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September 1, 2006

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Monitoring MySpacers: Part 1, the tech part

Monitoring with technology is not for everyone. But I hope we all agree that knowing what our kids are up to on the social Web is a good thing, just as knowing what they're up to socially in "real life" is. We ask them who they're going to the concert with Friday night, or whose driving after the party Saturday, why wouldn't we want to know who they hang out with online?

The hands-down best way to do that is to ask them. It can also help to supplement that discussion by going online with them to their favorite hangouts and - again, with them - going through their friends lists, candidly telling them you check in on their profiles or blogs occasionally, because they're public spaces anyone can see and it's a parent's job to make sure they're not doing anything to harm themselves or others physically or in terms of future academic and employment prospects. If their spaces have privacy features turned on, it's still a very good idea to know who can access them (in MySpace that's people on their friends lists) and to make sure people they don't know personally don't have access. Some parents have a rule that they too are on their kids' friends lists so they have access despite privacy features, which means parents have accounts (usually minimalist ones) in their kids' social sites too (see "Parents, It's Time to Create Your Own MySpace Page" and "A mom writes: My own MySpace").

But enough about parenting social networkers. More on that next week in Part 2 of this little series. This week, the tech options for monitoring them, because two new options for monitoring MySpacers are available: a tech service called BeNetSafe and a tech+human service called SafeSpacers.

First a bit of context: With the launch of these new social-networking-specific tools, we now have three kinds of monitoring (so far, mostly for MySpace users):

I won't spend a lot of time here on this third monitoring option because it has been around since the early days of the Web. Suffice it to say I (and many other parents and online-safety advocates) feel that, ideally, it's a last-resort option because it captures everything a child does online and thus affords zero privacy, a privilege (not a right) that children should probably have a chance to earn. But I include it in the list of options because sometimes kids who are uncommunicative and putting themselves at risk really need to be monitored for their protection. See what Oregon dad Jeff Cooper wrote about this to ABC News (posted in our forum,, here).

Two new MySpace monitors

  1. SafeSpacers has been around since early this year. I think it sounds like a great idea for parents looking for the "human touch." It's a MySpace monitoring service in which all the monitoring is done personally by college students who are MySpace users themselves interested in helping younger people keep their MySpace experiences safe (here's their About Us page).

    "Our idea was that MySpace users would be much more responsive to humans than to bots [or maybe even parents]," SafeSpacers CEO Parker Stech told me in a phone interview. Does this make as much sense to you as it does to me? For example, if you were a teen MySpacer and you received basically the same comment, suggesting you delete an overly suggestive photo in your profile, from two different people - a parent and a fellow MySpace user who's in college - whose comment would likely be more influential? Enough said.

    The way the service works is, you sign up for the package of your choice (duration of service and frequency of reports), provide information about your MySpacer, and SafeSpacers get to work finding your kid's profile(s). ("We know how to find people online and know the difference between having fun and inviting trouble," the site says.) Next they compile a report that they email you (like this). The service offers parents the option of having it post a "Safety Message" directly in the child's profile, "warning them of online dangers (without them knowing the parents are in on it)." A great idea, but even better if the parents are up front about the monitoring - because then, if they do discover something untoward, the ensuing parent-child discussion isn't overwhelmed by the teenager's shock that "you don't trust me" or "you're invading my privacy" and instead can get right to the more important part about risky online behavior.

    "We're thinking about adding YouTube to our service," Parker told me, "since kids will link from MySpace to videos they've stored on YouTube, and some of those videos parents need to know about." A disturbing true-life example: "I've been on YouTube and noticed videos created by young girls at a slumber party - footage of them dancing around in their underwear. The problem is, you have one video like that taken down, and three pages later in the search results, there will be two more copies posted by others in the group or just other YouTube visitors who've reposted. A lot of videos are uploaded multiple times." Parker added that all of the girls in that video had MySpace profiles too, so a stranger might see a video like that at YouTube, and then click on links to the girls' MySpace profiles and contact them there. (This is also a perfect example of how hard it is to take content down once it has been uploaded - something we all need to get across to our kids!)

  2. BeNetSafe was founded by two serial tech entrepreneurs, Michael Edelson and Brad Weber, both fathers of three teenagers, both of whom had their wives call them the same week last spring "asking us if we knew if our kids had MySpace accounts." I think they took it as a sign (more next week on their parenting stories, which are great).

