How to Invade Their Space
To snoop or not to snoop: That's the dilemma. If the decision is yes, you've got plenty of help. Parental angst about children's online lives has spawned a mini-industry in tracking and blocking products; the newest are designed specifically to monitor kids' social networks.
BeNetSafe ($10 monthly or $50 yearly at benetsafe.com), launched last month by two entrepreneurial dads of MySpace users, offers daily reports on up to three kids and how they're advertising themselves online. First, the service helps you find their profiles-which are typically posted under a nickname-by using such clues as school and interests. It then flags any revealing information, such as real name and hometown (MySpace forbids actual addresses and phone numbers), and lets you know whether or not the profile is public. A private profile, highly recommended for teens, reveals information only to people the teen has OK'd.
You also get a summary of "friends" linked to the profile, including their ages, schools, and sexual orientation-though faking is common. BeNetSafe plans to scan other social-networking sites, including Xanga, starting this week. Other monitoring services include those at myspaceWatch.com and SafeSpacers.com.
There have been some concerns (though no indication) that MySpace might challenge the monitoring ventures, since the company says it alone controls commercial use of data posted on the site. That's reportedly a reason one service, KidQuery, recently decided to fold. But BeNetSafe executives have met with the company, says Brad Weber, a BeNetSafe founder, and report that "they only seemed concerned that we might be picking on MySpace alone."
MySpace mania is also pumping up sales of filtering software, long used to block access to Internet porn. Safe Eyes 2006, for example, charges $50 a year to monitor the online activity of three computers and block kids from calling up dangerous sites. Like most filtering software, Safe Eyes can prevent your child from getting to MySpace, period. Or it can record what he does there and save it in a password-protected log.
For parents who want a record of a child's every single move, more specialized key-logging programs offer the most comprehensive trails. They can record sites visited, Web searches, and every word exchanged in chats. The new version of Spector Pro out this week ($100) includes a "top 10" list of the most frequent activities undertaken on the PC and adds MySpace to covered territory. (More on these and other parental tools appears at usnews.com/davesdownload.)
Be warned that savvy kids might well end-run the tech nannies, perhaps by using a friend's computer or taking on a new MySpace identity. And no technology can trump ongoing communication about Internet dangers, says Aaron Kenny, one of two brothers who developed Safe Eyes. "We're providing a tool," he says. It's up to parents to parent.
This story appears in the September 18, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.