Monday, July 28, 2008

Second Life for Kids?

You already know I am wary of online social experiences for kids. I worry about what virtual living does to the real lives of those who indulge. Because I am an idealist, I believe children, and adults, are supposed to be striving for honesty and excellence in their lives most of the time. It's hard to be honest in a virtual world, where things don't really matter, and experiences, especially dubious ones, go unnoticed by people who really matter -- parents or other moral leaders. Places like Second Life and There, because of their nature as places that don't really exist, worry me.

Virtual reality communities are unreal places where people make things up and apply this fiction to a persona, which kids may or may not be able to differentiate from their true selves.
I believe this fosters, without exception, an attitude of ambivalence and a way of disengaging in real emotions and life in children and teens, especially when the virtual life is better than, more fun than real life.

As parents, we want our children to be engaged in real living, to really be at the table with us when we are dining, to be present in the conversation when we are asking them something, and to feel and think real things in response to real events.

The way to insulate children from this kind of virtual disengaging from real life is to really have your child's heart. Be more fun, more positive, and more engaging than a virtual world. Every day.

Friday, July 25, 2008

A Two-Way Street

The past few years that I have been driving my children to school or, when we were homeschooling, to activities, I have noticed an alarming number of parents driving with their heads bent to their shoulders, talking on their cell phones, while their children sit silently in the back seat.

The half hour before school, that time right before you leave your child to navigate alone in an often hostile world for six to eight hours, that time is precious.

It is a time to go over their supplies for the day, which helps them to learn to make a mental checklist of the daily things they need to do when they get older. Do you have paper and pencils? I know, just asking. Lunch? Gym uniform? Yes, I can smell it....I know it's in your backpack. How about that paper I signed for Mrs. Whatserface? No? Oooh...I think it's still on the counter....go get it.

From the time at the breakfast table to the time they are captive in your car, you have a wide-open opportunity to make sure things are going well for them socially. Take a minute to ask about the tiff her two friends got into. Inquire about the group project he's being forced to do by that mean technology teacher. See if playground time is going well. So often a child who is getting picked on will never mention it to a parent if the parent doesn't ask.

Send your child off to school every day with a few humorous tips that lets you know you care about how they behave. "Be Sweet, Champion the Underdog" is one of the phrases I like to say.
I believe it is important to not send your child out to face the world with absentminded wave of the hand because you are engrossed in a cell phone conversation with someone else.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Technology and Fat

There is some evidence that shows that younger children, presumably ones who aren't old enough to sit on their duffs and surf online for hours a day, are more fit, and less fat than older children who do use the computer for their primary source of relaxation.

A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), in July 2008 shows that exercise levels drop off as children get older. In the study, which lasted from 2000-2006, researchers recorded the movements of more than 1,000 kids using an accelerometer, which the children wore for one week at ages 9, 11, 12, and 15. Their finding are, in a word, frightening.

The average 9 year old got about 3 hours of activity a day during the week and on weekends, and they weren't doing to badly at age 11. But by age 15, about 30% were getting the minimum recommended amount of exercise during the week, and only 17% got that much on weekends.

I know that teenagers' activities tend to slow down somewhat once they leave the rough and tumble puppy years of childhood and start sleeping until noon, but they used to have activities that helped their bodies move, even if they weren't involved in sports, such as walking to school, or to friends' houses, mowing the grass, raking leaves, and even cleaning house. Lifestyle changes have all but removed that from the list of things teenagers do -- more teens have cars than they used to, and more parents pay for lawn services than in the past, and a surprising number of kids don't even have household chores.

We also have the addition of technology to woo them away from a day tossing footballs at the lake, or taking a good walk with a friend: text messaging, cable television, movies and DVDs, online social networking, and instant messaging.

Because kids are rarely unable to think of how present behaviors will affect them in the future, (smoking, jumping off balconies into pools, drinking and driving, etc.) it may be up to you to manage their physical activities. Just like we feed them vegetables, even though the don't really want them, we have to keep them moving, even though they would rather stay plugged into something at home.

If your children plays sports -- fantastic! Make sure they stay signed up with a team. Help them to explore new sports. A rule in our house is one sport a semester -- a spring sport, such as flag football or track, and a fall sport such as Cross Country or Soccer.
But not all children are team sports kids. If you have one of those, you could try karate or dance, or even cycling. Get two bikes --one for you and one for your child, and ride together.

If none of these options will work for your family consider Frisbee, hiking, racquetball kayaking, and seasonal sports such as skiing or snowshoeing.

Make fitness a part of your family life, and your children -- even the most reluctant of teens-- will probably warm up to a family fitness activity if you keep it light, good-natured and free of criticism.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Is Your Computer a Zombie?

This somewhat sensationalist article from CBS News is a decent quickie primer on botnets and zombie computers. A zombie computer is simply an internet connected computer that has been infected with a virus or hidden program that allows some malicious 3rd party to utilize your computer for nefarious purposes such as spamming. It is believed that millions of personal computers worldwide are “botted.” The simple way to avoid these problems is to not get infected in the first place.

