Saturday, June 20, 2009

Family Safety = more than just Internet and Cell Phones

I am very pleased to see the recent increase in awareness about Family Safety and the Internet. It certainly seems that parents are becoming more interested in the issues surrounding keeping their children safe while they make use of the Internet, cell phone and other new, digital technology that we find in our world today.

As we strive to keep our children safe in this digital world, however, we cannot forget about some of the other dangers that our children face from the media that we allow into our homes - specifically with regard to television and video games. If we are not vigilent regarding all of the media and entertainment that comes into our homes, our children could be exposed to a huge amount of violence and age-inappropriate sexual behavior through these mediums as well as through the Internet. Dr. Victor B. Cline once said: “The amount of violence a child sees at 7 predicts how violent he will be at 17, 27, and 37. … Children’s minds are like banks—whatever you put in, you get back 10 years later with interest.” He indicated that violent television teaches children, step-by-step, “how to commit violent acts, and it desensitizes them to the horror of such behavior and to the feelings of victims.” In Dr. Cline’s opinion, America is suffering from “an explosion of interpersonal violence like we have never seen before. … The violence is because of violence in our entertainment.” ("Therapist says children who view TV violence tend to become violent,” Deseret News, 24 Mar. 1989, p. 2B, as quoted by M. Russell Ballard). Note that he said this in 1989 - before the Columbine, Trolley Square, or Virginia Tech shootings.

As I have talked in different venues on this subject, it is clear that some parents are not convinced that aggressive behaviors can be learned from violence on television and in video games. Many of the television programs aimed at children are extremely violent, especially some of the cartoons, they argue. Many of us simply brush it off, rationalizing that this is just how it is, and every child is exposed to this level of violence. In a now-famous study referred to as the Bobo doll study, Dr. Albert Bandura found that simply viewing violent behavior can indeed lead children to model that behavior. He conducted his study in 1961 with a group of 24 children between 3 and 6 years of age. He studied each child individually, to ensure that he was observing the behavior of the individual, and not the mob mentality of a group. The intent of the study was to see if the behavior of an adult would affect the way that these children played with different toys. The center piece of this experiment was a Bobo doll-- an inflatable doll that stood about 5 feet tall.

The children were placed in a room with an adult who simply played with a tinker toy set for about 10 minutes, then they were brought into another room where an adult pounded on the Bobo doll with a mallet for about 10 minutes. They were then allowed to play with the toys by themselves. The study became very controversial, especially with the TV stations, because it showed that the children would, indeed, model the extremely aggressive behavior by beating on the Bobo doll with just about anything they could find. As it turned out, they not only physically, but verbally abuse this doll based on the modeled behavior they saw from their adult playmate. In Bandura’s own words, “They added creative embellishments. One girl actually transformed a doll into a weapon of assault.” In the video of this study, one can plainly see a tiny, well-dressed young girl pounding the doll, then searching the room for other things to pummel it with (@ about 3:45 in the clip). Even though the adult model in the study did not play with the toy gun, Bandura noted that “exposure to aggressive modeling increased attraction to guns, even though it was never modeled.” These young children made the connection between violent behavior and guns on their own.

Children model the behavior they see. How much violence and sexual activity are they exposed to on the television and in video games today? It is challenging to find a show on primetime television that doesn’t have some sort of violence or sexual overtones of some sort – and it has become steadily more so since this study. Remember that Dr. Bandura’s study was done in 1961, when it was taboo to show a married couple sharing a bed on television (recall the Dick Van Dyke Show where the bedroom had twin beds) or to show any significant violence (think of Psycho, where you never actually see the knife touch the victims body in the famous shower scene, which recieved an "R" rating back then). Today you cannot get through an episode of most prime time sitcoms without sexual innuendos or overt references, and you cannot watch many dramas without extreme violence. As these shows become available on the Internet where the content is no longer regulated by the FCC, it will become an even greater danger to our children. We need to be very careful about what we allow our children to watch, especially in their formative years.

Being a parent in this digital world is increasingly difficult. As we strive to ensure that our children are safe while they make use of the Internet and their cell phones, let's also ensure that they are playing age-appropriate games and watching age-appropriate television shows.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Understanding Query Strings

Have you ever wondered whether your child really came across that innappropriate image accidentally, or whether they searched it out? There is a way to find out exactly what they were searching for - by understanding a geeky term called a "query string".

Understanding query strings can help you determine how your computer is being used and what people are actively searching for. By understanding the query string, you can determine whether someone inadvertently came across some illicit content while performing an innocent search (which does happen, and is why you should always employ "safe search"), or if they were intentionally trying to locate that content.

While some web sites make an attempt to render this data unreadable to the human eye by encrypting the data into a large number or set of meaningless characters, most just use standard text formatting which permits easy interpretation. When you understand how to read this, you can understand exactly what someone has been doing on your computer; these query strings act like a trail of breadcrumbs.

A typical query string looks like this (go ahead - click on it - it is a live link to a search):

By ignoring the extraneous data encoded in this query string, one can see that someone used this computer to search for George Washington data on Google. The following version of this URL highlights the sections that provide this information.

The “www” tells us that they performed a text search (rather than an image or video search). In the query string, we see the words “George” and “Washington”, indicating what they searched for. The rest of the characters on this query string are only meaningful to the search engine and can be ignored for our purposes.

In this next example, we see that the search was slightly modified, allowing us to search for images of George Washington, rather than textual references to George Washington. Note that the "www" is replaced with "images" (this is how Google and Yahoo do it - you will notice a slightly different, yet still very readable format for and below):

Here are a couple of URLs showing the same searches on different search engines. See if you can pick out the relevant data to understand what search engine was used and what was being searched—that is, text or images, and what topic:

Understanding how to interpret a query string gives you a powerful tool to help you determine if someone “just happened” to stumble across some inappropriate data, or if they were actively searching for it. This data is kept in your browser history, and it is also tracked and recorded by many of the filters available today.

Become familair with query strings, and keep a watch over what is being actively searched for on your computer. When innappropriate content is found on your computer, review the browser history and/or filter logs to see exactly what was being actively searched for when the content appeared. The best way to keep your family safe on the Internet is to keep yourself informed about the Internet!