Technology

The business and culture of our digital lives,
from the L.A. Times

Category: Children

Google+ now open to teens, with a few security tweaks too

Google+ Hangouts prompt for teens

Google+ opened up to teenagers on Thursday, a move that Google no doubt hopes will help it challenge Facebook as the social network of choice.

"Teens and young adults are the most active Internet users on the planet," said Bradley Horowitz, Google's vice president of products, in a post on his Google+ page. "And surprise, surprise: they're also human beings who enjoy spending time with friends and family. Put these two things together and it's clear that teens will increasingly connect online."

While minors will now be able to use Google+, the experience on the social network won't be exactly the same for them as the 18-and-older crowd. Google has made a few privacy and security changes with teens in mind that Horowitz said will make Google+ a more ideal network to use for sharing and connecting with friends than other services.

"Unfortunately, online sharing is still second-rate for this age group," he said of teenagers. "In life, for instance, teens can share the right things with just the right people (like classmates, parents or close ties). Over time, the nuance and richness of selective sharing even promotes authenticity and accountability. Sadly, today's most popular online tools are rigid and brittle by comparison, so teens end up over-sharing with all of their so-called "friends.' "

The ability to share on Google+ to specific "circles" of friends is a start Horowitz said, but the social network is also giving users "control over who can contact them online. By default, only those in teens' circles can say hello, and blocking someone is always just a click or two away."

Google+'s Hangout video chats will also be tweaked for teens. "If a stranger outside a teen's circles joins the hangout, we temporarily remove the young adult, and give them a chance to rejoin," he said.

Previously, Google+ was only open to users who were 18 years old and up. Now, Horowitz said, anyone who is old enough for a Google account of any sort is old enough for Google+. And in all but Spain (14), South Korea (14) and the Netherlands (16), that age is 13.

Facebook, which boasts more than 800 million users, is open to anyone 13 and older. Google+ has about 90 million users, the tech giant said earlier this month.

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-- Nathan Olivarez-Giles

Nathan Olivarez-Giles on Google+

Twitter.com/nateog

Image: An example of the prompt a teenage Google+ user under age 18 will receive whenever someone they don't have included in a contact "circle" on the social network joins in on a Hangout video chat session. Credit: Google

Review: Gift ideas for your tech-savvy toddlers

 

Buying a $200 to $400 phone for a child to play with might seem a little over the top, though some families do it. But, parents, buying a cover to protect your own pricey device is probably a smart move for the times you do inevitably hand it over, whether as a learning tool or benign distraction.

Let's face it. If you give your uncovered iPhone to your toddler, you're just asking for trouble. After all, small hands can do big damage to these devices.

But for just about $20, Infantino's HappiTaps and Griffin's Woogie 2 transform your inflexible, vulnerable iPhone into a plush, cuddlier plaything.

Here's a look at the two stuffed-animal cases.

HappiTaps

Beary-HappiWhen you pull the HappiTaps case out of the box, you're greeted by a smiling Beary Happi, the case's sweet and engaging character brought to life via free downloadable app. He really comes to life when you open the app and drop your phone into the case.

Although initially the animated face on the phone made me flash back to my fears of Teddy Ruxpin and that living teddy bear from "A.I.: Artificial Intelligence" -- two stuffed bears with more self-awareness than should exist in a toy -- Beary Happi's big green eyes and sweet child's voice won me over fairly quickly. 

The Beary Happi app includes more than 150 facial expressions, which actually are quite adorable. He blinks, winks, smiles, sleeps, eats, talks -- and has different settings to moderate his expressions and mood from mellow to super chatty.

Peek-a-boo with Beary Happi involves interaction from the child. To reveal the hidden bear, the child has to tap the screen. "Feeding" him means tapping and dragging the food to his little mouth.

For 99 cents, you can get in-app additions such as two additional rattles (yes, your child will be shaking your iPhone in this case), two stories or two songs. Also, an educational game or the bedtime package (a poem, light show, lullaby and auto shut-off) can be purchased for 99 cents.

You can set the app to lock out purchases so that your happy tapper doesn't go shopping for upgrades without your knowledge or consent.

Also, it can be set to "toddler mode" to lock the menu. While the phone is in this case, it essentially  impedes your child from leaving the app -- they'd have to remove the phone to hit the home button. (You can adjust volume or turn it off, but it does take effort.)

It's a bit of an overstatement to call it huggable. It's a soft, cushioned cover with a miniature body. It might just be soft enough for small hands, though.

The HappiTaps case is advertised for children 18 months and older. It comes with a green hanger to attach it to, say, a play mat or car seat.

I gave it to my 7-month-old to try out. My tech-savvy teether, like babies his age, did try to put the case in his mouth.

