Now, parents can hire a hall monitor for the web

Now, parents can hire a hall monitor for the web

So it comes as no surprise that, after years of headlines and horror stories about predators, cyberbullies and other dangers to children online, a crop of subscription services has emerged to help parents monitor their child’s activities on social networks.
These start-ups aim to distinguish themselves from the older category of software products like NetNanny. Such products sit on a user’s hard drive, primarily to block various Web sites.

New companies

The new companies include SafetyWeb, based in Denver; SocialShield, of San Mateo, Calif.; and MyChild, a service of ReputationDefender, in Redwood City, Calif. These services scour the Web to create easily digestible reports for parents of everything a child is doing online. The companies charge for subscriptions; the lowest costs $10 a month or $100 a year.

Both SafetyWeb and SocialShield start by asking for a few pieces of information about a child, including his or her e-mail address and the family’s physical address. Then they look through various social networks, checking to see where the child has accounts and monitoring his/her content.

“If it’s good, we’ll tell you about it and if it’s something to be concerned about, we will tell you as well,” said Geoffrey Arone, chief of SafetyWeb.

The services look only for material that is publicly available, which is part of their value. When it comes to Facebook, often the centre of children’s online lives, SafetyWeb takes a more discreet and privacy-respecting approach. It asks parents to link their Facebook account to the service. If a parent is not a Facebook friend of the child, SafetyWeb can do little more than record the existence of the child’s account. By contrast, SocialShield asks the child, not the parent, to link his or her Facebook account to the monitoring service. That gives SocialShield constant access to a child’s Facebook account, even if they are not friends.

However, neither service can offer truly comprehensive protection from threats like cyberbullying. They miss private e-mail exchanges between children, as well as anything that happens over a cellphone. The companies however, say they are working on mobile components.

Parry Aftab, executive director of WiredSafety, says the services are no substitute for good parenting techniques. “I don’t think they work terribly well, and I think they are far too expensive for what they do,” she said.

“We are not trying to do any fear-mongering,” said Roger Lee, a partner at Battery Ventures, which has invested in SafetyWeb. “Parents don’t need SafetyWeb and anyone else to scare them. We are just trying to give them a product to help solve the problem.”

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