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January 19, 2007

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A look at MySpace's software for parents

MySpace will soon be releasing free software designed to let parents know if their kids have profiles on the site. Code-named "Zephyr," it's parental-notification software, not monitoring software, which makes sense because MySpace says it's designed to promote parent-child communication about social networking. It will be just another tool in the tech-parenting toolbox.

MySpace wasn't ready to announce Zephyr this week because it won't be available for at least a couple of months. But the development was, it says, leaked to the Wall Street Journal, so the company made information about the software available to the online-safety community. Here's my best understanding of how it will work.

Zephyr's a very simple program parents will be able to install on household PCs which "identifies any MySpace user who logs in from one of those computers," MySpace says. The Mac version will be released with the software's first update, or Version 2 (probably both Versions 1 and 2 in the first half of this year, but MySpace wasn't sure about release dates yet).

What parents can see

With it, parents will know what profiles their children have; how old your kids say they are in MySpace; the user names and hometown they've provided; and when they log in from anywhere. It also has a tool parents can use to send MySpace verification of their children's ages. This helps ensure that MySpace's privacy and safety protections for minors - such as the features that block people over 18 from searching for minors, seeing their full profiles, or requesting to be on their friends lists - are applied to your child's profile.

"Even if a child creates another profile" from a computer outside the home, says's Larry Magid in, "the software will report it to the parents if the child ever accesses that profile from their home computer." Larry, who is also my co-director at, added: "Kids who go to great lengths to conceal their usage from their parents can probably find a way to slip under the radar, unless they even once sign on to that profile from a home PC that's running the software." MySpace said its research shows it's extremely unlikely that young users would never log on at home; it would be hard for them because of how much of a communications tool (not just a blogging tool) MySpace has become for its users.

The software also automatically notifies the MySpace user "that their parent has downloaded [the] software, and their profile will now be tagged by the software," MySpace said. This is consistent with what many of us online child advocates have been telling parents for a long time: If you need to monitor your child's online activities, it's best to be up front about it (if parents find something untoward, they'll have to talk to the child about it anyway, and it's much harder after the fact).

What parents can't see

You won't be able to see your child's profile from within this software program - so it won't show you profile comments, friends lists, photos, videos, blogs, groups, etc. (you can honestly tell him this is not an invasion of his privacy). You'll have to use your Web browser to go to your child's page. If the profile is set to private, you still won't be able to see it (like anyone else trying to access it who's not on their friends list). So you'll have to get your child to show it to you. These "can't see's" will definitely create opportunities for parent-teen discussion, which I feel is the best part of this tool. (By law, MySpace says, it can't disclose a profile that's set to private without its owner's permission.)

My takeaways

This is a practical little tool that does just enough and not too much. It gives parents the basic info they need for informed discussion without disclosing any more than a parent feels he or she should see. The disclosure is human, not technological. That's good, because it empowers both parent and child to work out a safety formula - both behavioral and technological - that's continuously tailor-made for the child as s/he matures.

MySpace is making the technology available to all other social sites for free too, so - if widely adopted (not likely, the Journal article indicates) - parents would know many of the sites where their kids have pages, and we'd all have the start of an age-verification system that would actually work and not jeopardize any minor's privacy. The parent only verifies the age associated with that account. The software doesn't provide any personal info about a child to MySpace or any other entity - only the screen name (not the child's real name), the user-stated age, and hometown. If the child uses his real name as his screen name, that's definitely something a parent should know and encourage the child to change right away.

As I mentioned above, this is just one tool in both the parent's and MySpace's toolbox. On the corporate side, the tools already in place include default privacy for 14- and 15-year-olds, the blocking of minors from contact with and content for users 18+, privacy and safety alerts for younger users, dedicated Parent Care email, a School Care staff, a law-enforcement hotline, etc. At the macro level, there's federal legislation in the works to block sex offenders from social sites by establishing a national sex-offender registry and ensuring that offenders' online as well as offline contact information is in that registry. Once that registry's in place, social sites will be able to check against it to block offenders from establishing accounts on their sites and using them to contact young social networkers.

