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Friday, March 26, 2010

La Hora de los Ninos

Below are some images from the trailer for a new Colombian pre-school series, created by a multi-partner group including the regional channels in Colombia, Citurna Producciones, the government media commission, and production consultants in other countries.

Elements of the series are produced all over the country, so that the children on camera truly represent the diversity of the country.

The descriptions of the program elements below aren't literal translations of the text on screen -- my Spanish isn't that good.

Title graphics for La Hora de los Ninos.

Goal: Empowerment of children in a familiar environment.

Goal: Promotion of common values.

Goal: Model adults reading to children.

Goal: Show children reading to children.

Goal: Encourage and demonstrate free expression by children.

One place where children express themselves is in interviews in the Bear's House.

Tell stories that engage children in a world of imagination, with children at the center of the story.

Goal: Show children natural processes and how familar things are made.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Fred Forward "Ideation & Creation" Session Framing

A number of people asked if I would post my opening framing from the session I produced this afternoon at the Fred Forward conference at the Fred Rogers Center in Latrobe, PA. I cut out some sentences that dealt exclusively with the task at hand for the session. I hope this rundown of challenges facing children's media professionals is helpful to others!

Today, we face vexing technological, financial and societal challenges in developing children’s media. Here are some of the challenges I have in mind:

• Even by preschool, children are immersed in a multi-media world. The media industries often feel they have to be everywhere in order to capture children’s attention, but is “360 development” based on commissioners’ concerns or on children’s needs and abilities? As you generate your idea, give thought to different platforms’ or technologies’ unique capacities and advantages. There are good and bad reasons for choosing each; if you decide on a multi-platform concept, discuss how they’d work individually and together.

• Traditional financial models for children’s educational media are weak – public broadcasting is chronically under-funded, commercial telecasters pay ever-smaller license fees as channels proliferate, the advertising market is fragmented by expanding options. Producers have dwindling options to achieve their vision, and some of those raise troubling questions – content development overshadowed by merchandising concerns, advertising to audiences too young to know its meaning, shows developed for global markets by removing any trace of unique culture. How will you pay for your media concept – and make a living yourselves – without disrespecting children and families?

• We want media ideas that are truly, madly, deeply educational. We have great models of what works on television, and growing research into effective education via digital devices. But we run the risk of cheapening the term “educational” by using it to market outcomes rather than input. Every child has unique needs, interests and abilities: we need to tell parents what ingredients went into the stew, why we chose them and why we believe in them; they’ll tell us whether the stew pleases and nourishes their kids. In short – underpromise and overdeliver. Focus on ensuring a strong learning foundation beneath your idea.

The future of children’s media depends on our solving these challenges. We can only achieve the level of quality we envision, parents long for, and children deserve by untangling the Gordian Knot. Creative excellence starves without sound economics; sound economics depend on our finding media’s appropriate roles in children’s lives; those roles evolve from parents’ trust and children’s engagement; and those comes from creative excellence. Back where we started.

Fred Rogers was a master of that balancing act, in large part because he stayed simple and true to a vision, supported by knowledge of child development. He often quoted “The Little Prince”: that which is essential is invisible to the eye. Done right, our balancing acts and compromises are invisible to children and parents, but any creator of programs, websites, games, products or apps wrestles with them daily.

This session’s goals have less to do with outcomes than with the process. No one expects you to solve all our problems today. Instead, your task – developing a creative media concept around emotional literacy – is designed to encourage sharing experience and expertise across professions, and playing with the processes and language of creative development. We may disagree at times about what children want, need, deserve or delight in, but I hope we can stipulate to two ideas: 1) children’s media aren’t going away, so we need sustainable strategies for giving families our best work across the growing array of technologies; and 2) children, like adults, seek and are entitled to a variety of content that engages, enlightens, informs and entertains them.