    Their brain-child, the BeNetSafe service ("your child's online chaperone"), launched earlier this month. It's a software system that, mercifully, you don't have to install. "It's all Web-based," Brad and Michael told me in a phone interview. "You come to the site, sign up, provide info about your child (minimum first name, last name, email address, but the more info the better), and our software looks for that info throughout MySpace." will be added to the service in a couple of weeks, they said.

    BeNetSafe then provides parents with reports (via email or on a page behind a password you can check on their site). The reports flag the posting of phone numbers, email addresses, home addresses, school info, and other risky sharing. It captures the profiles of people on a child's friends list (which just saves you from clicking to all of them if you have access to that profile), and this all-in-one-place information can help anomalies emerge - such as the occasional person who should not be on a friends list.

    For example, Michael's son has more than 100 friends, and - after running a report on the boy's profile - Michael noticed two of them were over 40. "So I sat my son down, and we looked at the report together. I said, 'Let's look at this guy and this guy. Do you see anything strange?' 'No' was his answer. 'Well, look at his age. Look at all his other friends [all boys about his son's age].' 'So?' was the next answer. 'Well, let's look at where all these kids are [all around the country].' That's when his lightbulb went on," Michael told me. "So we blocked those two guys [a key MySpace safety feature available to all users]." Here's coverage of BeNetSafe at

  3. A third convenience tool of this sort is the very straightforward myspaceWatch - one of the earliest social-network monitoring tools, if not the first. It tracks and reports on log-ins and changes to MySpace profiles and "keeps a running history." The ad-supported version, monitoring one profile (checking for changes twice a day) is free. The "pro" account costs $6/month and crawls up to five profiles every six hours. One interesting, at-a-glance feature rates the profile(s) it monitors "on a low/medium/high basis" for vulgar, sexual, racial, and drug-related content, its developer Alex Strand told me in an email interview.

What's great about these approaches to monitoring is that they provide teachable moments. Instead of being tools for spying, they're more like tools for parent-child communication. Stay tuned for more along these lines next week.

A final thought: Filtering. I feel the above tools are more effective parenting aids than filtering on Web 2.0, or the social Web, for two reasons: 1) filtering only works on the computer on which it's installed, and kids can access the Net on many different devices, wired and wireless, in many places, and 2) even if you can be sure they're only accessing the Net on a family computer with filtering, many kids know of numerous proxy sites and services used as workarounds, as well as how to erase their tracks.

Readers, an important caveat: does not have the resources to do proper testing of products and services; these occasional features are about good ideas for informed, engaged tech parenting. It's great to get your stories, policies, comments about tech parenting. Email them to me anytime or post them in our forum,!

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Web News Briefs
  1. How legal is it?

    That probably sounds like a strange question just about everywhere but in the world of digital entertainment. The Los Angeles Times takes a sweeping snapshot of current thinking on the part of music consumers and copyright law experts. For example, a Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll found that "among teens ages 12 to 17 who were polled, 69% said they believed it was legal to copy a CD from a friend who purchased the original. By comparison, only 21% said it was legal to copy a CD if a friend got the music free." In fact, the recording and film industry associations (the RIAA and MPAA) point to the ripping of CDs and DVDs and their biggest threat now, not peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing ("80% of teens surveyed in the poll said downloading free music from unauthorized computer networks was a crime"). Meanwhile, consumer and trade organizations are criticizing the RIAA's educational video about copyright law for steering viewers wrong. The video "suggests that students should be skeptical of free content and that it's always illegal to make a copy of a song, even if it's just to introduce a friend to a new band," reports CNET, citing the view of Robert Schwartz, general counsel for the Home Recording Rights Coalition, "one of the groups opposed to the video." Also in music news this week: a soon-to-launch free and legal music-download site called, which will share ad revenue with the record labels that supply it. Reuters reported Universal Music signed on. According to the New York Times, "though the venture is not the first to try a free ad-supported approach, the backing of Universal, with millions of songs in its catalog from thousands of artists like Eminem and Gwen Stefani, Elton John and Gloria Estefan, Count Basie and Hank Williams, promises to give it instant credibility and scale."