Each new tool is helpful. Corporate responsibility is essential. And it's good that parents and policymakers are putting pressure on Internet companies to create the "seatbelts" and "airbags" of the social Web. But no company or law can provide total protection in a medium that's basically and unprecedentedly "run" by its users. We all - parents, educators, policymakers, advocates - need to talk about this more as we're scrambling to figure out safety on this moving target called Web 2.0. Come talk about it at!

Questions? Comments? Email them any time (via, or post them in our forum for all to see: Your input is always appreciated!

Coverage of this development was heavy and international. Here's a sampler:

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Web News Briefs
  1. Will teen MySpacers leave?

    About the MySpace phenomenon, many analysts say things like "it's a passing fad," "kids will move on," "or MySpace's parent-notification software will cause kids to leave in droves" (see this). I don't think so. Why? A number of reasons: 1) The site has something for just about everyone (all sorts of communications tools, page-design and self-expression tools, and communities, from location-based to interest-based). 2) Most MySpace users are there because of their friends - whole peer groups, not individuals, would have to decide to leave en masse. 3) Socializing in MySpace, like IM-ing, is just part of its users' (offline) social lives; 4) MySpace's sheer size keeps people there (it's like society mirrored for a growing, widening demographic - hard to leave if it's "all" there). "MySpace is a natural monopoly," according to a thoughtful commentary in TechNewsWorld, because the user's "cost" of leaving is too high. Certainly, when Mom or Dad gets involved, some kids go into stealth mode. They use privacy tools and create free accounts in other sites parents don't know about; but they don't leave MySpace. So a piece of parent-alert software released next summer won't have a noticeable effect on the parental engagement that has been growing since the first really scary media reports started early last year (law enforcement attention for well over a year). We can be sure that teen awareness of parent awareness has been growing too! I suspect the reason why Pew found that 66% of teen social networkers use privacy tools is because of parents more than because of fearing predators (see this on the Pew study). None of this is to say that other sites don't offer things teens value, including better features and tools, privacy, and niche communities, but they supplement rather than replace the incredible, though risky, flexibility and critical mass of MySpace.

  2. Pinpointing peers

    This is new territory for online safety - the technology that allows cellphone users to pinpoint their friends' physical location with their phones. The only thing that's regulated about this in the US is the Federal Communications Commission's 1999 requirement that "cell phone companies implant location-tracking receivers in handsets," Business Week reports. On the safety and privacy front, "providers of services that help wireless users track friends and loved ones are still finding their footing," but meanwhile new companies providing all kinds of phone-to-Web media-sharing tools, as well as geolocating social tools for phones keep launching. The Pandora's Box is now open for business, so watch out, parents. If your kids are telling you "but everybody has Boost," after you ask them what that is, think out loud together about the implications of ever adding people they don't know to a friends list that tells them exactly where they are. Meanwhile, here's Mashable on a new tool called Jaxtr that allows visitors to a MySpace page call the page's owner on his/her cell. Here's an early item I wrote on mobile social networking, naming startups like Playtxt, Mamjam, Jambo, Meetro, and Dodgeball (only two of which - Meetro and Dodgeball, owned by Google - appear to have made it to 2007). Sprint's youth service Boost recently launched with loopt social pinpointing on it, and the Wall Street Journal recently went into some depth on the loopt service.

  3. Four families suing MySpace

    This week four families in four states filed lawsuits against MySpace, saying "their underage daughters were sexually abused by adults they met on the site," the Associated Press reports. Represented by two law firms in Texas, the families in New York, Texas, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina filed separate lawsuits in a Los Angeles Superior Court. They're seeking damages "in the millions," one of their attorneys told the AP. Last summer a 14-year-old in Texas sued MySpace for $30 million (see this item). Her case is pending in a Texas state court.