Friday, March 5, 2010

I’ve been quite critical of Kwedit, the new “promise to pay” company that lets gamers and others borrow real-world money to make purchases in online environments. Borrowers can repay without interest in a variety of ways, including at local 7-11 stores. Since the New York Times profiled Kwedit and Steven Colbert took it on in a commentary, Kwedit has been at the center of a storm of protest over enticing children into deficit spending before they’re old enough to understand it.

You never get a second chance to make a first impression, and Kwedit must be reeling over that lost opportunity. It’s cost them considerable time in the press and on Twitter, repeating the mantra “Kwedit is not credit, it’s for teens and older. We're not a lender, there's no interest.” But, given their cutesy name, cartoon duck mascot, initial partners that sound like kid-friendly sites, and coverage that routinely uses the word “kids” they’ve got quite a hill to climb.

To their credit (not gonna do it…the kid-like, can’t resist punning name is part of their problem), CEO Danny Shader and some of his executives called me to discuss the company and the commotion, in response to my critiques.

Here’s my one-sentence assessment; you can choose whether to read my more detailed thoughts that follow: Kwedit actually has a compelling concept with substantial positive potential, if ring-fenced from children (and Kwedit and I disagree on the appropriate age).

CEO Shader talked about the concept’s genesis: an alternative to the existing high-premium means for the “unbanked” – people with resources but no credit or debit card – to pay for online transactions. One of Kwedit’s clients is PokeTalk, an international phone calling service; they’re set to introduce deals with various adult-targeted games. Kwedit has morphed from its initial aim, but had these been their inaugural partners, I suspect their debut would have passed unnoticed.

I’m a Boomer, a digital immigrant, and not a gamer. The concept of spending real life money for virtual goods – food for your digital dog or a more powerful weapon in a fantasy game – feels distasteful to me at a time when people and nations have overspent and overleveraged themselves into crisis.

As I considered Kwedit, I had to rethink this bias. I recently chose the free, ad-supported version of an iPhone game over the $2.99 no-ads edition; others might opt to pay. Why shouldn’t those who prefer role-play games have the same options I appreciate for word games – paying to enhance the virtual experience? Even in physical space, if I buy a fancy running watch (it doesn’t make me faster or fitter, but it’s a tool I appreciate), is that different from gamers buying “bits” that do the same for them?

One hurdle leaped, but the next still smacks me in the face. Everyone – children and adults – needs to learn not to spend money they don’t have on products they don’t need. We’re surrounded by buy-now, pay later opportunities from blizzards of pre-approved credit card applications to no-interest/no payment come-ons in stores to swipe-and-go machines even for tiny purchases. Kwedit is launching into a world rightly primed to be skeptical of its “play now, pay later” ethos. It’s not a perception of their making; they’re not creating a market, but they are plying one.

We trust adults to make these decisions, but we protect children and teens. You have to be 18 to enter into a legal contract or get a credit card without an adult co-signer.

Kwedit chose 13 as the age of consent for its service as a nod to COPPA compliance. They’re not bound by age restrictions on credit services because you make a “Promise” and not a legal agreement to repay, and because there’s no interest charged. 13- to 18-year olds are encouraged – but not required – to get parental permission before using Kwedit.

To quote English author G.K. Chesterton, “to have a right to do a thing is not at all the same as to be right in doing it.”

Teens are impulsive; they’re wired that way. In the midst of a game, presented with a “play now, pay later” opportunity, they’re unlikely to think through the consequences. (An interesting side note: CEO Shader says that so far, 50% of all players – not just teens – who click from a game into Kwedit leave the site without going deeper.) Shader notes that the risk is reasonably low; initial borrowing power is only a few dollars and the only penalty for default is restriction on future borrowing.

Still, why encourage teens to flirt with debt at all? Kwedit portrays it as a learning experience toward future, more consequential, situations like the credit card offers when they head off to college. Shader cites a favorite book, Blessings of a Skinned Knee, as encouraging parents to allow reasonable risk-taking (including reasonable failure) as a means for building self-reliant children. I understand the point, but I believe we’re teaching the wrong lessons at the wrong time – building the house of cards before ensuring a strong foundation underneath.

