Getting Started with Social Media: What is Parental Control (PC) Software, Anyway?

Web Access Computer
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Judging from the email that we’ve received at Online Social Savvy (onlinesocialsavvy@gmail.com) over the last few days, many parents are just getting started with parental control (PC) software. So, if you’re in this category, you are not alone. In fact, PC software and services are a category of software which has been around since about 2004 - but with many new entrants and options having been introduced just within the last six months.

First Things First: Why Use PC Software?

The first thing to know about PC software, is its intended purpose: it is intended to help you, as parents, to monitor and control your child’s online activities. You need to monitor and control how and when your children operate online, to keep them safe, to teach them proper social media manners, and to widen their world.

Software helps you to do this by automating the monitoring tasks. Often, parents need this extra assistance – because otherwise they cannot keep up with the technical sophistication of their children. However, PC software is just a tool: using it does not replace the need for active involvement with your child’s online world.

The Many Types of PC Software: Which Type Works Best For You?

PC software comes in many flavors, with more types and varieties seemingly offered every week. The type and variety that you need, will depend a lot on these factors:

  • How old is your child?
  • How active is your child online?
  • How much do you trust your child to follow your rules?
  • What types of online forums does your child use?
  • Does your child have a mobile phone with text, email, and Internet capabilities?

To make it easier for you to sort out the types of PC software available, I am providing an introduction here of the categories of PC tools available. You can find more details on the products and services in these categories as well as links to their web sites, in our “Round-Up of Parental Control Tools for the Web.” An updated download is located on our Resources page.

The latest version of the Round-Up is dated Jan 31 as of this writing, and we are constantly updating it – so check it often.

Browser and Forum Settings

Without purchasing any tool at all, you can take advantage of the settings offered with most forums, browsers, and messaging systems. For example, Facebook has privacy settings with which every parent should become familiar; a good source for learning about these privacy settings, is Connect Safely’s “Parent’s Guide to Facebook“. WhatsWhat.me, a new social forum introduced for tweens that we blogged about a few weeks ago, is another good example of how a forum by its design can help keep kids safer online.

As another example, Microsoft Internet Explorer – the most popular browser in use – offers Content Advisor capabilities with pretty good options for setting and adjusting which sites your children can view with the browser. Settings are password controlled by you. Sites are restricted by categories which include: language, nudity, sex and violence. You can also create a list of “white-listed” and “black-listed” sites, which will be viewable or blocked respectively, regardless of their ratings. Microsoft’s Content Advisor capabilities are available, by selecting Internet Options from the Tools menu in the browser. Microsoft also provides comprehensive Help information for selecting the options that you need.

Search Engines and Browsers for Kids

There are search engines designed for kids, which filter out offensive content and web sites. Examples of these types of search engines, include Yahoo! Kids (formerly Yahooligans) and KidsClick. Browsers for kids include Hoopah Kidview, Kidz CD and KidZui. Kid-safe browsers preselect kid-friendly online sites, and offer games, homework assistance, and other kid pleasers.

Filtering Software

Filters most often use keywords to restrict content, and also can include sophisticated methods for restricting offensive images, as well. Internet filters are the most popular, and include Bsecure CloudCare, CyberPatrol, CYBERsitter, Ice Web Filter, iShield Plus, K9 Web Protection, MouseMail, Net Nanny, Norton Internet Control, Panda Platinum Internet Security, Parental Control Bar, and Safe Eyes. Internet filters often also include security features, to block malware, for example.

Filters are available focused on porn, including Porn Terminator and Snitch.

Filters are also available focused on email and chat software, such as OnlyMyEmail and Safe Chat Universal Messenger. These add more filtering control, than the settings built into AOL, for example.

Security Software and Firewalls with Parental Control Features

Just as filtering tools sometimes offer security features, security products sometimes offer parental control features. Notably, Symantec’s popular Norton security software offers Online Family parental controls. NETGEAR offers free parental control capabilities available for its popular Internet modem and firewall. iBoss also offers parental control features, as does ZyXEL. Check with your Internet connection device manufacturer, to see what parental control features may be available for you.

