January 17, 2007
A look at MySpace's software for parents
MySpace will soon be releasing free software designed to let parents know if their kids have profiles on the site. Code-named "Zephyr," it's parental-notification software, not monitoring software, which makes sense because MySpace says it's designed to promote parent-child communication about social networking. It will be just another tool in the tech-parenting toolbox.
MySpace wasn't ready to announce Zephyr because it won't be available for at least a couple of months. But the development was, it says, leaked to the Wall Street Journal, so the company made information about the software available to the online-safety community. Here's my best understanding of how it will work.
Zephyr's a very simple program parents will be able to install on household PCs which "identifies any MySpace user who logs in from one of those computers," MySpace says. The Mac version will be released with the software's first update, or Version 2 (probably both Versions 1 and 2 in the first half of this year, but MySpace wasn't sure about release dates yet).
What parents can see
With it, parents will know what profiles their children have; how old your kids say they are in MySpace; the user names and hometown they've provided; and when they log in from anywhere. It also has a tool parents can use to send MySpace verification of their children's ages. This helps ensure that MySpace's privacy and safety protections for minors - such as the features that block people over 18 from searching for minors, seeing their full profiles, or requesting to be on their friends lists - are applied to your child's profile.
"Even if a child creates another profile" from a computer outside the home, says SafeKids.com's Larry Magid in CBSNEWS.com, "the software will report it to the parents if the child ever accesses that profile from their home computer." Larry, who is also my co-director at BlogSafety.com, added: "Kids who go to great lengths to conceal their usage from their parents can probably find a way to slip under the radar, unless they even once sign on to that profile from a home PC that's running the software." MySpace said its research shows it's extremely unlikely that young users would never log on at home; it would be hard for them because of how much of a communications tool (not just a blogging tool) MySpace has become for its users.
The software also automatically notifies the MySpace user "that their parent has downloaded [the] software, and their profile will now be tagged by the software," MySpace said. This is consistent with what many of us online child advocates have been telling parents for a long time: If you need to monitor your child's online activities, it's best to be up front about it (if parents find something untoward, they'll have to talk to the child about it anyway, and it's much harder after the fact).
What parents can't see
You won't be able to see your child's profile from within this software program - so it won't show you profile comments, friends lists, photos, videos, blogs, groups, etc. (you can honestly tell him this is not an invasion of his privacy). You'll have to use your Web browser to go to your child's page. If the profile is set to private, you still won't be able to see it (like anyone else trying to access it who's not on their friends list). So you'll have to get your child to show it to you. These "can't see's" will definitely create opportunities for parent-teen discussion, which I feel is the best part of this tool. (By law, MySpace says, it can't disclose a profile that's set to private without its owner's permission.)
This is a practical little tool that does just enough and not too much. It gives parents the basic info they need for informed discussion without disclosing any more than a parent feels he or she should see. The disclosure is human, not technological. That's good, because it empowers both parent and child to work out a safety formula - both behavioral and technological - that's continuously tailor-made for the child as s/he matures.
MySpace is making the technology available to all other social sites for free too, so - if widely adopted (not likely, the Journal article indicates) - parents would know many of the sites where their kids have pages, and we'd all have the start of an age-verification system that would actually work and not jeopardize any minor's privacy. The parent only verifies the age associated with that account. The software doesn't provide any personal info about a child to MySpace or any other entity - only the screen name (not the child's real name), the user-stated age, and hometown. If the child uses his real name as his screen name, that's definitely something a parent should know and encourage the child to change right away.
As I mentioned above, this is just one tool in both the parent's and MySpace's toolbox. On the corporate side, the tools already in place include default privacy for 14- and 15-year-olds, the blocking of minors from contact with and content for users 18+, privacy and safety alerts for younger users, dedicated Parent Care email, a School Care staff, a law-enforcement hotline, etc. At the macro level, there's federal legislation in the works to block sex offenders from social sites by establishing a national sex-offender registry and ensuring that offenders' online as well as offline contact information is in that registry. Once that registry's in place, social sites will be able to check against it to block offenders from establishing accounts on their sites and using them to contact young social networkers.
Each new tool is helpful. Corporate responsibility is essential. And it's good that parents and policymakers are putting pressure on Internet companies to create the "seatbelts" and "airbags" of the social Web. But no company or law can provide total protection in a medium that's basically and unprecedentedly "run" by its users. We all - parents, educators, policymakers, advocates - need to talk about this more as we're scrambling to figure out safety on this moving target called Web 2.0. Come talk about it at BlogSafety.com!
Questions? Comments? Email them any time (via firstname.lastname@example.org), or post them in our forum for all to see: BlogSafety.com. Your input is always appreciated!
Coverage of this development was heavy and international. Here's a sampler:
- Moneyweb in South Africa picked up the Wall Street Journal article (registration not required)
- Techtree.com in India: "Parent Notification on MySpace Soon"
- The Register in the UK: "MySpace passes parent-verification buck to parents"
- CNET: "MySpace developing parental notification software"
- Reuters in PC Magazine: "Paper: MySpace to Add Parental Notifications"
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