The foundation for managing credit is learning to budget. That’s why parents give children allowance; that’s why there are youth-targeted reloadable debit cards. Some online sites allow parents to load a virtual allowance that the child can draw down. These are the safest financial risk-management trainers: when it’s gone, it’s gone. The young person learns to manage a budget or to manage disappointment.

These methods also place the negotiation between child and parent where it belongs -- up front. The rules are set before the money is granted. Kwedit, by contrast, puts the discussion after the promise. Teens are encouraged but not required to talk with parents before borrowing.

One option for users who find they can’t pay is “Pass the Duck” – a request sent to a third party to log into Kwedit and cover a promise. Adults can pay the bill and teach their children that someone else will bail them out. They can pay but negotiate payback terms – the best solution, but a conversation that parents want to have beforehand. They can decline to pay and leave their child on the hook; of course, since this is just a “skinned knee” debt, the lesson would seem to be that debt has only minor consequences, unlike the real world of mounting interest.

While the amounts are smaller, Kwedit would do well to note parents’ fury with mobile phone companies that allow young people to rack up unanticipated text or download charges. It should also note the findings of the most recent American Express Spending & Saving Tracker that found 91 percent of parents focused this year on instilling lessons of financial responsibility in their six- to sixteen-year-old children.

CEO Shader cites Kwedit as a response to the prevalence of “friendly fraud” – kids using parents’ credit cards without permission. If a teenager is engaging in this practice, the family has a larger issue to manage than allowances and budgeting. Moreover, a player isn’t going to steal a parent’s credit card if s/he has the money to repay. Kwedit, then, becomes just a more savory, above-board means to the (again, post purchase) conversation about fiscal responsibility.

To be fair, the site includes an extensive parents’ page with tips and links for talking about money with your teen, and a teen page with lessons on money management. I’d be amazed, however, if more than a tiny fraction of teens and parents actually read the site. All you need to sign up is an e-mail address: activation is instant and there’s no request for birthdates or other age verification. Those steps don’t stop underage users but might provide one more opportunity for financial education and rethinking (perhaps Kwedit needs a “waiting period” for teen users).

Kwedit tracks users’ behavior with a Kwedit Score that rises and falls depending on your payment reliability. The company makes much of the fact that initial borrowing limits are very small ($3-5), but the website also says that “by being responsible and paying your Promises on time, you’ll get more and more Kwedit from the games you like to play.” A real-world credit score is based on a complex array of behaviors and accounts; a Kwedit score is solely determined by your internal reliability. This creates a worrisome direct link between good behavior and added risk, little nudges toward the cliff of a user’s ability to pay.

A few notes about the site that seem apropos here. I signed up for a Kwedit account; at no time during registration did it ask me about opting out of Kwedit or third party marketing or messaging. The Privacy Policy says it is possible to opt out from one’s profile page, but I can’t find such a link. Nowhere on my profile page could I find my Kwedit Limit. The parents’ site talks about Kwedit as a financial literacy tool, calling it “a fun way for your teen to start understanding some money basics: 1) save; 2) don’t spend more than they have; and 3) only borrow what they can pay back.” I find nothing in the mechanics of the site itself that would prompt such reflection.

Kwedit goes to great pains to say that your Kwedit Score is an internal statistic only, and cannot affect your real-world FICO score. Kwedit executive Loree Hirschman promises that the company’s privacy policy strictly forbids them from selling your Score to third parties. I hope this clause is airtight, because users’ scores and histories would be incredibly valuable, especially for teenagers reaching 18 and becoming fair game for credit offers.

Thus far, I’ve addressed only Kwedit’s intended audience of 13-18 year olds (Shader says their core target is 18-34 – they have no incentive to attract people with no money or means to repay). The bigger problem, in my mind, is that by setting their lower limit at the COPPA-mandated age, they’re almost certainly attracting underage customers.

Kwedit has specifically avoided partnering with sites known to be aimed at young children and tweens – Club Penguin, Webkinz, and so on. Two of the three sites listed as Kwedit partners at launch are FooPets and Puzzle Pirates. I visited both, because in name and style they give every appearance of appealing to older kids and tweens.

