Their clinical test has been standardized against and compared to the clinical interview. And, they have a variant that is meant to be used by the parent. However, the test is culture-specific and would not translate well to computer use in the US. [For a solid look at cultural differences in social Web use between the US and Korea, see this article about Korean social networking in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication.]

“That being said, I use a mnemonic to identify ‘SIGNS’ in at-risk people (kids or adults):

S = Sleep cycle is consistently advanced. Goes to sleep later and wakes later or is tired in the morning.
I = Irritable when not on the computer. Preoccupied thinking about the computer and their activities there (sex, gaming, browsing, tuning the system up, etc.). Can become enraged if told to stop using.
G = Guilty about his/her computer use so tries to hide evidence of 1) game/porn purchases, 2) online activities (deletes cache, uses encryption/passwords, etc.), and 3) logs on secretly, etc.; 4) defensive when confronted.
N = Nightmares. Dreams about his or her gaming/computer use.
S = Social dropouts – people who become more isolated by their computer use. This is seen when there is a consistent pattern of sacrificing real-life relationships to preserve virtual ones. Alternatively, seems to prefer living in virtual worlds more than their real one. These people become NEETs: ‘Not in Employment, Education, or Training.’

“If one or more of these questions are answered ‘yes’ AND the person is having interpersonal problems, he/she is at risk.”

NetFamilyNews: Following up, I asked Dr. Block, “Would you say the SIGNS mnemonic is for both ‘computer addiction’ and ‘Internet addiction’?”

Dr. Block: “Yes. I consider Internet addiction a subset of PCU (pathological computer use), and the mnemonic screens for PCU.”

NetFamilyNews: “Would it cover videogames and social-networking sites as well?”

Dr. Block: “Yes, I believe so.”

NetFamilyNews: “If kids are at risk for one of these types of addiction, what do you recommend a parent do? Consider taking the child to a clinical psychologist or family therapist?”

Dr. Block: “I really don’t know. I don’t think anybody does. I would suggest that parents try to handle the situation themselves, initially. If that fails, I would consult a professional. The problem is that most professionals do not know what to do and are unacquainted and unequipped to manage the issue. In my experience, PCU is underdiagnosed, hard to treat, comorbid with other disorders, and often subject to relapse. Treatments tend to be long-term and, frankly, expensive. And clinical results are less than stellar. That is the international experience, not just the US’s. It is a serious clinical problem, from many perspectives.

“An easier question is what NOT to do. DO NOT “cut the cord” unless in the context of an extended rehab-like setting. Cutting the child/adult off [from the computer, game, social-networking activity] can produce far worse outcomes (drug use, violence, depression, etc.). I differ in this from some practitioners who advocate for setting such firm limits. [See his commentary on this in the Rocky Mountain News or full-length analysis in “Related links” below.]

“Incidentally, probably the most effective treatment would be a ‘retreat’ or rehab-like setting for a minimum of 2 weeks. I think a full month is better [see this New York Times piece about a South Korean Internet addiction rehab camp]. But that is expensive and many would see it as overkill.”

NetFamilyNews: “What do you think of applying the word ‘addiction’ to these non-chemical activities, or can they have a chemical impact on the brain?”

Dr. Block: “There is the concept of ‘positive addictions’ – people like ‘workaholics,’ avid readers, or model railroaders. At times, PCU might be more productive and be considered in that way (like for people employed in the industry, i.e., video game programmers).

“More generally, I think there is a common pathway with substance abuse. The issues around craving and the later phases of withdrawal appear to be very similar.

“That said, I avoid the use of the word ‘addiction.’ It is just too explosive, political, and packed with other meanings. I prefer to think of this as a compulsive-impulsive spectrum disorder, much like compulsive eating, gambling, pyromania, and trichotillomania.”

Related links

  • Dr. Block’s Web site
  • His editorial “Internet Addiction” in the latest issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry
  • “Net addiction rehab in Korea”
  • Lessons from Columbine: Virtual and Real Rage,” the last bullet under Computer Related – Research on Dr. Block’s home page, makes reference to the teen shooters’ home and school environments, and other detailed analysis
  • “Notable fresh videogame findings” (under this headline, the items “Columbine revisited” and “Pathological videogame use” link to findings on these subjects by Dr. Block).
  • No Easy Solution for Imposter Profiles

    by Anne Collier
    NetFamilyNews.org

    Imposter profiles are one form of cyberbullying or online harassment certainly not restricted to youth. Tweens, teens, and adults create profiles that impersonate the people they want to harass, putting them in an embarrassing or defaming light. There are also simply fake profiles of imaginary people aimed at tricking the real people who “befriend” the imaginary people in the fake profiles, which is what happened in the Megan Meier case (see “Extreme cyberbullying: US case comes to light.” In a well-reported article, ConsumerAffairs.com describes a few actual imposter-profile cases and how hard it is to make them go away. Part of the problem is that, online, it’s much easier to set up a profile than it is to prove its harmful intent or impact. Some people who click the “Report Abuse” buttons in sites are actually being abusive – of the site as well as their peers. “MySpace includes a link at the bottom of every profile to report abuse, but many people misuse this to harass someone who has posted a legitimate profile,” ConsumerAffairs reports. The article includes no solutions to this growing problem because there simply are no known ones besides better, more civil behavior on everybody’s part and education aimed at that and at the fact that we’re not as anonymous online as we all think we are. ConsumerAffairs also goes into the law and how little it can do in these cases.

