Archives for August 2011

WebWise news report - smartphones and the older generation

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Hajar Javaheri Hajar Javaheri | 14:12 UK time, Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Research from the University of Cambridge suggests that technology is 'failing to empower an aging society'.

Emporia Telecom, a company that manufactures and sells mobile phones for the 60+ generation, commissioned the study, which shows that only 1 in 20 people over 65 use a smartphone, despite smartphones making up 67% of all UK mobile phone sales. According to the research, the complex functionality on smartphones is of little or no interest to older users.

But do these statistics indicate the older generations aren't using smartphones because of accessibility, education or culture?

My 70 year old grandmother got connected five years ago and has already dramatically surprised me with her texting speed, but culturally there needs to be a huge shift for her to ever be caught at the dinner table playing Angry Birds on a smartphone. However, if she knew that more traditional games were available digitally and on a handheld device, she might just be glad of something else to do while my grandfather dozes infront of the rugby.

Social media on smartphones may benefit people with limited mobility as one can catch up easily with friends and family and may even help tackle feelings of loneliness and disconnection and although some smartphone apps are evidently more suited to certain age groups, it would be naive to suppose that none of them are relevant to older users. Maps, train times, local attractions may all prove useful if only people were fully aware of the range of functionality. Comments on The Telegraph website, indicate that some older mobile phone users know many such services are available and would not be fazed by accessing them, they simply just don't need them.

Despite varying attitudes towards smartphones and tablets, the study raises an important question. Should we be simplifying and narrowing technology for older generations, or should we be finding ways of making the full functionalities more accessible and appealing?

Looking at a range of handsets designed for older users, feature lists seem somewhat stripped back. Technology with accessible features definitely sells, but I don’t see why this has to be at the cost of functionality.

Accessibility software is already revolutionising technology for disabled users and the site Mobile Accessibility was launched this year as part of an initiative to help disabled and elderly people compare mobile phones by the features they need.

It's right to try to bring the country up to a basic standard when it comes to using technology, but with 91% of the UK already using mobile phones, once we've engaged the other 9%, the next step is surely to help people get the most out of them.

Just because a particular demographic isn't using certain forms of technology, it doesn't necessarily follow that they shouldn't be encouraged to do so. If there is a generation gap in technology I think it risks being increased if we think that the only solution is to take people back ten years.

Read Hajar's previous blog explaining what is meant by the term 'smartphone'.

 

Hajar is a regular contributor to the WebWise blog and has also made award-winning programmes for BBC Radio. In her spare time she loves reading, writing and singing.

I like to watch my garden grow

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Hajar Javaheri Hajar Javaheri | 11:39 UK time, Friday, 26 August 2011

Since leaving London last winter for the peace and quiet of the countryside, life has unsurprisingly taken on a slower pace. I don't push people out of the way, I happily amble along the street and I've even been known to smile at strangers.

But one thing I didn't envisage myself doing was standing in the middle of a field with gardening gloves and a spade, digging and bagging up horse manure in the burning sunlight. The manure bagging is not a new craze that's sweeping the countryside, but it has played a crucial part in my new hobby of growing vegetables.

Now some may feel I'm a little young to start gardening but apparently I'm not young enough. I seem to have missed the boat when it came to basic gardening skills, planting 40 lettuce seeds in a small pot, so convinced was I that anything I touched would die before even germinating. When I started, everything was an experiment and I casually went about filling trays with a variety of seeds that I thought would be 'nice to have'.

Some weeks later I had ten watermelon seedlings that I had no idea what to do with, along with ten courgette seedlings, twelve small tomato plants, and of course about three million lettuce shoots all vying for my attention. I really had no idea what I was doing, but everything I read was far too advanced. Gardeners used terms like pinching out, bolting and thinning, which all meant absolutely nothing to my inexperienced brain.

 

Vegetables grown by Hajara Javaheri

The results of Hajar's gardening efforts

With summer approaching fast I didn't want to take any further chances with my new green babies. I decided it was time to go back to basics and start from the beginning. To gain some confidence I needed someone to talk me through everything step by step.  I found my saviour in Incredible Edibles, a charitable project for Irish schoolchildren whose YouTube video showed me in the simplest of terms how to grow a lettuce.

I learned that thinning was cutting away small seedlings to make room for the bigger ones, how long the lettuce would take to grow and what conditions it needed.

This just goes to show that even though there's an assumed level of knowledge and ability for adults in certain fields, when it comes to the internet there really is something for everyone and absolutely no such thing as a stupid question.

