Mother’s Little Technological Helper

What’s the best product for monitoring your child’s Internet use?

See Emily Bazelon’s special report on the untold story of Phoebe Prince and her suicide.

I’m a childless twentysomething whose own childhood mostly took place in the prelapsarian days before Internet culture took over. So whenever I think about the abstract notion of becoming a parent, I shiver with fear about how much harder that undertaking has become to do well these days. Emily Bazelon’s reporting on the Phoebe Prince case explores what happens when some of the worst modern parental fears come true. And where there is fear, there is capitalism. A growing number of services cater to parents who want to stop problems like cyberbullying before they start, but it can be difficult to know what works and how. I polled my Slate colleagues who are parents about whether they have any sort of parental controls on their kids’ Web use; only two out of a dozen or so did, fathers of kids who had yet to hit adolescence. And one of them told me that the only person in his household who could remember the password to the service was his young daughter, rendering it pointless. So I tested out several on my own, using my online identity as a guinea pig, playing both parent and child.

There are two basic categories of monitoring—downloadable software for specific machines and cloud-based. NetNanny ($19.99 for Mac, $39.99 for Windows), a downloadable service, monitors instant messages in addition to Web browsing. Since I wasn’t sure whether my office-worker Gchats about whether I’d paid the cable bill would set off any teenager-calibrated alarms, I asked Elizabeth, a high-school senior from New Jersey, to show me how kids these days are browsing the Web. She was game but first informed me that the rumors are true—she and her friends don’t really IM or e-mail, they text. Oh. First loophole. At extra cost, you can spy on your kid’s text messages with NetNanny, but only on certain smartphones, mostly BlackBerry models. (You know, for that harried 13-year-old executive on the go!) Elizabeth and I went back to e-mail, and I logged on to check some notes I’d stored. But with the automatic NetNanny settings on, my Web browsing was so crippled that I couldn’t even log into an https site. The service lets you create your own settings, so I lowered the levels slightly. It continued to block some (fairly vulgar) sites that Elizabeth told me were popular destinations for her cohorts— FML, My Life Is Bro. But I could still see the sites’ Facebook pages, which had much of the same content. (Elizabeth says none of her late-teen peers have parental Internet controls installed.)

I then decided to IM a friend with some highlights of Texts From Last Night to see if it would trigger NetNanny’s chat-blocking feature. Elizabeth texted (naturally) her friend to ask for some emoticons that might set off the filters, and I checked NetNanny for a list of other trigger words. (It’s not just sexual stuff or swearing—also words like death or lonely and questions about age and whether your parents are home.) After my friend’s initial confusion, she got into the swing of it, sending the filthiest things she could think of back in return. Sure enough, NetNanny disabled the chat and sent an e-mail alert to the “parental” address. But not before I’d had time to learn some new anatomical options. I left NetNanny on my computer for two more weeks after that, but once I’d adjusted the settings to be very lenient on Web browsing, I never got another alert.

Web Watcher Kids ($97), another downloadable option, is a repackaged version of the software’s scary adult version (developed by former NSA programmers), which seems focused on catching adulterers, aiding corporate espionage, and abetting sundry other nefarious activities that might serve as plot points in made-for-TV thrillers. The kids’ version comes with fearmongering language about the dangers of the Internet and strong statements about the duty of parents to spy on their kids. The service prominently touts its ability to log every keystroke and access the collected data from any remote location via a secure Web site. (NetNanny also offers the ability to read your kid’s IMs from another computer.) I wasn’t able to download either Web Watcher, since they’re not available for Macs—perhaps marketers have decided the Mac-buying population doesn’t intersect with the frighteningly controlling parental demographic?

McGruff Safeguard ($19.99 for three months) has keystroke-monitoring capabilities like Web Watcher Kids, but both the packaging and user experience are more geared toward parental concerns as opposed to pure spying. (Yes, it’s McGruff as in the friendly crime-fighting dog.) Daily e-mails analyze any social-networking activity your kid may have done while on a computer with Safeguard installed, and the site’s parental resources include a dictionary of phrases, abbreviations, and emoticons kids might use. (Some of them are rather complex and unexpected—apparently there’s an insulting emoticon for “pope.” Have time-traveling Know-Nothings gotten into the Web?) This product, too, was unavailable for Macs, which seems shortsighted to me. But the capabilities of both McGruff and Web Watcher seemed far more extreme than most reasonable people would want, an overreaction sure to fray any existing parent-child tensions to a breaking point.