    Safety Myths and Web 2.0

    Kids today live in an interactive “Web 2.0″ world where they socialize, post photographs and videos and share common experiences with friends, friends of friends and, in some cases, strangers. Millions of kids are doing it every day and the overwhelming majority of them seem to be doing just fine. But that doesn’t mean that the social Web is a danger-free zone. There are things teens, parents, teachers and other caregivers need to think about to ensure that online socializing remains “smart socializing.”
    Let’s start by dispelling one popular myth. Your kids don’t have all the answers when it comes to the use of technology. They may know more about how to operate a computer or a cell phone or put a page up on a social networking site, but just because some adults are a bit technologically challenged doesn’t mean that they have no place supervising kids’ use of technology. Adults have one thing that teens don’t have – life experience – which for most translates into wisdom. Adults know, for example, that things aren’t always what they appear to be. They know that while most people in this world are decent and caring, there are a few who will take advantage of others and you can find these people on the Internet just as you would in “the real world” (though, for teens there is no distinction between the Internet and “the real world.” The Internet is a big part of their world).

    But there are other myths that we must also dispel. One is that Internet predators typically deceive their victims by lying about their age or their gender. While that is possible, it’s usually not the case. Research has shown that most adults who attempt to engage in a physical relationship with a minor do not grossly exaggerate their age. In most cases, the young person is aware that that person is an adult prior to the meeting.

    To be sure, there are predators who would harm children. That’s one reason that it’s important for kids to be cautious when communicating with people they don’t know in person, especially if the conversation starts to be about sex or physical details. Fortunately most teens are pretty careful which is why there is a fairly small number of cases of teens who are physically harmed by these criminals. Still, one case is too many and if you hear about a case of someone using the Internet to groom or lure a minor into a sexual situation or if you find sexual images of children (child pornography), call local authorities and report it at CyberTipLine.com.

    If you don’t get together with someone you meet online, they can’t physically harm you so your safest bet is to avoid meeting such people in the real world. If a teen does get together with someone it should be in a very public place and they should bring along a parent, a group of friends or maybe the football team and cheerleading squad. You never want to meet someone in person in a way that could make you vulnerable.

    Another thing we know about threats to teens and children is that they don’t always come from adults and they’re often from someone they know. Kids can and sometimes do harm other kids. Threats often come from peers kids know from school or other real world situations. Whether it’s unwanted sexual advances, harassment or what’s now called “cyber bullying,” peer to peer threats are real and can be harmful.

    If a teen or child is being bothered or harassed by anyone the best advice is to not respond to that person and tell someone. That should include a parent, guardian or teacher but, for teens, it can also include trusted friends. Sometimes kids can handle the situation on their own or in groups but at other times it requires adult intervention and, in serious cases, maybe even the police. Not all harm is physical. Cyber bullying can be emotionally devastating.

    For adults – whether parents, teachers, administrators or authorities, it’s important to listen and provide support to a child or teen who is scared, worried or bothered by such contact but not to overreact or “punish the victim” by taking away Internet privileges or forcing them to avoid using social networking sites or other services. The fear of an adult overreacting is one of the reasons many teens give for not coming forward if they have a problem.

    Parents also need to know that taking away a teen’s online privileges could backfire by prompting him or her to go into stealth mode by finding hidden ways to get online. If you take away a child’s online profile for a service, he or she can easily create another one or – worse – find a service that doesn’t even try to enforce basic safety rules. And if you ban teens from using a computer or attempt to filter what they can access, the young person can find another way to get online including friends’ computers or a cell phone. Modern phones have web browsers and some even have special software for getting onto social networks.
    Which all leads to the fact that – regardless of what technology parents try to employ, the best filter is the one that runs in the young person’s brain – not on a computer.

    Cell phones can also be used to bully and harass a young person. Text messages can sometimes be hurtful. And some phones have global positioning systems and software that allow teens to broadcast their location. Kids need to know how to use the privacy features these services offer to be sure they aren’t easily locatable by people they don’t trust.

    Finally, Internet safety is a two-way street. Kids should be good online citizens and not harm, threaten or bully others for two reasons. First because it’s wrong and second because it can get them in trouble with authorities, parents and even other kids. Your thoughts? Please express them in our forum .