  4. A cop on teen social networking

    The headline of this clear-eyed commentary by Det. James McLaughlin in Keene, N.H., reads: "Online policing is getting results." But he describes a tough, complex new environment for policing that needs "a partnership between the police, educators, child protection workers, parents and children needs to take place to minimize the risk children face when they online." Why? Here's just a piece of the reason: "Someone once described the Internet as a place where it is Halloween 365 days a year, because everyone wears a mask. Further complicating keeping adolescents safe on the Internet is their willingness to engage in sexual behavior as a result of being manipulated by an older exploitive adult. Kenneth V. Lanning (FBI, ret.) describes this behavior of a victim willing to follow the suggestions of an offender as 'victim compliance.' The typical prevention program attempts to educate people so they can be safe by adjusting their conduct. However, many teens, not all, want not only to engage in the behavior, but also to keep its existence secret. This makes our traditional prevention approaches useless and our need to speak directly to adolescents about their being responsible for what they decide to do while online." It doesn't help to pile on the social sites, he says (he names a number of them). "Myspace is simply a platform; individuals still ultimately have to accept responsibility for their actions." So let's all keep working the problem together in partnership, as Detective McLaughlin suggests! Your views are always welcome via and in the forum.

  5. Teen cyberbullies charged

    Among other things, this disturbing incident shows clearly that cyberbullying has nothing to do with gender. Three teenage girls, two 14 and one 13, "were arrested Tuesday on charges that they punched and kicked another girl and recorded the beating so they could broadcast it online," the Associated Press reports. Police on Long Island in New York said the video, uploaded to two Web sites, "showed the three girls beating a 13-year-old girl Dec. 18 at a school." The three girls were charged with juvenile delinquency and attempted assault, and the police are investigating who videotaped the beating, the AP adds.

  6. Judge orders teen file-sharer to pay

    The teenager's mom, Patricia Santangelo, was one of the few parents of file-sharers who refused to settle out of court after being sued by the Recording Industry Association of America. She took her case to the national media, and the RIAA dropped it. But less than a month later, the RIAA "won a default judgment against her 20-year-old daughter," the Associated Press reports. "Federal Judge Stephen Robinson ordered Michelle Santangelo to pay $750 for each of the 41 songs she is accused of downloading illegally - a total of $30,750 - because she failed to respond to the record companies' claims." It's not clear if this ends the case against the Santangelos. When Patricia Santangelo was sued in 2005, she said she'd never downloaded songs and if her children had, the makers of the file-sharing software they used should be blamed. The AP adds that the RIAA has sued more than 18,000 file-sharers or their parents.

  7. GPS phones easing parents' fears

    More and more phones have GPS (for getting a fix on the phone's physical location), and more and more cellphone companies are offering geolocation services. Including kid phones (see the New York Times, 12/21/06), which are easing parents' concerns and raising those of privacy advocates, the San Jose Mercury News reports. The article leads with the story of a Northern California family with two kids 5 and 6, each with a Migo, "a small phone for kids with a built-in computer chip that communicates their location." Their parents clip the Migos to their kids' clothing and use Verizon Wireless's Chaperone "location awareness" service for $9.99 a month. Sprint's Family Locator service costs the same. At first glance, it looks like there's only an upside, "but privacy advocates worry that carriers will collect location data that could be used against consumers," says the Mercury News. And some services will want to supplement subscription revenue with advertising, a growing part of increasingly multimedia cellphone communications.

  8. MySpace users: Get better passwords

    If parents are looking for conversation openers with their teens social networking, one might be MySpace passwords. PC security experts actually have some numbers of people tricked by a phishing scam I mentioned in my recent item on social engineering. Because of a fake log-in page MySpace users click to on the phishers' Web server, they have 60,000 user names (email addresses) and passwords of MySpace users, reports Washington Post security writer Brian Krebs. The fake log-in page pops up before people get to the phishing site "which is most likely being advertised via blasts of junk email" and "looks identical to the real login page." Which gets us to the conversation opener I mentioned: stupid passwords (the insecure kind that people can easily guess). Brian lists some of the passwords these phishers have collected. The Top 10 (most popular and therefore most guessable) are: password1, abc123, swimmer1, iloveyou1, monkey1, ****you, 123456, myspace1, ****you1, and - possibly the most narcissistic one - i.