Personal Accountability Software

For teens too old for parental monitoring, or for young adults no longer under parental supervision, personal accountability software enables self-monitoring and self-policing capabilities designed to help individuals break bad online habits – like visiting porn sites. Recommended by therapists in some cases, these tools include Saavi Accountability and X3watch.

Personal Computer Monitoring and Control Software

Rather than filtering Internet access, perhaps you would rather monitor every activity that happens on your PC. Products that enable this level of monitoring include: ComputerTime, Hoopah Kidview Computer Explorer, KidsWatch, Mom Says No, NetIntelligence, PC Acme Monitor, PC Home Software, PC Pandora, PC Tattletale, Peanut Butter PC, SentryAtHome, SnoopStick from Cybersitter, Spector Pro, Time Boss, and Web Watcher.

Some of these tools include great time control features with built-in kid-motivating incentives, like earning computer time and setting appropriate computer-use limits. If you are interested in this category, make sure that you check out what Microsoft provides for free, with Windows Live Family Software.

Forum-Focused Monitoring and Parental Control

If you need to monitor what your child is doing – and saying – within a social forum, then a forum-savvy solution may be just what you need. GoGoStat offers Parental Guidance control as a free service, for Facebook. MouseMail offers a free service which includes FaceBook, MySpace, Twitter and mobile phones. SafetyWeb offers something similar.

You may also find that applications, like Noodlenet, offer parental control features along with their specific application capabilities.

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Social Media Full Disclosure: Working with Your Child to Manage Online Accounts

walking together
Image by naoK via Flickr

Trust, Empathy and Communication

When it comes to working with children to manage their online accounts, there are a few basic things everyone should ask themselves.  It should be noted here that every child is different, so deciding on how closely you manage your child’s online accounts will depend on several factors.  Is there two way trust between you and your teenager?  Is there an open line of communication between you and your teenager, and is there a solid relationship of listening and understanding between you?  All of these are factors in not only understanding what your child does online, but deciding how closely to track their online activities as well.

Ask yourself a few questions and answer them as honestly as you possibly can:

  1. Does my child come to me for advice and/or direction on life issues regularly?
  2. Does my child regularly communicate to me about how things are going in their school life and personal life outside of the home?
  3. If yes to 1 and/or 2, are these discussions rational and non-combative most of the time?
  4. Do I know what my child does online?

I do realize that some children are more secretive than others.  It should be noted that all children keep secrets from their parents, and that many of those secrets are not dangerous by nature.  I do want to make it clear that the questions above will help you perform an honest audit of how in tune you are with what your child might be doing online.  If you answered NO to two or more of these questions, you may have a secretive teen.  I should stress here that this doesn’t mean you’re a bad parent.  Maybe the child has an independent streak in them.  Maybe they’re hiding something they don’t want you to know about because they think they’d get in trouble.  There are a lot of possible reasons folks might answer NO to these questions.  I will talk about mitigation strategies for secretive teens later on in this posting.

Start Early, Reinforce Often

Your child’s online persona may begin as early as age 5.  Maybe they want to play flash games on a (very safe) kid gaming site such as Neopets, or maybe you’ve bought them a Webkinz plushy and they want to register their toy!  It’s actually pretty amazing watching kids this age become savvy online; I highly recommend starting this process early if you have young children.

Here’s how to set them up for online social savvy at an early age:

  1. Help them create an account on Gmail or some other free email service
  2. Write down their account name, and their password, in a Notepad file on your computer.
  3. Save that notepad file to a USB stick, then either bury that file somewhere extremely obscure in your filesystem, or just delete it from your computer
  4. Now, create an account for them on whatever site it is they want to participate on, use their new email as the registered email address for that online account.
  5. Open your notepad file back up, and write down the account name and password of that new account you’ve created and save it back to your USB stick.
  6. Repeat steps 4 and 5 for every account they want to create.
  7. Log in to a few random accounts every once in a while to verify that they have not changed their password(s).  Log back out if you are able to log in.

