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Editorial: Instagram is no place for kids

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Editorial: Instagram is no place for kids

Social media is a minefield of adolescent anxieties, as any parent can attest. Numerous studies have suggested a connection between excessive use of online platforms (and the devices used to access them) and worrying trends in teenage mental health, including higher rates of depressive symptoms, reduced happiness and an increase in suicidal thoughts.

Even in this grim context, Instagram, the wildly popular photo-sharing app owned by Facebook Inc., stands out. Its star-studded milieu — glossy, hedonistic, relentlessly sexualized — seems finely tuned to destabilize the teenage mind. Studies have linked the service to eating disorders, reduced self-esteem and more.

So perhaps it isn’t surprising that an internal research effort at the company, revealed this month, found that teens associate the service with a host of mental health problems. “Thirty-two percent of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse,” said one slide. “Teens blame Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression,” said another. “This reaction was unprompted and consistent across all groups.”

If Facebook was concerned about these findings before they became public, it didn’t do much. In July, Instagram rolled out several policy changes it said were intended to protect teens, such as limiting how advertisers can target them and setting their accounts to private by default. “Instagram has been on a journey to really think thoughtfully about the experience that young people have,” a company rep said at the time.

Unfortunately, all that thoughtful thinking yielded an incoherent result. In the very same post in which Facebook announced the changes, it also conceded that it was moving ahead with a new version of Instagram intended for children under 13. Dubbed Instagram Youth, the concept was so obviously distasteful that it earned the opprobrium of health experts and consumer advocates, lawmakers of both parties, and nearly every state attorney general in the country.

A letter from health experts could hardly have been blunter. “The platform’s relentless focus on appearance, self-presentation, and branding presents challenges to adolescents’ privacy and wellbeing,” it said. “Younger children are even less developmentally equipped to deal with these challenges, as they are learning to navigate social interactions, friendships, and their inner sense of strengths and challenges during this crucial window of development.”

Facebook justifies this plan on the (rather shameless) theory that, since it has largely failed to keep children off of adult Instagram, the kids’ version will “reduce the incentive for people under the age of 13 to lie about their age.”

One might ascribe all this to Facebook’s standard-issue tactlessness. Its Messenger Kids app is targeted at users as young as 6, even though experts have warned that it’s highly likely to “undermine children’s healthy development.” That these schemes keep going horribly awry doesn’t seem to be much of a deterrent.

One wonders what would be. As a start, lawmakers should pressure Facebook to scrap Instagram Youth entirely and make a more earnest effort to protect teenagers across its services. Congress should consider extending existing online protections for children to all users up to age 15, for example, and create a legal expectation that platforms do more to prevent minors from lying about their ages.

Social media is hard enough on consenting adults. It’s no place for kids.

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A refreshed Casa Bonita could accelerate redevelopment along West Colfax corridor

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A refreshed Casa Bonita could accelerate redevelopment along West Colfax corridor

Casa Bonita’s relaunch under new ownership won’t necessarily trigger a revival along the West Colfax corridor, but it could speed up one already underway and if done right, provide a model on how to both refresh and preserve an iconic tourist draw.

The Mexican restaurant with real cliff divers, faux shootouts and so-so food has served as a draw for generations of families ever since it opened in 1974 in a shuttered JCPenney’s store in a suburban strip mall sandwiched between Kendall and Pierce streets along West Colfax Avenue.

The restaurant shut its doors early in the pandemic and owner Summit Family Restaurants sought bankruptcy protection in April. But last month Summit finalized a sales agreement with a group headed by Colorado natives and “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone.

“While retail has had its challenges over the years, the ‘South Park’ creators’ rumored grand vision for Casa Bonita’s future could be a boon for local commercial and residential real estate in the West Colfax area. If anything, Trey and Matt’s purchase may serve as a model for preserving history throughout West Colfax,” said Philip Kranefuss, head of Colorado real estate for the brokerage firm Homie.

Parker and Stone made the restaurant legendary among their global fan base when they featured it in a 2003 episode of their animated series and they have continued to highlight it over the years.

Kranefuss said the restaurant is a Denver-area institution and a rite of passage for local children that could see its draw as a tourist attraction expand to the legions of “South Park” fans. Its preservation and continuation are not only a big deal for the nearby neighborhood but also the larger metro area.

He expects the neighborhood will look much different 10 years from now, and that Casa Bonita will be part of that transformation.

“We are very enthusiastic about what is happening with Casa Bonita. Anything that reactivates the restaurant is a good thing for us,” adds William Marino, board chair of the 40 West Arts District. “Good things are happening on West Colfax. There is real momentum and we need it to continue.”

The arts district, established in 2011, has purchased a building in the parking lot next to Casa Bonita that once housed a Denver Drumstick Restaurant. The once-popular eatery, known for a model train that ran around the restaurant, has sat vacant for about 20 years, a symbol of the larger decline the neighborhood was suffering, Marino said.

