Most parents can safely assume that if their kids are at large, they're also online. What they're doing in cyberspace is another matter. With sexting and cyber-bullying in the headlines, a new set of programs is promising to help parents keep track.
Already some 50% of parents have installed software or another monitoring program to keep tabs on their kids' online activities, more than double the parents who had three years ago, according to software company Symantec. But unlike the old offerings, which typically monitor only the home computer, the new programs are specifically aimed at today's hyper-mobile, socially-networked teens. For up to $100 per month, they promise to keep track of online posts and communiqu s that show up on your kid's social networking accounts from wherever a teen sends them -- via a laptop, smartphone or even a friend's iPad. "Parents feel overwhelmed and out-gunned with the level of social media their kids are using," says Caroline Knorr, a spokeswoman for advocacy group Common Sense Media. "These programs can offer a measure of control and supervision."
The concern is understandable, experts say. Today's technology of choice shifts too quickly for parents to keep up. A few years ago it was LiveJournal, now it's Tumblr, tomorrow it will be something else entirely. On top of that, high-profile cases of distracted driving, sexting and cyber-bullying have fueled parents' fears that their children may truly be at risk. "Kids need help from their parents to make sure they aren't doing anything stupid," says Parry Aftab, a privacy rights lawyer and spokeswoman for monitoring program MinorMonitor.
Just what your teenager wants to hear. But most of these programs aren't stealthy; teens will notice, and in some cases, have to give their consent. Many programs are designed to stand out on a computer desktop or phone screen to avoid privacy issues, says Brad Spirrison, managing editor for Appolicious. Others don't work as well without the kid's login and password information for email and other tracked sites. "We don't believe in spying on kids," says Marian Merritt, internet safety advocate for Norton Online Family, the monitoring program made by Symantec.
Even if the program would allow for undetectable spying, it's better not to, experts say. Let kids know why you're using the program, and the potential consequences of saying or doing the wrong thing online, Aftab says. She recommends parents tell kids "Don't post anything you don't want your parents, predators or principal to see, because you can bet that they will."
The new programs typically monitor some or all of the user's activity, and emails or texts the parent an alert if it encounters certain no-no's, such as keywords indicating dicey subjects like sex or suicide. Typically, the more comprehensive a service is, the more expensive. For $50 per year, Trend Micro's Online Guardian for Families offers reports on photos posted, videos watched and even keywords searched for, as well as conversations your kid participates in over instant messaging or social networking sites. Zone Alarm Social Guard, will monitor up to five Facebook accounts for $20 per year. And another new offering, AVG Family Safety, usually $19 for a one-year subscription but currently $0.99 through a promotion with the Red Cross, allows parents to set different monitoring parameters for each child and allows for blocking of chat rooms and other social network functions.
For parents who can juggle as many applications and programs as their teens, there are also plenty of free options to piece together, including free trials for much of the software for sale. Free program Minor Monitor reports on your kids' Facebook activities. Norton Online Family lets parents set curfews on computer use and review activities on social networking sites for free. (To see what videos your kids watch or review their other online activity costs $30 per year.) The Google Latitude app for mobile phones is a phone locator service that can tell you where your teen -- or at least, her phone -- is. And a host of companies, including YouTube and Microsoft, have tools for parents to block content, while Facebook has one to report harassing comments and block bullies.
Correction: In an earlier version of this story, Marian Merritt's name was misspelled.