Now, some of you are probably thinking “That’s great. What if I didn’t do that right from the start?”.  You’re in a position now where you know your child has created online accounts and you’re not sure you can find out what they all are.  Many folks are probably in a similar situation, so you’re not alone. Here’s where the trust and communication bit come back into play:

  1. Sit down with your child and explain to them rationally that it is your job as a parent to protect them from danger.
  2. Talk about how the Internet CAN be a dangerous place.  Be prepared to have facts to back you up.  You don’t have to scare the hell out of them to convince them, but make sure you do have a good rational argument.
  3. Ask them to talk about all of the online user accounts they have, and tell them that you need to know what the usernames and passwords are for those accounts.  Start with their email accounts and continue working with them until you’ve got them all.
  4. Tell them that you only need to know this in case of major concern or in case of emergency.  Electronic paper trails can be a powerful thing to have control over.
  5. Log in to those accounts to verify that they have actually given you the correct login credentials.
  6. Write their account name and password in a notepad file, save that file to a USB stick, and then bury that file in an obscure folder on your filesystem, or delete the file entirely.
  7. Repeat steps 3-6 for all of their online accounts.

Mitigation Strategies for Secretive Kids

If you think your kid might be engaging in activities online without your knowledge, here are some mitigation strategies that should allow you to figure out what they’re up to.  Consider it this way:  If you would not send your child outside on a cold day without a jacket, you should take the same care to protect them online as well!  Here are some tips:

  1. Don’t allow them to have a computer in their room.  Only allow them to go online on a computer in a common area of your home.  This is a very effective mitigation strategy and is the first thing I would do to mitigate risk.
  2. After they have used the computer, go into the browser and look at the internet history and Cookies folders.  There is a pretty strong electronic paper-trail that most children are not savvy enough to delete.  You can look through the history file and look at every web site they visited during their session on the Internet.  You can look in the cookies folder for site names that they have logged into.  I will go into more detail as to how to read your cookies folder in a later post.
  3. If you check the Cookies folder and internet history files after they have used the computer, and both of those areas are completely empty, that means they have deliberately deleted their history right before they got up from the computer.  This should raise a red flag that they are trying to conceal where they have been on the Internet.
  4. If you have done all of the above, and you still are not confident that you know what your kid is up to online, consider investing in a Parental Control tool.  Which tool you purchase depends on what you want to get out of it.
    • Some tools “block” or “blacklist” dangerous or obscene Internet sites.
    • Some tools log every keystroke that your child makes on their keyboard.
    • Some tools “whitelist” safe sites, and don’t allow your child to visit any other sites.
    • Some tools only allow you to track activity on a single site, such as Facebook.
    • You can find a complete list of these types of tools in our “Round-Up of Parental Control Tools for the Web.” An updated download is located on our Resources page.
  5. If none of the above mitigation strategies work, it might be time to restrict or disallow your child Internet access entirely.  This should be a last resort when all other avenues have failed.

There is a lot more to say on this topic.  I will touch on more advanced topics in future blog posts!

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SM for Social Good: NJ Teen Fights Bullying with Text Messaging

Texting on a keyboard phone
Image via Wikipedia

As reported by the Associated Press and CBS, a 14yo teen in New Jersey has launched an anti-bullying program which uses text messaging systems as “report and support” lines for students.

After being the target of bullies and seeing the devastating effects on peers, Ashley Craig spent 8 months researching and planning before presenting her program proposal to the High Point Board of Education.

“She Designed the System Based on Her Generation”

Ashley’s program is called Students Against Being Bullied. As its first step, it relies on two text messaging systems and email for teens. The two text lines are monitored between 7am and 5pm daily. The first line is intended for teens to report bullying incidents in real-time. The second is for teens to request support and counseling assistance. Email is available at all times.

School administrators and counselors will monitor the text and email, and provide appropriate assistance.

“I hope that students will no longer feel as though they have to hold back on what they are experiencing or what they are watching other students experience,” Ashley is reported as stating. “With this ‘Report and Support Line,’ students will no longer feel as if they have no one to talk to, that the only way to resolve their issues is to take their own lives.”

Ashley designed the system using texting and email, based on her knowledge of how teens communicate – along with her research showing that most teens own mobile phones with text capabilities. After listening to Ashley’s proposal, the school board approved the plan. They will pay for the two text plans required to support the plan, estimated at $900 annually.

New Jersey is noted as having the strictest anti-bullying policy in the nation, since passing a statute in November of 2010.

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