One goal of buying the building is to provide permanent gallery space for area artists so they don’t get priced out as the neighborhood stages its comeback, avoiding a pattern seen in some of Denver’s one-time artist havens, Marino said.

Lamar Station Plaza, the strip mall that houses Casa Bonita with its distinctive pink stucco bell tower, saw its revitalization start when Broad Street Realty acquired the dilapidated JCRS shopping center in 2014 for $8 million. In the late 1800s, the Jewish Consumptive Relief Society or JCRS treated tuberculosis patients on that site.

The shopping center, once limping along with a 30% vacancy rate, now houses a Planet Fitness and a Dutch Brothers, but also discount retailers and thrift stores catering to the area population.

“It is really about the redevelopment of commercial spaces. The general idea is to hold onto the funkiness of Colfax and the positive energy that comes with it,” said Robert Smith, Lakewood’s economic development director.

Lakewood has a total of 91 commercial and residential projects recently completed or underway, according to a development map the city maintains. Of that total, 38 were completed last year, 17 wrapped up this year and 15 residential projects and 12 commercial projects are currently underway.

Many of those projects are concentrated in the north end of the city, between the W light rail line and the Colfax corridor, which at one time served as the major connecting throughway for travelers driving between the Midwest and California and was filled with motels and eateries.

Once the wider and faster Interstate 70 to the north became the main highway, Colfax started to see more used car dealerships and pawnshops and vacant buildings.

Part of the challenge of redeveloping the area is that it was designed with setbacks and parking lots to accommodate a car culture. But the preference now is for denser and more walkable neighborhoods with amenities nearby.

“The West Colfax corridor is undergoing a renaissance,” Smith said, adding that the “South Park” purchase, which is awaiting approval in bankruptcy court, has done great things for marketing Casa Bonita. “Part of the value of that restaurant is that it has such a storied history. All parties involved want to maintain that legacy, augment and enhance it.”

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Big picture, big data: Switzerland unveils virtual reality software of universe

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Big picture, big data: Switzerland unveils virtual reality software of universe

LAUSANNE, SWITZERLAND — The final frontier has rarely seemed closer than this — at least virtually.

Researchers at one of Switzerland’s top universities released open-source beta software this month that allows for virtual visits through the cosmos including up to the International Space Station, past the Moon, Saturn or exoplanets, over galaxies and well beyond.

The program — called Virtual Reality Universe Project, or VIRUP — pulls together what the researchers call the largest data set of the universe to create three-dimensional, panoramic visualizations of space.

Software engineers, astrophysicists and experimental museology experts at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne, or EPFL, have come together to concoct the virtual map that can be viewed through individual VR gear, immersion systems like panoramic cinema with 3-D glasses, planetarium-like dome screens, or just on a PC for two-dimensional viewing.

“The novelty of this project was putting all the data set available into one framework, when you can see the universe at different scales — nearby us, around the Earth, around the solar system, at the Milky Way level, to see through the universe and time up to the beginning — what we call the Big Bang,” said Jean-Paul Kneib, director of EPFL’s astrophysics lab.

Think a sort of Google Earth — but for the universe. Computer algorithms churn up terabytes of data and produce images that can appear as close as three feet, or almost infinitely far away — as if you sit back and look at the entire observable universe.

VIRUP is accessible to everyone for free — though it does require at least a computer and is best visualized with VR equipment or 3-D capabilities. It aims to draw in a broad array of visitors, both scientists looking to visualize the data they continue to collect and a broad public seeking to explore the heavens virtually.

Still a work in progress, for now, the beta version can’t be run on a Mac computer. Downloading the software and content might seem onerous for the least-skilled computer users, and space — on a computer — will count. The broader-public version of the content is a reduced-size version that can be quantified in gigabytes, a sort of best-of highlights. Astronomy buffs with more PC memory might choose to download more.

The project assembles information from eight databases that count at least 4,500 known exoplanets, tens of millions of galaxies, hundreds of millions of space objects in all, and more than 1.5 billion light sources from the Milky Way alone. But when it comes to potential data, the sky is literally the limit: Future databases could include asteroids in our solar system or objects like nebulae and pulsars farther into the galaxy.

To be sure, VR games and representations already exist: Cosmos-gazing apps on tablets allow for mapping of the night sky, with zoom-in close-ups of heavenly bodies; software like SpaceEngine from Russia offers universe visuals; NASA has done some smaller VR scopes of space.

But the EPFL team says VIRUP goes much farther and wider: Data pulled from sources like the Sloan Digital Sky Survey in the United States, and European Space Agency’s Gaia mission to map the Milky Way and its Planck mission to observe the first light of the universe, all brought together in a one-stop-shop for the most extensive data sets yet around.

