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learning.now: at the crossroads of Internet culture & education with host Andy Carvin

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November202006

Every Site You Click, I’ll Be Watching You….

A software company best known for its anti-spyware products has jumped into the online child safety market with a tool to help parents monitor their kids’ Internet use.

Computer security software company WebRoot today released Child Safe, which allows parents to keep tabs on how their children use the Internet and when. (I can already picture countless young people on Xanga and MySpace lamenting the irony of an anti-spyware company using its technical chops to spy on kids. “Adults are all the same!”)

As Forbes.com describes the software, Child Safe

gives parents National Security Agency-like power over their children’s computers, a feature the company says parents need because their children are handing over personal information to popular sites like Google’s YouTube and News Corp.’s MySpace. The Boulder, Calif.-based company e-mails a regular report to the computer’s administrator—that would be the parent, ideally—detailing the Web sites visited by each user. It also blocks content deemed objectionable and allows parents to limit their children’s time on specific applications, like games or chat. “The computer has been a black box of parenting,” says Webroot chief executive David Moll. “Now, for the first time, parents can know what their kids are doing.”

The article goes on to say that WebRoot is taking advantage of the recent media coverage regarding online child safety and legislation like the Deleting Online Predators Act (DOPA), which would require schools and libraries receiving federal Internet subsidies to block access to commercial websites providing interactive services. Citing a 2005 study by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, Forbes states that one-third of underage Internet users are exposed to unwanted online porn, while nine percent have been harassed online. Despite this, they note

[K]ids, it turns out, are pretty Web-savvy. Despite the widespread concern, data suggests that most children don’t take the virtual candy. According to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children study, 92% of children blocked or closed the site when exposed to unwanted sexual material. When harassed, almost half of kids removed themselves from the situation and about two-thirds told a friend, sibling or parent about the incident. Fortunately for Webroot, adults buy software. The company expects parents to still want additional protections. Future releases will allow parents to mange their children’s time on specific sites, block certain screen names and monitor video based on its meta-tag description. The program will also enable parents to control outgoing communications, preventing personal information from being sent out. “Obviously there’s no substitution for parenting in the off-line world,” says Moll, “but parents can know more about what their kids are doing.”

Online monitoring tools are nothing new, as schools routinely use the technology to follow their students’ Internet use. And WebRoot isn’t the first company to offer the technology to parents, though they’re certainly trying to ratchet things up a notch. For example, Child Safe allows parents to set time and date limits on how their kids use the Internet. If they don’t want their kids using chat tools or MySpace during homework time, they get blocked. And when it’s time for bed, Child Safe automatically logs out their account so they can’t use the Internet any more without a parent’s permission. Meanwhile, the parents receive usage reports via email, identifying which sites are being accessed and when.

For parents who can’t dedicate their free time to following every move their kids make online, there’s definitely a certain logic to using tools like Child Safe. I’m concerned, though, that some parents might see this as a magic bullet for keeping their kids safe, when in reality they need to stay engaged with their kids, discussing how they use the Internet, what’s appropriate and what’s not. Parents should inform their kids when tools like Child Safe are installed; telling them is as much of a deterrent as the software, and you’re less likely to be accused of betraying your kids if and when they find out you’re doing this. And staying engaged with them increases the chances that kids will inform you when they’ve accessed something accidentally, or they’re having a problem with someone harassing them.

The more parents interact with their kids when it comes to how they use the Internet, the more responsible they’ll become. And this increases the chance that they’ll behave responsibly at school as well. Kids aren’t perfect, but neither is software. -andy

Filed under : Safety

Responses

This was a very interesting article. I like the idea of parents being able to regulate internet time during homework times (that’s probably the teacher in me). I don’t think it’s “spying” on kids when you have their best interests and safety in mind. Schools have programs similar to this that allow technology teachers to monitor what their students are doing on the computers.

I do agree that parents also need to sit down with their kids and discuss internet safety. It is important for children to understand that there are some inappropriate things on the internet, and that as a parent you have a responsibility to teach them moral and ethical values. We can’t always sit and look over a child’s shoulder and monitor them. At some point they will need to go out on their own and make their own decisions. Hopefully with the right guidance, they will do that!

This is coming from a 14 year old on the east coast. Yea, this is some pretty interesting stuff, but is it right to be spying on your Child? I know if my parents started somthing like this It’d be a total invasion of my personal space. I can see the logic behind it though, but in all honesty, if this was thrown at me on my comp, I’d just go to A differant computer. And what happens when we grow up? At what age do we magically become responsable enough to handle ourselves on the internet? And for the kid who grows up knowing he’s constantly being watched, what will happen when he gets his own free of monitering software? He’s gonna abuse it, why wouldn’t he, he’s finally free. Maybe Im just way off the map on this one, but that’s what I think.

Personally, if one of my parents had used some tool to spy on my TV or reading habits when I was growing up, I’d be ticked off, particularly since my behavior as a kid generally didn’t merit it. (Though maybe my mom will chime in and offer an alternative viewpoint.) I’d be concerned about parents using these tools without a good reason, such as previous behavior that wasn’t rectified through other means. And like I said before, I’m not comfortable with parents doing this in secret. Many kids would take that breech of trust very hard, as is quite understandable. That’s why I think communicating openly with kids is a much better approach.

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