Beary is kind of kissable. Unfortunately, there is no protective plastic cover over the iPhone screen, so there's nothing between your child's mouth and that screen -- or, for that matter, the screen and any hard surface. Luckily, with an older child, you are probably less likely to have them give Beary Happi the full-on Bam-Bam treatment.

IMG_0456Woogie 2

The original Woogie was a bit more like a stuffed starfish or inkblot -- soft but flat. Its successor, Woogie 2, has slightly weighted legs and is more versatile in that it can stand or sit, making it more flexible for the many uses of touchscreen devices.

When I tried it out with my baby, we could play videos, have him scroll through photos, and sit and enjoy an interactive audio picture book.

My son was also able to drag the Woogie around without his protective mother being ultra-nervous about whether he'd try his burgeoning skills as an amateur drummer with her iPhone.

Unlike the HappiTaps case, Woogie 2 has a plastic face, allowing a touch-permeable barrier of sorts between the grimy screen of the iPhone or iPod and your little one.

It comes in a couple of colors -- blue and pink. The original was a neon green.

This case is more like an actual stuffed animal that happens to also be a case. Your kid could play with this even without the iPhone tucked in it.

Both cases work with current and older-model iPhones and iPod Touch. I have reserved my old 3G iPhone for my baby's use and it fit easily in both.

Although the Velcro closure will hold your phone or player in place, it's fairly easy for even a child  under a year old to open and free the device. So as always with children, you'll want to keep your eyes open.

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Apps that are child's play for iPhone and iPad

-- Michelle Maltais 

Most teens have seen bad behavior on social media sites:survey

Teens report kindness and cruelty on social network websites in a new study by Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project
The majority of teenagers who use social networking websites say their peers are mostly kind to one another online, but 88% still say they've witnessed people being mean and cruel on such sites, according to a new study. Fifteen percent say they've been the target of bad behavior on social media sites.

The findings come from a report called "Teens, Kindness and Cruelty on Social Network Sites: How American teens navigate the new world of 'digital citizenship,'" which is based on seven focus groups with teens and a survey of 799 youths 12 to 17 and their parents.

The study, conducted by Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project, found that social media use is widespread among teens, with 95% of 12- to 17-year-olds in the survey saying they use the Internet. Of those, 80% said they use social media sites.

When it comes to bad conduct online, 80% of teen social media users in the survey said they have defended a victim of meanness and cruelty and 79% said they have told someone to stop mean behavior on a social network site. However, 21% said they have joined in on the harassment.

"Social networking sites have created new spaces for teens to interact, and they witness a mixture of altruism and cruelty," said Amanda Lenhart, the study's lead author. "For most teens, these are exciting and rewarding spaces. But the majority have also seen a darker side."

Teens in the survey said they received advice about online safety from a variety of people. Parents were the top source, with 86% saying they have received advice from their parents about how to use the Internet safely and responsibly, and 70% said they have received advice from a teacher or other adult at school.

Teens in the survey reported that parents were also the biggest influence on shaping what they think is appropriate or inappropriate behavior when going online or using a cellphone. At the same time, 18% saidthat no one has influenced them about their attitudes toward online behavior.

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FTC settles privacy complaints against Web firms

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-- Andrea Chang

Photo: High school students try out iPads in Watsonville, Calif., last year. Credit: Robinson Kuntz / Santa Cruz Sentinel

FTC settles privacy complaints against Web firms

 

Skid
The Federal Trade Commission said Tuesday that it settled complaints alleging that two online companies  deceptively collected personal information from consumers, including children.

The founder of Skid-e-kids, a social networking site for preteens, was accused of violating the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act by gathering the names, ages, and email addresses from 5,600 children without obtaining prior parental approval.

In a separate case, the FTC alleged that online advertiser ScanScout Inc. used deceptive practices to track consumers’ behavior online even when they followed the company's instructions to block the data-gathering. The company uses information to deliver targeted advertisements to the consumer.

The FTC vowed early this year to take a tougher stance on protecting consumers’ privacy online. In March, the commission began cracking down on behavioral ads, which collect personal data from a user’s computer browser and then send targeted ads based on their interests.

In addition, federal regulators are looking to update rules regarding children’s privacy to reflect the changing online landscape in which social networks and smartphone apps are becoming more prevalent.

Last month, the FTC proposed tougher privacy protections for children younger than 13, broadening requirements covering the collection of personal information by websites and online apps, as well as how they obtain parental approval.

In the complaint against Jones O. Godwin, the operator of Skid-e-kids, the FTC alleged that he allowed children to register without seeking permission from their parents. The company’s online privacy policy says that children must provide a valid parent’s email address in order to register on the website. But the FTC found that the 5,600 children who registered were able to provide personal information, including their birthday, email address, first and last names, and city of residence without parental consent.