1. Install and use a virus scanning product that auto updates every day. There are several that you can spend $50 on, but it is really not necessary. AVG Anti-Virus is a commercial product that allows home users to use it for free. I have it on every Windows computer in my house, and we have never had a virus infection.

2. Firewall your home computer or network. If you are on dial up Windows XP has a free firewall that should be turned on by default. Poke around your system and make sure it is. A firewall is simply a device or software program that controls what computers can connect to yours. If you have a high speed connection you may have a router that functions as your firewall. Note, your cable modem or DSL modem is probably not also a router. If you have a router log into the admin function and look for something called firewall and make sure it is turned on. If your computer connects directly to the DSL or cable modem make sure that your Windows firewall is on.

3. Use Firefox as your web browser. It is more secure than Internet Explorer. It is also free.

4. Don’t open suspicious looking email attachments. Your anti-virus software should protect you, but why take the risk? If you system is properly firewalled the only way a bad guy can get a virus or zombie bot to your system is for you to invite it in via an email attachment or malicious web site. Firefox is far less vulnerable to the malicious web sites than Internet Explorer, which is why I recommend that everybody use it.

5. You can also check your system for spyware with a program like Windows Defender. If you have steps 1-4 covered you probably won’t have any spyware issues, however it’s never a bad idea to make sure.

That’s it. If you follow those 5 steps religiously it is highly unlikely that you will have any virus or spy wire problems. If you were paying attention you may have noticed that keeping your computer clean will cost you exactly zero dollars. So you have no excuse.These steps apply specifically to Windows users. Macintosh and Linux uses don’t have as many of these issues. But they already knew that.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

It's Never Been Easier to Spy On Your Children

"Spying" is a negative way to say it, but today's online parent/teacher/student communication systems make it easier than ever to know what your children are doing in school, without ever having to meet the teacher, or even speak directly to your children. Sites such as and have provided a service that some teachers and students and parents find quite valuable. For a small fee, paid by the teacher or the school, teachers can log students' assignments and in the case of, the students' actual grades onto a website that parents and students can view from home.

On one hand this is a good thing. It helps parents monitor those children who really need a little extra organizational boost. It also helps parents and students stay on top of assignments if a student is out sick. It also helps parents keep track of assignments for apathetic, chronically overwhelmed students, or students who are at risk for failing.

I can see the negatives. however. Similar to the unsettling trend of parents filling out college applications for their nearly grown kids, it can take responsibility away from children who will benefit from having it, and indeed, failing to handle it. Increasingly, children are no longer the masters of their own destinies. Helicopter parents, who just can't seem to help themselves, are micromanaging their children's academic and after school lives far past the age when they should have stopped.

Soon we will have no need for the interim report, quarterly report card, and even, communication at all between student and parent. Parental Omniscience is good when it comes to Facebook and MySpace, but should kids have a little independence when it comes to managing their school careers?

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Do You Speak Teen?

Generations of parents have always said that it seems as if their teenagers are speaking a different language. Teens have usually agreed and are usually happy about it. They don't want to be like their parents, after all.

It might be a good idea for you to learn to speak the language your teenager is speaking. These days it includes Urban Slang, Facebook, MySpace, and texting.

Get yourself some social networking action. Sign up for whatever social networking site your child is using. Chances are she has both MySpace and Facebook accounts.
You can be "friends" with your teen, which will keep you up to date on social activities she may have "forgotten" to tell you about, and it is a very revealing way to see the company your child keeps.

When you hear jiggy new slang words, look them up in the Urban Dictionary. Seriously. A lot of this language bending is clever and funny, and you'll be able to get the social references teens are using to define their collective sense of humor.

If you don't know how to do this already -- learn to text. If you do, you open another door for communicating with your child when she is away from home. Texting, although odd, is fun, and if kids can receive texts in SCHOOL, there is no excuse for your child to not be able to text you when she is out with her friends on a Friday night.

See their movies. Sure a lot of it is smut, but knowing what your child ingests through the media will help you develop wisdom in how to guide them through this media maze.

Remember, it probably won't be "cool" if you actually speak Teen when your teen can hear you, especially when said teen is around a group of friends, but it is good to know the language. It will keep you connected.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Violent Video Games Are Almost As Bad As Smoking

If you believe the headline, I have some land in the Everglades that you might be interested in buying. However, some researcher from the University of Michigan is getting his 15 minutes of fame this week by making this statement:

Exposure to violent electronic media has a larger effect than all but one other well-known threat to public health. The only effect slightly larger than the effect of media violence on aggression is that of cigarette smoking on lung cancer.

We also get this:

The findings, which are reported in the Journal of Adolescent Health, support earlier research which showed that children who watch violent television shows and who identify with the characters and believe they are real are more likely to be aggressive as adults.