FooPets considers use of its site – agreeing to its terms and conditions – to be a legal agreement; those under 18 need an adult to register. Common Sense Media rates the site “Iffy” for 13-15 (based on cost and privacy) though its parent member rating is “On for 11+.” You could say this proves that FooPets is not aimed at children, but is also raises the issue of the ‘gappers’ – children (and teens) whose parents have signed off on using FooPets but weren’t asked whether they want their children to engage in Kwedit’s intermediary service.

Kwedit’s Hirschman says, “we do not rely upon other sites' policies…the only way a consumer can make a Promise is to come from another site to which we are linked, and we only link to sites whose target users are at least 13 years old. This just restricts the beginning of the funnel, but we then further restrict our user base: when users enroll in Kwedit, they must affirm that they are at least 13 years old and agree to *our* terms of use, the first sentence of which clearly states they must be at least 13 years old.”

This is fine legally, but we all know that underage players routinely tick through boxes asking if they’re 13. Further, it doesn’t really answer the question of parents who have OK'ed the play, but not the ‘borrow now, ask later’ part.

Puzzle Pirates offers different game levels. Some are aimed at kids under 13 and some above; some are free and some for paying customers. There are paying areas for younger players (they get a monthly “prize”). Kwedit’s Hirschman says Puzzle Pirates is only making Kwedit available to a subset of its users; she’s unsure if that includes children under 13.

After exploring Kwedit in depth, I see it as a risky service that tempts kids too early toward deficit spending and could alienate parents. I don’t, however, believe that they are as cwaven as cwitics cwy (it was all bottled up…I had to let it out!).

Not that they asked, but my free advice to Kwedit would be:

1) Raise your minimum age to 18, or require documented parental approval for 13-18 year olds;

2) draw a bright line that avoids partnering with sites that are likely to attract children under 13, not just those aimed uniquely at them;

3) Add age as a factor in determining Kwedit limits, cap teen limits and/or allow parents (see #1) to set a cap for teens;

4) Make your next prominently-announced partners games or services that are clearly meant for adults;

5) Excise kids and teens entirely from your talking points about Kwedit, and focus on why resourced adults would want to use the service – avoiding credit cards fees and interest, lack of a bank account, micropayments without giving out your credit information online, and so on.

Kwedit won’t have a second chance at a first impression, but with caution, humility and repositioning, this duck could have a shot at a long tail (that it…I Promise).

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Tokyo Toy Store

I arrived in Tokyo last night, with one day to explore before we begin work tomorrow morning. I am here to chair the audiovisual juries for the JAPAN PRIZE, the premier international competition for educational media, convened by the public broadcaster NHK. I'll be posting from here over the next week, though I have to be circumspect since JAPAN PRIZE is not an "everyone watches, everyone discusses, everyone votes" contest like PRIX JEUNESSE.

I spent a bit of my day at one of Tokyo's biggest toy stores, on the Ginza, to see what's hot here. Mostly, the rule seems to be "if it's cute, make it move."

That said, there's still room for old fashioned "acoustic" (as oppposed to electronic) play. This one, I suspect, is meant for adults rather than kids...a pachinko-style decision-maker.

Then, for those who have trouble waking up, there's this digital clock and comes complete with the gun. "Tell me why I don't like Mondays"?

Monday, August 3, 2009

Quote du jour

Is it possible that media, news and technology literacy could be the new civics class?
- McCrae Parker, VP of Strategic Initiatives, Youth Radio

What's the New What?
- Sex Without Condoms is the New Engagement Ring
Boss of Me

Journal of Media Literacy Education

Thanks to Frank Baker and the Media-L listserv for this release:

The National Association of Media Literacy Education (NAMLE) unveiled the premiere issue of its Journal of Media Literacy Education Sunday night, August 2, at the NAMLE conference in Detroit Michigan.

