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Do You Know What Your Kids Are Doing Online?

Here's how to keep your children from getting into trouble online, without encroaching on their privacy

Do you remember those public service announcements that pointedly asked, "It's 10 p.m.; do you know where your children are?" Well, in 2011 your children might be safely home, sitting in their room--but thanks to PCs, laptops, smartphones, and tablets, they can still be at risk. Now, you need to know where your children are--not just physically, but also in cyberspace.The threats they face while online are twofold:

1. When it comes to some things like movies or video games, a rating system is in place to provide some guidance to help parents determine what is appropriate. With the Internet, though, there is no such rating system, and it is up to parents to be aware of what kids are doing online--whether surfing the Web on a PC in their bedroom, or sending inappropriate text messages to friends from a mobile phone.

2. Cyberbullying is a real and growing threat. Parents need to make sure their children are neither victims of cyberbullying nor the ones engaged in digital assaults.

Parents can also use technology to track where their children go, and to keep an eye on smartphone and Internet activity to guard against inappropriate behavior and protect kids from the dark side of the Web.

Let's look at some ways parents can keep tabs on children without overtly infringing on their privacy or independence.

Keep Track of Where They Are

Services like AT&T FamilyMap, Verizon Family Locator, or Sprint Family Locator let parents keep track of the physical whereabouts of children by tracking the location of their mobile phone. The services do provide some peace of mind, but they have some drawbacks that render them less useful than they could be.

All of these services offer essentially the same functionality. They provide real-time location information that can be viewed from a PC or from a smartphone, displaying detailed information about the current location of the mobile phone. The services let parents set automated alerts to notify them where their child is at a specific time of day, or to let them know when the child arrives safely at school, or home. Parents can also view historical data to review where the child has been or gone over the past few days.

When it works, a service like this can pinpoint the location of the child (or the child's mobile phone, at least) down to a specific address, and even provide a street view satellite photo image of the exact location. However, depending on the service, and the mobile phone being tracked, the information may not be nearly that accurate.

Mobile phones that are not equipped with GPS are tracked based on proximity to the nearest cell tower. The device can still be tracked, but being able to determine that your child is somewhere in a two-mile radius isn't all that helpful. Home, school, the mall, and many other things might all be within that radius, so the information provide little value in terms of verifying the child's location or ensuring they are safely where they are supposed to be.

Monitor Smartphone Activity

Keeping track of where your children are, and ensuring they make it safely to school and home again is very important. When it comes to inappropriate activity and cyberbullying, though, you need to monitor the activity on the smartphone, rather than its location.

A WebWatcher press release states, "United States teenagers send and receive an average of 3,339 text messages per month. Additionally, adoption of Smartphones among teens ages 13-17 continues to grow, with 94 percent of teen mobile subscribers self-identifying as advanced data users, turning to their cell phones for messaging, Internet, multimedia, gaming, and other activities like downloads (Nielsen)."

Teens engage in all types of inappropriate behavior--it's sort of what defines being a teen to some extent. But sexting--or sending inappropriate photos or comments via SMS messaging--can have serious repercussions, up to and including child pornography charges. Mobile phones, particularly smartphones, can also be used for variety of other interactions ranging from email, to instant messaging, to social network updates which could enable them to be bullied, or bully others.

Parents should also have some idea of what their children are doing with their smartphones. WebWatcher and SpectorSoft both offer products that can be used to monitor and log smartphone activity. WebWatcher Mobile is available for BlackBerry and Android (with an iPhone version planned for late 2011), and it logs all text messaging activity and e-mail messages. Parents can also set up keyword alerts to be instantly notified if specific inappropriate behavior is detected.

Spectorsoft's eBlaster Mobile is also available for both BlackBerry and Android smartphones. eBlaster Mobile provides more comprehensive smartphone monitoring, including logs of every Website visited, every voice call made or received, and detailed GPS mapping info to let you know where the child has been with the smartphone.

With either product, a parent can get some insight into a child's smartphone activity and make sure that it is not being used for inappropriate behavior. Monitoring also helps parents protect children from bullying or harassment, and protect them even when they're away from home.

Be Their Internet Guardian Angels

The PC is another area where parents need to have some way to monitor activity--both to ensure the child is not engaging in undesirable activities, and to guard the child from being a victim of online harassment, or cybercrime. Both WebWatcher and Spectorsoft have PC versions of their monitoring products as well.

The PC versions are more robust than their smartphone counterparts. For example, WebWatcher for the PC monitors other activity such as Websites visited, applications used, and instant messaging. It also logs all keystrokes, and can perform periodic screen captures so you have a visual log of exactly what was on the PC at a given time.

I use Spectorsoft's eBlaster to monitor the activity on my own children's PCs. Like WebWatcher, it gathers details like applications used, and keystrokes typed in addition to the features found in the smartphone version. Where WebWatcher is storing the information on the Web for parents to log in and review, though, eBlaster sends me reports directly via email (Figure 2). I can configure the frequency of the e-mail updates anywhere from one to 999 minutes, or set it for a daily report delivered at a designated time.

Some conventional wisdom suggests that PC activity should be conducted in a common area of the home, and that children should not have PCs in their rooms at all. I understand the logic behind such guidance, but we have eight PCs in a home of six people, and my kids are homeschooled. To have the kids work on their PCs in a common area, I would have to turn the living room into a data center.

Am I being too draconian, or infringing on the independence and privacy of my children? That is a matter of subjective opinion, but obviously I don't think so. I view it as being a sort of guardian angel watching over the computer activity and online interaction of my children. I don't actually review the information in detail on a regular basis, and I would think seriously before intervening even if I found something of concern.

It is not my intent to try and shield my children from the realities of the world, or of the Internet. But, just as movie an video game ratings help determine what types of content are appropriate for children of various ages, I see it as my parental obligation to at least have an idea of what my children are doing with their PCs and smartphones, and to at least have the eBlaster reports to fall back on if any suspicious or concerning behaviors arise.


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