Exploring a new hobby can be a daunting prospect as so many websites are for people who want to nurture a passion rather than start it from scratch. For a newcomer to a forum – no matter how anonymous they might be – it can take a lot of courage to post simple questions.

If you’re new to something, an online search will reveal you’re not the only who's asked 'when are potatoes ready to harvest?'.

Much like everything in life, if you just get stuck in, you'll start to pick up the language, will unavoidably make mistakes, but you'll hopefully improve along the way. And if you need to ask, there's plenty of information out there.

Gardener Carol Klein reveals how she uses the internet on the First Click site and BBC Gardening has lots of resources including simple videos on how and when to plant seeds. The BBC Gardening message board is a great place to search for handy hints and tips from other gardeners.

But when it comes to getting the most basic of explanations, there's no shame in asking questions on such online forums or seeking out simple guides for younger audiences – especially as no one's ever likely to know it's you.

Unless you blog about it.

Hajar is a regular contributor to the WebWise blog and has also made award-winning programmes for BBC Radio. In her spare time she loves reading, writing and singing.

WebWise news report - e-petitions and democracy

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Hajar Javaheri Hajar Javaheri | 14:41 UK time, Wednesday, 24 August 2011

E-petitions have been creating a buzz lately with members of the public being encouraged through social media to sign various calls for parliamentary action.

The riots in particular spurred campaigns calling for rioters to lose their benefits and more recently a journalist and Liverpool Football Club fan has asked UK citizens to sign a petition supporting the full disclosure of documents relating to the 1989 Hillsborough disaster.

Although online petitioning is nothing new – with some forwarded via email and others with their own dedicated websites, as well as Downing Street’s former petition page – the new government site is clearly laid out and straightforward to use; a sort of one-stop-shop for members of the public to browse, sign or create petitions.

Creating a petition is simple
and once it is checked by a government team – to ensure it meets certain guidelines – it is open to the public for one year. It must have 100,000 signatories to be considered for parliamentary debate, though the threshold will be reassessed if it appears that too few or too many are passing it.

Although a person’s details have to be provided, only the name of the petition’s creator, and not the signatories themselves is published on the site. This may help reduce the sense of peer pressure that can lead to some signing or not signing up.

With social media and celebrity followings though, there may be a fear that people will sign up to petitions simply to feel part of a large wave of public opinion, and not necessarily because they have given a certain topic their full consideration. There is also the risk that people will sign joke issues or even extreme ideas.

But even if more frivolous ideas do make it to Parliament it is unlikely MPs will seriously debate whether readers of certain newspapers should receive ‘tougher sentencing’ or whether there should be ‘a lifetime of state-sanctioned… wedgies for convicted rioters’. I may be wrong.

It is important to bear in mind with petitions that they are not surveys of the whole nation and can’t be viewed as sound evidence that there is sweeping public opinion in support of a certain campaign (unless, of course, the numbers reach tens of millions). 

100,000 is just a fraction of a per cent of the 30 million people that turned out to vote in last year’s general election, but, nevertheless, it is still a very simple way of engaging a wider circle of people in political debate.

Read Guy Clapperton's blog on Getting political online.

Hajar is a regular contributor to the WebWise blog and has also made award-winning programmes for BBC Radio. In her spare time she loves reading, writing and singing.

How to stop pop-ups

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Wendy M Grossman Wendy M Grossman | 10:16 UK time, Friday, 19 August 2011

It's one of the hazards of browsing the web: you open a new page and all of a sudden an extra window pops up and obscures what you're trying to read. These windows are, not surprisingly, called 'pop-ups' and they may be annoying or useful, depending on the context.

The first use of pop-ups - and still probably the most common - was to display ads. One variant on these is known as 'pop-under' and loads a new, hidden window for you to discover later. A second use, found on some financial sites, is to open a secure session. A third, usually found on publication sites, asks users to log in, register, or complete a survey. Often these are a pop-up variant known as a 'hover window', which continues to block most of your screen even if you scroll downwards.

Pop-up windows often lack the controls familiar from your main browser windows. Advertising and secure session pop-ups may be void of menus, toolbars, status bars, or other navigational aids, and resist being moved or resized. You should always be able to close them like any other. For secure sessions the clean-screen approach helps control your path through the session to avoid disruption. (For ads, it's just annoying.)

Hover windows may have an 'x' in one corner or the word 'close', or something similar such as 'no thanks', at the bottom that you can click on to close them. Those blocking access to content, however, are designed to remain in place unless you enter a valid user name ID and password.

