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3 new products for monitoring online kids

Some really creative thinking has gone into kid online monitoring products lately, and the category is segmenting in interesting ways. More on that in a minute, but what they have in common, thankfully, is that at least the leaders in this space all seem to be acknowledging the importance of baking parent-child communication into product design and allowing parents to calibrate how much privacy kids have earned, based on trust and maturity levels. But they do this in various ways.

Norton Online Family, a free filtering and monitoring product was an early leader in this intelligent approach. Then came SafetyWeb, the leader in the newest monitoring category: in which services package search and convenience, detecting risky activity appearing in kids’ publicly available online content,” such as comments and photos in Facebook, and alerting parents to it on an ongoing basis. This category is as much about reputation management as safety (though maintaining a good “public image” is now part of safety – see “More than one type of online safety” here.

Joining these are three brand-new monitoring products, all very different from each other: United Parents and ScreenRetriever from two new companies and Online Guardian from Trend Micro, a computer security firm. All three only work only on PCs, not Macs, for now but plan to change that.

  • United Parents Child Protection Service (hereafter UP) does what the search-and-detect products do, but also finds and analyzes online content that a child has not made public. Even more unusual, it alerts the parent to issues without exposing the child’s actual conversations and other content – folding a measure of privacy into a monitoring product part. As UP puts it, “parents receive only a ‘big picture’ assessment of the child’s online behavior.” If parents feel the need to monitor their kids (and are up front with them about that), this is a respectful way to go about it.

    Alerts, which appear on the parent’s “dashboard” upon logging in at UnitedParents.com, come in both “Moderate” and “Urgent” levels. A couple of Moderate examples are “[Child is] disclosing personal information in a private communication” and “Preoccupation with weight and eating.” Urgent alerts that I saw in the demo included “Extreme mood changes” and “Using a webcam during communication with a stranger” (interesting that the system can tell who’s a stranger and who isn’t). Click on your child’s name, and there’s an at-a-glance chart showing amount of time spent online, most active periods of the day, the most frequent topics of conversation, number of friends in his/her social network, and who s/he communicates with most (providing the friends’ email addresses). The software “learns” about the child’s experience – it builds on previous detected “threats,” which “expands the safety net” over time, UP says. This is very sophisticated technology behind a clear, parent-friendly interface. Like Norton Online Family, the base product is free, with added features that parents can choose to pay for (price for the premium version not yet announced). It will be in full public beta in a few weeks, but you can sign up anytime at UnitedParents.com.

  • ScreenRetriever is a very simple product that allows parents to watch their kids’ on-screen activity in realtime when both the watchers and the watchees are at home. It puts a little window on the parent’s screen that can be enlarged so that Mom or Dad has the complete picture of everything happening right then on children’s screens (up to four per household). Technology like this has for some time been used in schools and businesses, but I’m not aware of any such products for the home market. Its creators say it’s the digital version of the kitchen window parents use to check on what’s going on in the back yard. They also say it’s “not invasive,” but it could be extremely so – a helicopter parent’s dream come true, in fact. Which is the concern about this product; there’s nothing holding a parent back from watching a kid’s every keystroke.

    Remember when we were kids? We had to earn our parents’ trust, certainly, but if we did, there were lots of times and places when and where they weren’t present and didn’t watch our every move. The same goes for the Internet, I think, again based on kids’ trust and maturity levels. At least kids know when ScreenRetriever’s monitoring them and the product’s creators say their goal is “for parents to reach the point where they no longer need ScreenRetriever to supervise their children online, because their children have learned to use the computer and Internet safely and appropriately.” The product can only be used in the home – parents can’t do remote monitoring from work – but the company says it’s working on a feature that will allow browser-based remote monitoring in the future. Meanwhile, it has a “TiVo-like” recording feature “so that parents can check in on a child’s computer use when they get home” from work. The launch price is $9.99 for a year and ScreenRetriever will eventually be priced at $49.99/year.

  • Trend Micro’s Online Guardian is a filtering and monitoring product that’s designed to be a “one-stop shop” for parents to keep an eye on what’s happening on can up to four children’s computers for $49.95 a year. “This is a single solution that plugs all the holes,” said Guardian’s senior global product manager Laura Martinez. In addition to filtering, online time controls, and blocking of outgoing personal info, it also provides 24/7 monitoring of any activity a child engages in on the top 4 social sites: Facebook, YouTube, MySpace, and Twitter (and its creators have their eye on MyYearbook for the next iteration). Like the other two products, Guardian is up front with kids about its monitoring. Once it’s installed on a child’s computer and the child logs into Facebook, for example, it lets the child know their activity on the site will be monitored by Guardian – will they accept or decline? If they decline, they can’t log in. If they never log in from home, Mom or Dad will see that and can talk with them about it. Like the other two new products, Guardian also monitors kids’ private as well as public activity on the Web – text, photos, and videos. Parents can monitor this activity from anywhere, in any time zone via their Web browser. Like ScreenRetriever and unlike United Parents, it doesn’t qualify what it exposes, it just goes for comprehensive exposure of kids’ online activity.

    Warning: Possible false sense of security

    Don’t let any tech “parental control” product keep you from thinking and engaging. As you know, kids often have workarounds. With some products, they can avoid detection by accessing the Web on a cellphone or at friends’ house. With others they could use social sites or services that a product doesn’t monitor. Some products do one thing very well, in-depth. Others are designed to meet a lot of needs lightly. Both approaches are fine as part of the diverse “toolbox” needed for all the kid individuality and parenting styles out there, with different “tools” (values, rules, curfews, tech aids, etc.) and strategies for different kids and even for one child at different times in his or her growing-up years and under different circumstances. Flexibility, or frequent recalibration, is key, along with lots of love and communication.

    Technology can’t replace trust

    Technology – either the social-media kind or the parental-control kind – hasn’t changed the need for communication one bit. It’s not good when parents use it surreptitiously, except if a child’s hostile, apparently at risk, and completely uncommunicative. Why isn’t it good? Because parents send the message that they can’t trust the child, and working together on mutual trust at home is good practice for mutual trust online, at school, and more and more places where we parents can’t (and probably shouldn’t) be as the child matures. Parenting with the social Web is a great place to practice trust. Because, in a user-driven, interactive media environment where safety is a collaboration among users, some measure of respect and trust needs to be part of the equation, or safety diminishes.

    Anyway, all of these products ably provide what I think parents ultimately want, if they need them: talking points for the vital ongoing family discussion about how kids treat one another online as well as offline. But it’ll work for some parents and kids just to talk about that.

    Related links

    • For parents considering using tech to monitor kids, there’s a video by Norton Online Family that nicely illustrates the family dynamics of using a monitoring product (not just Norton’s) – click on the little videocam or “Click here to watch a video” in the yellow box on this page.
    • A story at NBC News New York about police officers advising parents to hack into their kids’ Facebook accounts secretly. If you read it, try to get to the good thinking from the family psychologist toward the end – or see this level-headed commentary on it at Techdirt.com or UnitedParents.com’s view on the story.
    • “Soft power parenting works better”
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