  9. Grownups embellishing too

    This New York Times piece, "Bling for Your Blog," does two things: 1) offers parents insights into how huge the page-embellishing (or, as young social networkers put it, the "pimping your profile") part of blogging and socializing is among teens, and 2) shows it's a growing phenomenon because adult bloggers are into it too. The Times's case in point: the blog bling habit of Pastor Bob Hyatt in Portland, Ore. I'm not sure if teen social networkers do, but adults call these little page add-ons "widgets" (not to be confused with the mini-applications Mac computers have on their "desktops"). Among the widgets on, or embellishments to, the Web site of Pastor Hyatt (who told the Times these are addictive, but I'm sure he advises "moderation in all things"): "a selection of book covers from his personal library ... the most recent posts from some of his favorite blogs, and ... random quotes from the television show 'Arrested Development'." More typical of social-site pages are slideshows, blinking text, avatars, creative layouts, racy questionnaires, and buttons to click on that dial the profile owner's cellphone (see "Pinpointing peers"). In sheer traffic, among the top sites on the Web are those that provide these bits of code to paste into people's pages, and it's interesting to see blog-hosting sites providing these widgets for their grown up users too. "The first major conference dedicated to 'the emerging widget economy' was held in November in San Francisco," the Times points out.

  10. More views on Vista

    We're all going to be seeing plenty about Vista, Microsoft's new (some say last) Windows operating system, as its January 31 release dates nears. I promise I won't link you to all of it - just the highlights. I mentioned New York Times columnist Seth Schiesel's comment that Vista's parental controls are basically the only reason to upgrade right now (unless you're a gamer). Here's the bottom line from Wall Street Journal tech columnist Walt Mossberg: "For most users who want Vista, I strongly recommend buying a new PC with the new operating system preloaded. I wouldn't even consider trying to upgrade a computer older than 18 months, and even some [newer ones] may be unsuitable candidates." He links to Microsoft's free "Upgrade Adviser" download, which will tell you if Vista will work on your PC. There are a lot of other reasons to read this review too. Meanwhile, the Associated Press reports that, for the first time, Microsoft is making a Windows upgrade available for sale and download online. I joined a briefing about Vista's new parental controls this week, and I was impressed with how extensive they are, with filtering, monitoring, time limits, gaming and other software controls, etc. For families with kids and pre-teens, they may be worth the investment of a new family PC. Here's CNET on Microsoft's Vista marketing, including special offers.

  11. Avatar focus groups

    It's only logical. A film studio that has teen-targeting content wants to try it out on a social site popular with teens. We'll be seeing more and more deals like this: The film studio Lionsgate announced this week that - in "identifying the next step in new media opportunities" - it "goes viral" this month. In other words, Lionsgate "has partnered with HABBO [Hotel], one of the world's largest online communities for teenagers, to allow today's teens to determine the fate of a Habbo animated release. Utilizing this interactive technology, Lionsgate will tap directly into the online community for feedback on a potential filmmaking endeavor with Habbo." Habbo users (or their avatars, called "habbos") in Habbo sites around the world will be able to check out 10 animated shorts that are set in the actual Habbo world. Lionsgate wants them to vote on whether or not it "should produce and distribute a longer feature film for the DVD and online marketplace."

  12. Top 10 videogames for '06

    Any videogamer or football fan could probably tell you the No. 1 game for last year: Madden NFL '07. "Like Madden itself, the PS2 has practically become a fixture in the homes and consciousness of Americans under age 35," reports the New York Times in its analysis. The rest of the Top 5 were New Super Mario Brothers (a quest/rescue-the-princess game), Gears of War (3rd-person shooter), Kingdom Hearts II (a fantasy role-playing game), and Guitar Hero 2 (rockstar role-playing game). The Times article has a sidebar listing the full Top 10 and the consoles they're played on. Meanwhile, videogame sales had a record year last year, up 19% to $12.5 billion worldwide and up 28% in the US, the Associated Press reports.

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That does it for this week. Have a great weekend!


Anne Collier, Editor

Net Family News

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