Cybertraps for the Young: Desktops, Laptops, and Tablets

It is my pleasure to welcome Frederick Lane to the EIE Blog. Fred is an author, attorney  educational consultant, expert witness, and lecturer who has appeared on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” CNN, NBC, ABC, CBS, the BBC, and MSNBC. He has written seven books, including most recently “Cybertraps for the Young” (NTI Uppstream, 2011). All of his books are available on or through his website. Fred has been our guest blogger on the EIE blog sharing excerpts from his book “Cybertraps for the Young.”

A decade into the 21st century, it’s impossible to overestimate just how important computer

skills will be to our children and grandchildren throughout their lifetimes. Consider the fact

that people born when the first personal computer was released in 1978 are already in their

early 30s, many with children of their own. Computers are an integral part of our education,

our work, and our leisure, so much so that the research firm NPD Group estimates that 97

percent of American households own a computer—a level of ownership that rivals

televisions and stereos.

The importance of personal computers was underscored for me when, while writing this

book, I spent a day in the reading room of the Widener Library at Harvard University. The

long wooden tables were filled with undergraduates, graduate students, and researchers, and

nearly all of them had laptop computers open on the table in front of them. Assuming an

average value of $1,000 per computer (the numerous Macs in the room bumped up the

average a bit), those library tables were covered with at least $100,000 in portable computing

equipment. As a society, we’ve invested a staggering amount of money in hardware and

software, and it would be unrealistic to think that kids can succeed in school and in the

workplace without at least some familiarity with and exposure to this technology.

For parents, however, there’s a tension between the obvious benefits of computer

ownership—homework, research, entertainment, socialization—and the distractions and

dangers that come with it. Thanks to the development of the World Wide Web in the mid-

1990s, every computer is now a portal to an infinite array of information, entertainment, and

enticements, not all of which are salutary.

As we’ll see throughout this book, many kids need nothing more than a keyboard and an

Internet connection to get themselves into a world of electronic trouble. Computer hacking,

for instance, has a long, albeit disreputable history, and enterprising teens have often been at

the forefront of the mischief. But even less computer-savvy teens now have at their

fingertips all the tools they need to violate a host of laws. With any type of Internetconnected

device—laptop, mobile phone, gaming console—children can harass or bully

other children, libel their teachers, commit fraud on eBay, violate U.S. copyright laws, or

commit a felony by downloading or distributing obscene materials. Given the prevalence of

computer web cams—either clip-ons for desktops or pre-installed in laptops—kids have the

ability to broadcast themselves and others from the privacy of their bedrooms to a global

audience, and that behavior has the potential to violate any number of federal and state laws.

We don’t normally think of desktop or laptop computers as phones, but thanks to web cams

and online conferencing software like Skype, they certainly can be used that way. Actually,

the line between computers and handheld devices is blurring in both directions. Kids can use

computers like phones (albeit bulky ones) through the use of software like Skype and

Google Talk, while mobile smartphones allow them to perform a number of computing

functions—e-mail, Web browsing, photo sharing—on the go.

In fact, it is only a matter of time before such handheld devices match traditional computers

in both power and convenience. A vision of that future could be seen in April 2010, when

Apple announced the release of its tablet computer, the iPad. There have been numerous

previous attempts at creating and marketing a tablet computer, but with its inimitable

attention to detail, design aesthetic, and sheer coolness, Apple succeeded where so many

others have failed. During the 2010 holiday season, online retailers and tech journalists

reported that the iPad was squarely at the top of the teen wish list, despite its impressive

price tag.

Right now, the iPad is an imperfect bridge between laptops and the iPhone. Out of the box,

it lacks a physical keyboard, has no camera, and has relatively limited onboard storage. Both

Apple and various third-party vendors, however, sell keyboards that dock onto the iPad;

future versions of the iPad are likely to include both a rear- and front-facing camera (for

“Face Time” chat, among other uses), along with more memory and faster processors.

The iPad’s enormous success—more than 25 million sold in fiscal year 2010, with another

32 million projected for FY 2011—has attracted numerous competitors, including the

Samsung Galaxy Tab, the HP Slate 500, the Dell Streak, and the Motorola Xoom. How

those tablets will fare in the marketplace remains to be seen, particularly with Apple’s iPad 2

waiting in the wings, but one thing is clear: computing’s own Olympic motto—smaller,

faster, cheaper—will continue to drive developments in the tech world.

With relatively few exceptions, these new electronic devices and the ones that inevitably

follow will offer more options, more capabilities, and more ways for kids to get into trouble.

And kids will continue to love them. This book aims to level the playing field a bit, to give

parents and teachers a solid introduction to the ways in which kids can accidentally or

intentionally misuse electronic gadgets. I’ll begin with a general overview of the

communication revolution, describe the potentially life-altering cybertraps that can snare

kids, and then offer some suggestions on how to protect your child.

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