Godwin was ordered to pay a $100,000 civil penalty, which can be reduced to $1,000 if he complies with oversight provisions.

In the ScanScout case, the FTC alleged that the online advertiser deceptively claimed that consumers could opt out of targeted ads by changing their computer’s Internet settings to block cookies. What ScanScout used were so-called Flash cookies, which could not be blocked.The FTC ordered ScanScout to provide a user-friendly way for consumers to opt out of being tracked.

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Apps that are child's play for iPhone and iPad

While there are numerous reasons to not use your handy tech devices with your little ones -- developmental and hygienic -- some of us find exposure to the ubiquitous small screens unavoidable.

Although in my family we do try to limit our use of digital devices, with a preference for face-to-face and real-world interactions, my 5-month-old has become familiar enough with the smartphones and tablets in our household that he can scroll, swipe and perform several multi-touch actions.

It's not that we have tried to show him any of this, but we use the devices so often to shoot photos and video of his every move and Skype with his grandmother, who lives out of town. Because he has quickly adapted to them, I have acquiesced somewhat and created a folder on my phone with apps just for him.

I'm more interested in saving money for his college (or heck, even preschool) than spending on apps and in having him engage with the real world than focus on a small glowing screen. So the apps that I do use with my son, first, are free or cheap, and second, are less about bells and whistles and killer graphics than they are about encouraging engagement and reinforcing experiences with a causal connection.

Animal sounds for babyHere are five apps (with a few bonus items) in my baby's folder on my iPhone and iPad:


1. Animal Sounds for Baby: Fisher Price offers three free Laugh & Learn iPhone/iPod apps designed for babies ages 6 months and up. Among them is this, featuring a selection of animated animals that smile, dance and growl, quack or make their other appropriate sounds. Your child can get a response from the animal by tapping, tilting and shaking the screen.

A cheerful woman's voice says the name of the animal as it is highlighted on the screen. (I usually join her.) After a series of animals, there's a catchy little song and dance.

The app runs through two groups of animals and then repeats. (Honestly, though, I can usually make it through only about two reps before the song takes root in my head.)

There's also Let's Count Animals! for Baby using the same animals from the former app to demonstrate counting from 1 to 5 and Where's Puppy's Nose? for Baby to playfully demonstrate where the nose, ears, eyes, mouth, tummy, head, hands and feet are.

 

Continue reading »

Toys R Us expands electronics assortment

Toys r us store

Barbie dolls and stuffed animals are getting more high-tech neighbors at Toys R Us stores, with the retailer announcing that it has bolstered its electronics assortment ahead of the all-important holiday season.

The company said its stores now feature new and expanded product categories including prepaid mobile phones, tablet computers, headphones, iPod docks, digital cameras and accessories for the Apple ecosystem.

To make room for the products, Toys R Us has redesigned its electronics department and increased the space dedicated to consumer electronics by designing an open floor plan and adding interactive displays to all of its stores nationwide.

The toy seller also said that about 450 of its stores offer layaway on electronics, including the Apple iPod, tablet computers, netbooks, MP3 players, digital cameras and televisions.

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A tablet computer for babies?

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-- Andrea Chang

twitter.com/byandreachang

Photo: A Toys R Us store in New Jersey. Credit: Associated Press

Comcast to offer $10 Internet access

Comcast is offering a $9.95 Internet plan for qualifying, low-income families called Internet Essentials.

Comcast is offering an Internet plan at $9.95 per month for qualifying low-income families.

The media and communications giant's Internet Essentials plan provides Internet access at speeds of 1.5 Mbps (megabits per second) and also offers other qualifying customers a netbook computer for $149.99 when signing up for the service.

To qualify, families must live in an area covered by Comcast and have at least one child who receives free school lunches through the National School Lunch Program.

The $10 Internet plan comes after the Federal Communications Commission ordered Comcast to offer  affordable Internet access for low-income families following its purchase of NBC Universal in January.

Comcast, a company spokesman said Wednesday, had already been working on offering a low-income program prior to approval of the NBC Universal deal. That program has evolved into the Internet Essentials plan, which Comcast began offering in Chicago in late May.

“The Internet has the potential to be a great equalizer and a life-changing technology," said Davi Cohen, Comcast Executive Vice President, in a statement. "Internet Essentials will help level the playing field for low-income families."

Along with the $9.95 low monthly rate and the $149.99 netbook, the plan also offers qualifying families access to free Internet training and promises "No price increases, no activation fees and no equipment rental fees," according to a Comcast Web page.

Customers can stay on the Internet Essentials plan as long as their child continues to receive free lunches.