Anybody see the little switch-a-roo that they are trying to pull? They are equating exposure to violent media with psychopathic behavior in which the subject believes the TV characters are real. That is not exactly the same thing.

As explained in more detail at both Slashdot and Techdirt, what really happened is the researcher reviewed 50 years worth of studies, cherry picked a few things that look like they support what he already believes, and published his amazing new findings.

Shoddy research, shoddy publishing, and shoddy journalism for whoever ran with this story, but I digress.

I don't at all like violent video games or violent movies. I don't believe children should watch much of it, unless depicting violence helps viewers understand the depth, breadth or importance of a subject, such as the Band of Brothers series.

Think about this: video games in general cause lack of movement in children, which, in turn, can lead to obesity, which I believe is now the greatest health risk for children in America, since 16 percent of 6-19 years old are obese, and 70% of obese children grow up to be obese adults.

Here's another real statistic: for children born in the United States, the lifetime risk of being diagnosed with Type2 diabetes is 30 percent for girls and 40 percent for boys.
The topper: 60 percent of obese children ages 5 to 10 are diagnosed with at least one cardiovascular disease.

Be careful about what you read, be wary of alarmist publications. Check your facts.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Tech-Savvy Teens and Real Books

No one is more web-savvy than today's middle schoolers and high schoolers.
They have grown up with cable television and videos for entertainment, video game systems, internet access, social networking, laptops in their classrooms, and cell phones.

A Yahoo study from back in 2003 said that at that time, 82% of teens have a computer and 78% use the web to help with schoolwork. It also shows teens spend more time on the computer than using any other media (including TV!). And that was in 2003. Now, a mere five years later, there are armies of elementary school students with their own cell phones and laptops.

I compare this with my teen years, when we had a television with three channels that we had to get up to change, and a rotary dial telephone in the kitchen. We didn't even have dimmer switches on our lights. But I always had a paperback at my bedside, in my book bag, and often folded into the back pocket of my cutoffs. Technology didn't take up much of my time because we didn't have any technology! I remember going over to my best friend's house just to watch her mother cook a chicken in the microwave.

I had time for drawing, riding my bike to the library, reading hundreds of books per year, playing music, making my own music, and just dreaming.

Parents, make real books available for your children. Have a library night once a week.
Pick a piece of literature and read it out loud a few nights a week, send them emails of great literature lists ( is one), and ask them which ones they would like to read. Or, get heavy handed and bring books home for them and have them read thirty minutes a day. With anything, technology included, there has to be a balance. It's not all about entertainment.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Penguins, Monsters, and Stuffies

A few interesting web-based business models are out there now, attracting kids to computers like hummingbirds to sugar water.

Club Penguin. Moshi Monsters. Webkinz. These social networking sites are fun, safe ways for kids to play games on the Internet, interact with other kids online, and they are pretty cute ideas. You can maneuver a a virtual creature around, decorate it's room, make it tell jokes, play games, and take care of it.

Neat, right? At least they are learning to use the computer, instead of sitting in front of the Dinsey Channel all day, right?

A few safety features are in place to ensure that your kids can interact in the virtual world and stay safe.
  • Club Penguin, a free site with membership upgrades, requires you to sign up using a confirmation email in your parents address. Although this can be bypassed by a savvy child using a Gmail account, I don't think most children will have a reason to do this. Also, Club Penguin has a page devoted to internet safety and urges parents to teach their children how to be safe - don't give out personal information, don't share your password, use moderated chat rooms, don't use your real name, etc. Also Club Penguin has something called "Ultimate Safe Chat" which allows children to respond using a preset menu of responses only.
  • Moshi Monsters also requires a parent email address to activate the account, and devotes a parent page to internet safety.
  • Webkinz requires you to purchase a Webkinz stuffed animal, which comes with a code. The code can be used only once to register. I did notice that accounts expire... and I don't know what happens when it does -- are you required to purchase another Webkinz to continue with the site? Webkins says this about their safety:
"In our KinzChat system, the chat is entirely constructed. There is no way for a user to type what they want, nor ask or say anything inappropriate to any other user. We control everything the users are able to say. We have designed our chat menu of choices of sentences and phrases to put safety first. There is no way to exchange any personal information of any sort."

When I started to research for this post, I was expecting to find things that I didn't like, such as ads, uncontrolled chat rooms, sites trying to soak parents for money. I found none of that.
With the exception of the cost to purchase a Webkins ( about twelve dollars, and the kids have a cute stuffed animal to play with), or the optional cost to upgrade the Club Penguin account (about six dollars per month) there is no cost involved. Moshi Monsters is entirely free.

Parents, check your children's accounts. Play the games on their sites ( Webkinz games are fun, and if you don't watch yourself, can be addicting), and manage their time on the sites.
Let them use the sites for down-time and entertainment, but stress that these virtual worlds are just for fun, and shouldn't take up a lot of the time in their lives. Above all, keep them grounded in the real world.