Besides, I don’t think that software is the most effective approach. Since kids are now accessing the Web from more than just a home computer—phones, school computer, etc.—focusing on protecting one machine seems futile. Cloud-based services, like Reputation Defender’s MyChild ($99 for the basic service), instead track the information about a person that’s exposed on the Web. MyChild uses the same technological platform as its adult version, and the kiddie version is basically undifferentiated except in branding. It scours the Web for any mentions of your child in search results and uncovers social networks on which he’s registered—in addition to the obvious ones like Facebook or Twitter, my Picasa photo and Digg accounts showed up here, organized by a sliding scale of visibility (all mine rated “Very low—I have my privacy settings cranked up high on everything I join).

For additional cost, MyChild offers to rejigger search results through the black magic of search engine optimization, erase you from people finders, and even “destroy” results for $29 a pop—i.e., contact on your behalf the person/entity that’s posted the troublesome information and ask them to remove it. Results not guaranteed. For kids especially, it seems likely that unsavory postings or information that ought to be private are walled-off inside password-protected social networks rather than exposed on blogs or elsewhere on the open Web. Of course, if a kid’s privacy settings are low on a social network site like Facebook, someone who’s also a member could pretty easily navigate to that content from Google. It’s nice to see laid out in one clear report how accessible that walled-off information is. Still, while I could see the utility of Reputation Defender if one had troublesome Google search results, for meaningful discovery of your Web reputation, I’m not sure this has much of a leg up on free Google Alerts.

SafetyWeb ($10 per month), is a more kid-focused service geared toward preventing cyberbullying or worrisome Web behavior before it starts. I entered my e-mail, and it picked up most of the same accounts, like Facebook and Digg, as Reputation Defender. But this time, I’d registered my age as 12, and the site warned me that someone that age shouldn’t have a Facebook account. Other than my profile picture, though, SafetyWeb didn’t give me any data from Facebook, since I have a private account, so it’s not very useful for parents who aren’t friends with their kids on Facebook. (Slate’s “Technology” columnist, Farhad Manjoo, has tackled spying on your kids on Facebook.) The service also didn’t pick up a bunch of things I’m registered for but use regularly, like the New York Times, and that’s because I’d registered for them with my now-fallow .edu address. Services of this sort only work if you know all of your kid’s e-mail addresses or online aliases—and even I, a well-behaved teenager with strict parents during the early days of the Internet, had an e-mail address they didn’t know about.

I think of myself as being hyperaware of the information that I put on the Web, but I learned (or was reminded of) some things: SafetyWeb told me that I’d recently been listening to the Hold Steady on Pandora and that I apparently have an L.A. Times registration and a Match.com account a friend registered me for after a long-ago heartbreak. I suppose if these were the things my 12-year-old was registering for online, I might be concerned, and it turned out SafetyWeb was too: Within an hour of signing up, I got an e-mail from them saying that my account was flagged for security review and could be suspended, since the activity didn’t seem like that of a child and my real age (25) on my social-networking accounts didn’t match the age I’d submitted. Also, apparently my apartment building, the address of the “parent” I’d given, possibly matches addresses on the national sex-offender registry.

Despite being skeeved out by that last nugget of info, I was glad the service was committed to preventing its use as a stalking tool, which had crossed my mind when I’d easily signed up under false pretenses. SafetyWeb will also cross-check the data of your child’s online friends to make sure that the 15-year-old boy she’s IM-ing isn’t really a 55-year-old man. Co-founder Geoffrey Arone told me that the site is launching mobile service within the month—not to scrape the content of the texts but to monitor frequency for aberrant behavior, which can be an indication of cyberbullying or other problems, he said. (Though without the texts themselves, of course, it’s hard to know.)

In terms of the underlying questions at stake in all of this, I suppose the pre-Internet moral analogues are: Would you read your kids’ diary? Would you pick up an extension and listen in while he talked to a friend, or bug his car? If the answer is no, then you may want to steer clear of downloadable monitoring. But on the other hand, the world now isn’t entirely analogous to the world before the Internet—there are new risks that simply didn’t exist then. Arone told me he thinks of SafetyWeb as the equivalent of making sure you know who your kids are hanging out with, and setting a reasonable curfew. That sounds like a recognizable version of good parenting to me.

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