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Image: A screenshot of a Comcast Web page detailing the Internet Essentials plan. Credit: Comcast

Worried about your kids' safety online? You should be

You_cant_always_delete

It's not just the online predators that parents needs to worry about these days. Or cyber-bullying. Or texting too much, or, even -- gulp! -- sexting. Perhaps a more immediate worry is that kids need to know that what they put online is forever. And that's a hard lesson to instill in someone who might still needs to be reminded to brush his teeth before going to bed.

But parents were urged to take that worry and channel it into action this week at the BlogHer convention in San Diego for 3,500 members and users of the publishing platform that logs 25 million unique visits each month.

Many parents are reluctant to monitor their kids online, according to a Verizon survey of its customers. "Some of the parents said it was because they were uncomfortable and felt it was invading children's privacy, like reading a diary," said Carrie Jacobsen of Verizon, who specializes in responsible use of wireless products.

Well, parents, get over it.

"With the Internet it's easier to hide things, but you have a right as a parent to go out and find what it is," she said. The panel offered up several tips and suggestions, listed after the jump: 

Continue reading »

A tablet computer for babies?

Vinci

Giggle, wail, beep, bop, boop.

Hear that? It's the sound of technologically advanced babyhood.

This month two new tablets aimed at children under 10 hit the market. Last week my colleague reported on educational toy maker LeapFrog's new LeapPad, a $99, 5-inch tablet designed with 4- to 9-year-olds in mind. And Friday Amazon started taking preorders for the Vinci, a tablet aimed at little ones as young as zero months old.

Talk about the infant stages of technology!

The Vinci, which will be available later this month, is a 7-inch touch pad that lies suspended in a protective soft-cornered case that is easy for tiny hands to grip and will protect the tablet from some serious baby banging around. Like the LeapPad, it does not have Wi-Fi functionality, so parents don't have to worry about what their 2-year-old might download.

But don't be deceived by the soft baby-proof packaging; the Vinci is packing some serious power. As the company's website says: "The Vinci is not an imitation -- it is a real touch-screen Android-based product, bringing the most advanced technology to the benefit of our youngest citizens."

Maybe that explains the hefty price tag: It's selling for $389.

As with all tablets, the possibilities for what this product can actually do are infinite. For now, the company has created an interactive storybook, a game and music videos. And the Vinci website is full of additional apps "coming soon."

I'm curious what my fellow parents think about this new development in baby computers. Are you glad to see tablets built with baby in mind, or do you think we're poisoning our kids with too much screen time too early?

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Obsessive parents beware: Evoz has arrived

LeapFrog jumps into tablet market with LeapPad

-- Deborah Netburn

Photo credit: Vinci

Obsessive parents beware: Evoz has arrived

Evoz_baby_monitor_alert
Moms of the future, I cringe for you. A new App called Evoz is making it possible for parents to know when their babies are crying no matter where they are in the world. It's the baby monitor that is never out of range and a classic example of how an interesting bit of technology could ruin your life.

Here's how it works: You install Evoz's baby monitoring and data services on two devices that run iOS, like two cellphones, or a computer and a cellphone, or come September, one of Evoz's own monitors. The device you take with you (presumably a cellphone) is the receiver. The second device, which needs to be conncted to WiFi, is the monitor. You can listen in on the monitor at any time from your phone, and if you sign up for Evoz's premium service, you will receive an alert whenever your baby cries.

You are now empowered to abandon your plans, ruin your friendships and drop your life every time your babysitter puts the baby down in the crib to run to the bathroom.

Evos_comparitive Making matters worse for today's milestone obsessed, hyper-competitive parents, Evoz also allows you to track how long your baby has slept, the quality of the sleep and how long he or she has cried. Perhaps worst of all, the app gives you comparative data for children of the same age and area.

In the company's defense, founder and Chief Executive Avishai Shoham did not develop this software to prey on already paranoid parents, rather, it was because he and his wife wanted to attend a barbecue in their backyard that was out of their baby monitor's reach. To solve that situation he put one phone in the baby's room, called his own phone, and spent the rest of the night with an earbud in one ear, thinking, "There's got to be a better way."

Shoham, who has started several tech businesses, said the hardest part of putting this app together was figuring out an algorithm that would distinguish a baby's cry from other sounds like music, or a cat in heat.

Evoz is now available in beta at the iTunes store, where you can download it for free. You'll get your first two weeks free with access to all of the app's capabilities: unlimited streaming anywhere in the world, unlimited texts, phone calls, emails and data collection. After two weeks you can either keep the extras for $6.99, or continue to listen in on your baby -- like you would with any monitor -- for 30 minutes a day free of charge.

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-- Deborah Netburn

Images: Evoz app on an Apple iPhone. Credit: Evoz

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