And there’s more to come: when the 14-country telescope project known as the Square Kilometer Array starts pulling down information, the data could be counted in the petabytes — that’s 1,000 terabytes or 1 million gigabytes.

Strap on the VR goggles, and it’s a trippy feeling seeing the Moon — seemingly the size of a giant beach ball and floating close enough to hold — as the horizon rotates from the sunny side to the dark side of the lunar surface.

Then speed out to beyond the solar system and swing by Saturn, then up above the Milky Way, swirling and flashing and heaving — with exoplanets highlighted in red. And much farther out still, imagine floating through small dots of light that represent galaxies as if the viewer is an unconscionably large giant floating in space.

“That is a very efficient way of visiting all the different scales that compose our universe, and that is completely unique,” said Yves Revaz, an EPFL astrophysicist. “A very important part of this project is that it’s a first step toward treating much larger data sets which are coming.”

Entire galaxies seem to be strung together by strands or filaments of light, almost like representation of neural connections, that link up clusters of light like galaxies. For one of the biggest pictures of all, there’s a colorful visualization of the Cosmic Microwave Background — the radiation left behind from the Big Bang.

“We actually started this project because I was working on a three-dimensional mapping project of the universe and was always a little frustrated with the 2-D visualization on my screen, which wasn’t very meaningful,” said Kneib, in a nondescript lab building that houses a panoramic screen, a half-dome cinema with bean-bag seating, and a hard-floor space for virtual-reality excursions.

“It’s true that by showing the universe in 3-D, by showing these filaments, by showing these clusters of galaxies which are large concentrations of matter, you really realize what the universe is,” he added.

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COVID boosters: Who’s eligible to receive additional Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines

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Boosters, employer mandates drive increase in U.S. COVID vaccines

Coloradans who received COVID-19 vaccines produced by Moderna or Johnson & Johnson have been approved by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to get booster shots under certain conditions, greatly expanding the pool of who can get additional doses.

In August, the CDC approved boosters for people who have suppressed immune systems. A month later came approval for certain people who’d received the Pfizer vaccine.

In addition to approval for Moderna and Johnson & Johnson boosters, the CDC authorized a “mix and match” approach to the shots, noting people may get a different type of vaccine for their booster than their original shot.

The authorization kicks in immediately for anyone eligible to receive boosters.

“For many Coloradans, a booster dose is an important part of maintaining the greatest protection against COVID-19,” said Dr. Eric France, the state’s chief medical officer, in a news release. “People who are eligible should get their booster dose as soon as possible, especially as we approach the holidays and look forward to safely celebrating with our families and friends.”

The state health department said Colorado has “ample inventory” to provide booster shots to those who are eligible while still administering first and second doses to people completing their initial vaccine series.

Eligible Coloradans can receive free COVID-19 vaccines or boosters at any of the more than 1,700 vaccine providers across the state or at one of the state’s mobile vaccination clinics, officials said. No insurance, identification, proof of residency, or proof of medical history is required.

Here’s who is eligible to receive COVID-19 vaccination booster shots:

Immunocompromised people

Late this summer, the CDC approved booster shots for people who had been inoculated with Pfizer or Moderna vaccines and have suppressed immune systems. But the agency declined to authorize the additional doses for the full population.

People qualify for additional doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines because they’re immunocompromised if they:

  • Had an organ transplant at any time, or a recent stem cell transplant
  • Are being treated for cancer
  • Were born with a compromised immune system
  • Have uncontrolled HIV
  • Are being treated with high doses of immune-suppressing drugs
  • Have another condition that can severely affect the immune system, like chronic kidney disease

The CDC’s authorization of additional doses for people who are immunocompromised did not include Johnson & Johnson, but boosters of that vaccine are now allowed for anyone above the age of 18 regardless of health condition.

Pfizer and Moderna vaccine recipients

This week’s CDC approval of Moderna vaccines comes with the same qualifications as the authorization of third doses of Pfizer.

People who are fully vaccinated with Pfizer or Moderna vaccines can get a third shot if they are 65 or older, or if they’re 18 or older and have qualifying health conditions, live in long-term care settings, or work or live in places that put them at higher risk of contracting the virus.

People who meet those conditions are eligible for a booster six months after completing their original vaccination series.

The health conditions that qualify for the Pfizer or Moderna boosters include:

  • Cancer
  • Chronic kidney disease
  • Chronic lung disease, including moderate or severe asthma
  • Dementia
  • Diabetes
  • Down syndrome
  • Heart conditions
  • HIV
  • Weakened immune system
  • Liver disease
  • Overweight or obesity
  • Pregnancy
  • Sickle cell disease or thalassemia
  • Current or former smoking
  • Organ or stem cell transplants
  • Stroke or cerebrovascular disease
  • Substance use disorder (addiction)

Johnson & Johnson vaccine recipients

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