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?

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.

Click to go to Net Nanny.
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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.

Click to go to Web Watcher.

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?

Click to go to McGruff SafeGuard.

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).

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