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

The new world of online cruelty.
July 22 2010 9:54 AM

Mother's Little Technological Helper

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

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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.

Click to go to Safety Web.
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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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Noreen Malone is a senior editor at New York magazine.

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