A final type of pop-up window comes from spyware installed on your computer that is designed to trigger pop up ads and bogus warnings. To get rid of these, you will need a reputable anti-spyware program, perhaps as part of anti-virus software.

Many users find pop-ups annoying. As a result, every time someone develops a new way of creating pop-ups, someone else responds by developing a blocking program for it. There are pop-up blockers for every type of web browser, either built-in or available as an add-on.

Exactly how you disable pop-ups depends on which browser you're using and what type of pop-up it is. In Firefox, for example, the pop-up blocker can be found by clicking on the 'Content' tab that you'll find if you choose 'Options' from the 'Tool' menu. In Internet Explorer, click the 'Tools' button, then select 'Internet Options' and click on the 'Privacy' tab to find the pop-up blocker.

As technologies evolve these built-in tools may no longer be enough to block all pop-ups. Therefore, it helps if you know that creating pop-ups requires a bit of program code that runs inside your browser to open the window and load the content that appears in it.

Most often, this program code is written in a language called JavaScript which you can block in your browser's settings via the Tools menu, but it's quite fiddly. 

In Internet Explorer you will need to go to the Tools menu, select Internet Options... then click the Security tab. You'll then to clisk Custom Level... then click on Disable in the Scripting section. You will then need to restart your browser. In Firefox, select Options... on the Tools menu, then select the Content tab. Uncheck Enable Javascript before clicking OK to finalise the selection.

For more complex pop-ups, like hover windows, try searching for a blocking tool for your browser, but don't expect it to be perfect.

Wendy M. Grossman is a freelance technology writer and author living in London and is founder of The Skeptic magazine.

WebWise news report - cyberbullying

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Hajar Javaheri Hajar Javaheri | 14:22 UK time, Thursday, 18 August 2011

Research carried out by the University of Plymouth suggests that a third of teachers are victims of online bullying.

Bullying carried out over the internet - also known as 'cyberbullying' - can take many forms; from sending abusive or threatening emails to someone's inbox, to setting up online groups or blogs about individuals that people can join and comment on.

The study was based on an internet survey of over 300 teachers followed up by several in-depth interviews, and showed that 35% of teachers had experienced cyberbullying, 60% of whom were women. In over a quarter of cases the abuse was initiated by parents.

Many teachers would say that children sniggering in the classroom and spreading small untruths about them is all part and parcel of the profession, and few would be surprised to find that they were the subject of verbal discussions by students. But what can be seen as a relatively harmless part of classroom culture can take a more worrying form on the internet.

Many users of online groups, as well other anonymous posters, can leave people scared and worried about their personal safety. Few would have sleepless nights over a 12 year old gossiping with their friends, but when that 12 year old takes on a disguise on the internet – either pretending to be someone else or simply remaining 'anonymous' - it's natural to worry that they may not be 'just a kid' but someone else with a bigger grudge.

For some, the scale of abuse – and knowledge that it comes from people they regularly deal with – can be extremely detrimental to their health. One teacher in the study reported they suffered mental ill health and the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) said that it receives calls every week from teachers who believe they have been cyberbullied.

Ignoring abusive behaviour on the web is not always enough if people want to cultivate a culture of respect online.

A spokesperson for Facebook said that the social networking site has "worked hard to develop reporting mechanisms that enable people to report offensive content they are concerned about."

The UK Safer Internet Centre has set up the Professionals Online Safety Helpline to offer support to professionals who work with children and young people to tackle issues of e-safety.

For more on cyber bullying read the WebWise guide

BBC Schools Cyberbullying

 

Hajar is a regular contributor to the WebWise blog and has also made award-winning programmes for BBC Radio. In her spare time she loves reading, writing and singing.

Google's fight against malware

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Wendy M Grossman Wendy M Grossman | 10:58 UK time, Friday, 12 August 2011

Google have begun placing a yellow warning banner at the top of their search results pages for some users. Most people will never see it: the warning is triggered by a particular type of malicious software known as 'malware' that is thought to infect about 2 million computers. When you click on the warning, you are taken to a page of advice on how to remove and prevent such infections and links to helpful sites.

It's the first time a search engine has done something like this. It makes a lot of sense, since it ensures that the warning is seen by – and only by – the people who need to see it. But it may confuse some users because for many years security experts have warned against clicking on banners, ads or pop-ups that claim your computer is infected. There's a simple reason: most of the time such warnings are fakes.