Volume 1, Issue 1 can be found here:

Each issue of the journal is divided into three sections:
Voices from The Field
Professional Resource (reviews)

To access all of the journal, be sure to register (it's free). Follow the link "register" to set up your username and password.

Contributions are encouraged. The deadline for submissions for the second issue is October 1, 2009

Parents and Media Literacy -- Fear or Facilitation?

The session on parents and media literacy took a somewhat frightening turn, as a number of people in the audience reacted with amazement (and perhaps even a little disdain) to findings that parents prefer to regulate media in their own households over government regulation. At least two audience members suggested we need to educate parents to demand government intervention; but where is the media literacy gain in telling families that they’re not capable and need Big Brother to do it for them?

This discussion followed on an excellent challenge by Faith Rogow about the disconnect between how we train teachers to provide media literacy education – an inquiry-based foundation – and how we most often deal with parents in media training settings, which tends to be to scare them with media effects findings, then tell them what to do.

One effect often posited about media’s influence on audiences is that it leads them to have a more negative or fearful view of the world. Based on reactions from some of the researchers, educators and pediatricians in this session, we may well be creating that fear in what we tell them about the mediated world, even more than what that world contains for many or even most kids. If you lead into media literacy with the dangers, it’s very hard then to change up and promote the positive potential.

OK, editorial finished. Below is a more dispassionate rundown of this session.

Kelly Mendoza of Temple University studied parents and their family Internet use strategies, particularly how they balance protectionism (defined primarily by the media effects research model) and empowerment (more attuned to the cultural studies and new media literacy models). She explored what strategies parents use along this continuum, using four variables: internet mediation strategies, confidence in using strategies, perceived usefulness of strategies, attitudes about children’s use of Internet.

Mendoza found that parents say they are reliant on rules about time and where kids can go (but recognizes that there is often a disconnect between what kids and parents report about what the rules are and how well they are enforced). Fewer parents report asking questions about what their kids are doing on line, and even fewer report encouraging their children to be creators online.

Parents reported little confidence in filtering and monitoring tools, a concern for the researchers given the size of the market in this software. At the same time they also claimed little confidence in their own ability to guide children to productive ways to be online creators.

Parents said they were very concerned about content, especially about inadvertent exposure to inappropriate content. Still, most parents deal with such incidents as they happen, rather than taking preventive measures.

Interviewed about their best hopes for the Internet, the parents focused on the “wealth of information” aspect, the Web as research resource. Few talked about its potential for communication or connection.

Catherine Chiarello, a lecturer on parenting digital kids, noted the gap between the typical advice given to parents and the realities of kids’ and families’ lives today. “Timers are great for cooking, but they stink for trying to regulate a kid who’s in the middle of a game. The advice not to have media in the bedroom is fine, but most kids today have laptops.”

So, Chiarello focuses on management strategies designed for the particular family – different strategies for a kid who is susceptible to bullying vs one who gets along with a wide variety of others; different needs of a latchkey family vs. one with a parent home most of the time. She also advocates understanding that this is a young person’s world, one that they are born into while we are reacting to it as a new and changing landscape.

Laurel Felt, Annenberg School for Communication, USC, conducted a pilot study on parents’ perspective on media and their children. Her hypothesis was that parents’ SES, their own childhood media experiences, and the age of their children would influence perceptions about children and media.

SES did impact parents’ preference for TV regulation – but regulation by parents, not government, broadcasters or independent organizations; low SES parents are most in favor of parental regulation.

Regarding children’s age and perceptions of TV quality, parents of now-adult children perceive TV quality as highest (perhaps a function of nostalgia?); parents of pre-school children also had reasonably high assessment of quality, while parents of elementary age children had the lowest view.

Finally, the more time the subjects had spent watching TV as a child, the higher opinion they had of current TV quality.

Emily Hunt, Parent and Teacher Media Education Manager at Common Sense Media, demonstrated the organization’s action-oriented materials program, built around positive and practical strategies and information on parents’ central concerns. Media offer Common Sense an opportunity to strengthen the home/school connection.