  2. Social networking & suicide

    Some see social networking about the death of a friend or family member cathartic. Some as a means of detecting suicidal tendencies. Others are concerned it might reinforce such tendencies. In any case, "the world's first generation to double-click its way through elementary school is using the Web to stay connected -- even in death," reports the St. Petersburg Times. Dr. Ilene Berson and other faculty members at the University of South Florida's Mental Health Institute are seeking funding to research that question, to see "whether social networking web sites create a suicide contagion effect." They'll analyze the conditions surrounding the deaths of MySpace members who committed suicide, as well as behavior on (see my earlier item on this), where the activity isn't all about eulogizing. "Anger, curiosity and bravado reign on MyDeathSpace forums, where strangers pick apart the writings of MySpace members who die," according to the Times. The positive side of such public display of death is suicide prevention. At a recent conference on social networking, representatives of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline said that referrals from MySpace users have become the largest source of calls to the hotline. During research for our book, MySpace Unraveled, Lifeline director John Draper told us, "Increasingly, kids are using their profiles "to in some ways convey that they had suicidal intent. There is very much the potential for saving lives because the first people to hear about kids at risk are other kids." The Lifeline is setting up federally funded suicide prevention profiles on MySpace, Xanga, and Facebook. Here's more coverage on grieving online in the Boston Globe and the Lexington Herald-Leader. As for online obituaries, go to the Washington Post.

  3. Free books online

    Project Gutenberg was the first supplier of free out-of-copyright books on the Web and it's more comprehensive, but Google Book Search just made things easier - at least for when it has your book of choice. "Just one click and a PDF file of the book is on your desktop," reports The Guardian. "You can then either read it online (in which case you deserve to have it free), print it out page by page or send it to a print-on-demand publishing house such as where it will emerge as a fully fledged paperback for less than a fiver." Project Gutenberg says it has 19,000 free books in its catalog, including the kind your kids are assigned in school. Here's Google Book Search , and here's CNET on this development.

  4. La. game law nixed

    A federal judge struck down a new Louisiana law that banned sales of violent video games to minors, saying the state "the state had no right to bar distribution of materials simply because they show violent behavior," the Associated Press reports. The law's language was less than clear. Games that would be banned "if an 'average person' would conclude that they appeal to a 'morbid interest in violence' ... [or] if the 'average person' would conclude they depict violence that is 'patently offensive' to standards in the adult community, and the games are deemed to lack artistic, political or scientific value," the AP adds. Similar laws have been struck down in other states, including Minnesota, Illinois, California and Michigan. In Minnesota, the Pioneer Press reported later in the week that the state would appeal a federal court's decision against its ban on sales of violent and sexually explicit videogames to people under 17.

  5. Of cheats & other game news

    How to explain to a gamer that cheating is bad, when in the world of videogames it's so good? Family discussions are definitely getting more nuanced these days! Some people say going to game sites and finding cheats is just a way to get more out of a game. Other gamers make it a little more questionable-sounding, as it was in pre-videogame history - that, as with lying, everybody knows it's bad but there are certain conditions under which it's ok. Even in videogame life the definition of cheating has changed, the Washington Post reports: "To cheat way back when was to figure out how to keep your character alive and finish the game. To cheat now is to unlock doors and expand the breadth of your game." As kids make fewer distinctions between online and offline, between this world and virtual worlds, teaching ethics is getting more interesting. Maybe the descriptor will become "situational ethics"! BTW, if you're interested in a detailed account of what life is like in a virtual world called Second Life, see Camille Dodero's fascinating account in Detroit's You'll probably agree it's not for teens. For them there's Teen Second Life (see "Lively alternate lifes").

  6. Create-your-own social network

    Almost. But it's only a matter of time. It started at the more professional, geeky level with online publishing tools. The same with Web publishing. Both got so easy that anyone could "publish" with no technical know-how. It's also happening with online "radio," or podcasting. And so it will go with social networking. Soon we'll be able to create our own social networks (we actually are now, sort of, in sites that provide tools for private networks for extended families, clubs, and other groups). But the latest step in this direction is a company called Small World Labs providing social-networking "hosting" - a service like the host of our forum, - providing a platform for organizations (perhaps school districts) to create dedicated social networks just for their constituents, clients, or members. Certainly, colleges and universities are already running their own Facebook-like social networks (see this news last week).

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That does it for this week. Have a great weekend!


Anne Collier, Editor

Net Family News

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