Typically, clicking on one of the fake ads downloads and installs software on your computer that claims to be an anti-virus program. Instead, this program is itself malware that hijacks your computer until you enter credit card information to pay for the program. A recent study showed that these fake anti-virus programs account for 15% of all malicious software.

So, how do you tell the difference between a good warning and a bad one? It isn't always easy, especially when the warning has you worried and uncertain.

The first thing is, don't panic, particularly if your computer shows no other virus symptoms (such as running unusually slowly, crashing frequently, or popping up many unfamiliar warning messages).

Next, if you're worried and have anti-virus software installed, make sure it's up to date and then have it scan your machine. If you don't have anti-virus software installed, the WebWise guide will help you choose a suitable program and review your computer's security.

If you're still worried, you can run a second anti-virus scanner. Either download one of the free programs mentioned in the above-linked WebWise guide or go to a site such as Panda Security's Active Scan, F-Secure, or Kaspersky Lab that offers a free online scan of all or part of your system.

As a rule of thumb, whenever you get a warning on the web or via email that asks you to take action by following a link, check the link first rather than just clicking on it. One way is to copy and paste it into your browser's address bar and look at it to make sure it's taking you to the site you expect. Another is to type the address in directly or use a search engine to find the site.

Note that Google's warning obeys this general rule. The search engine does not try to download anything onto your computer. The page you reach by clicking on the warning offers only advice and links to other sites. Remember, though: if you see the warning and need to download an anti-virus scanner, do so from an uninfected machine. Read Google's explanation of its malware warning.

 

Wendy M. Grossman is a freelance technology writer and author living in London and is founder of The Skeptic magazine.

WebWise news report - social media and the riots

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Hajar Javaheri Hajar Javaheri | 09:35 UK time, Wednesday, 10 August 2011

The riots that have swept across the capital and other parts of the UK have seen the finger of blame scanning everything from social funding to social media.

Instant mobile messaging and social networking sites were reportedly used to recruit rioters to partake in criminal activity.

'BBM' has been highlighted as one of the key modes of communication used by rioters. Standing for BlackBerry Messenger, it is a form of free instant messaging between BlackBerry smartphones that can be directed at private groups of users. As these messages are sent across a secure space, it is unclear just what role instant mobile messaging played, but as is the case with social media groups and events, it can help foster a sense of strength in numbers.

This collective identity can work both ways though, and just as widespread messages may have been used to round up troops for looting and disorder, so too have they played a large part in helping to overcome the events of the last few days.

In simple acts of courtesy, people have posted on Facebook about which roads have been closed off or where they've seen trouble on their journeys home in case the information is of any use in helping friends stay safe. Yesterday's trending topics on Twitter included #prayforlondon and #riotcleanup. The latter has resulted in thousands of people going out to help clean up the mess in the streets. Meanwhile, those behind #operationcupoftea have urged people join an 'anti-riot' and 'Stay In And Drink Tea'. Their Facebook account already has 180,000 supporters.

Police forces have also used Twitter to warn users against inciting violence online. One user was tweeted by Hampshire police force yesterday warning them that "it is an offence to commit or encourage riot" and that their message "had been referred for consideration for criminal investigation."

It is impossible to say whether we would have riots on such a scale without modern day technology because social media and instant messaging are - for better or worse - a fundamental part of our current culture of communication. We can no more blame social media for the riots than we can the telephone for prank calls or television for swear words.

Social media may have been used as one of many tools to organise acts of violence, but it is to its credit that it is equally powerful as a means of uniting people to deal with the aftermath.

Learn more about social media basics with BBC WebWise:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/webwise/courses/social-media-basics/lessons/join-groups-and-pages-on-social-networks

 

Hajar is a regular contributor to the WebWise blog and has also made award-winning programmes for BBC Radio. In her spare time she loves reading, writing and singing.

Beware the net 'doctors'

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Hajar Javaheri Hajar Javaheri | 10:16 UK time, Thursday, 4 August 2011

Health has recently been given a big push on television. Channel 4 has been bringing the nation's health concerns to mainstream television with the series Embarrassing Bodies simultaneously educating and - for want of a better phrase - grossing out its viewers. The BBC has tended to look at things a little more clinically with Inside the Human Body taking us, well, inside the human body, with cameras and high-tech equipment showing just what happens at certain stages of life and as a result of various diseases. Such programmes may throw viewers health concerns they hadn't previously considered and so before heading to their local doctor, the internet seems the first obvious port of call for finding out more. There are many online resources out there that can help put our minds at rest over certain ailments, as well as offering guidance and support. But what risks do we face when we take our health worries into our own hands?

There are many scenarios where one turns to the web for information on a health issue. At one end of the scale, one might wish to check the recommended dosage for ibuprofen in the case of a headache, whilst on the other end one might be searching for trial cures for serious diseases, or looking for help and support to cope with them. The internet can provide a confidential arena to research sensitive health issues, but despite the abundance of information available it's vital that we remember to seek help from the correct, professional, channels.

Often, searching an issue online stems from curiosity, or a 'just in case' attitude. Say, a strange spot appears somewhere or you can't find an explanation for a specific ailment on an official website. As tempting as it is to search 'is x serious?' or 'how do I treat a suspected infection of y', such queries can throw back numerous question and answer pages, full of horror stories. Getting caught up in such stories can lead to self-diagnosing and seeking out specific treatments - before having even visited the doctor. It's essential to bear in mind that just because someone provides an answer, it doesn't make them an expert. Often those giving advice online are your average Joe or Joanna without any medical experience to speak of. Some corners of the internet are there to scare users and sell them 'cures' with fake success stories so when it comes to health, it's advisable to first speak to your GP or go to the NHS Direct website.

The NHS website has lots of information on the nearest hospital, GP and out-of-hours clinics, as well a large number of resources on basic health problems and standard treatments, such as how to dress a wound or tell the difference between, for example, flu and meningitis. The BBC Health website is also a great resource for basic health and wellbeing information and has a comprehensive guide to First Aid. The best health websites won't try to sell you anything, nor diagnose you without a face-to-face examination. Online diagnoses are very rarely given from any medical organisation worth its salt. Even on the NHS Direct site - which gives advice based on a patient's symptoms - if there is an ounce of doubt, the user is advised to see their GP or go straight to hospital.

But away from horror stories, online forums can provide a great deal of comfort to many people coping - or helping loved ones cope - with illnesses. Charities like Macmillan and Diabetes Support have online communities where members can share their experiences and offer each other support. These message boards allow people to feel like they can talk about their experiences while still logging on from the privacy of their own home. Although these boards are often moderated, as a rule of thumb, if any members offer advice that you have to pay for or prescribe you drugs or miracle cures, it's best to steer clear.

Trusted medical sites on the internet provide fantastic support and information, but as convenient as they can be, when it comes to specific advice, avoid self-diagnosing and getting caught up in supposedly true horror stories and always speak to a medical professional.

Hajar is a regular contributor to the WebWise blog and has also made award-winning programmes for BBC Radio. In her spare time she loves reading, writing and singing.

WebWise news report - the web and young brains

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Hajar Javaheri Hajar Javaheri | 09:28 UK time, Wednesday, 3 August 2011

The impact of the web on young brains has been in the news recently with two separate reports.

An article in The Sydney Morning Herald highlighted the findings of Baroness Greenfield, a British brain expert, whose research suggests that the loss of eye contact and physical closeness can result in the shrinking of brain tissue in children, something she has labelled 'mind change'. Online chat and social media use, although seen as something that people do in their spare time, could be replacing human contact that might otherwise have come in the form of an after-school chat.

A recent BBC report also highlighted the problem of web addiction in South Korea, where neurologist Dr Lee Jae-Won is offering medical treatment in the form of anti-depressants and therapy to help patients overcome their addiction. Key to his treatment is the use of brain scans, which show the areas of the brain that aren't functioning properly.

"The results from internet addicts were very similar to patients with ADHD, and also other forms of addiction, in the way the brain functionality had been depressed," says Dr Lee.

Both specialists are talking about the impact of web reliance – as a means of escapism, and as a necessary part of daily life. The issue with the latter form of web use is that it's hard to know who's addicted. Is constant web use the technological equivalent of other forms of addiction or dependency? Once we start, do we all think we could stop if we wanted to?

Teens aren't the only ones who finish off a face-to-face conversation online when they get home. How many colleagues agree to email each other later about a project, rather than discuss it there and then? Work and play have become so confused that social media is used in the office and work emails are logged into at night.

For teens entering the adult world there's unlikely to be much respite from the computer habit, but it is important once in a while for all of us to test how hooked we are. If you really think you can stop when you want, just try it. Being connected is great, but the best thing about it is the choice and freedom it gives us. If we can't even go a night without checking our emails, we're perhaps not as free as we think.

 

Hajar is a regular contributor to the WebWise blog and has also made award-winning programmes for BBC Radio. In her spare time she loves reading, writing and singing.

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