June 26, 2012

With the help of software, parents take to e-hovering

When her children were ready to have laptops of their own, Jill Ross bought software that would keep an eye on where they went online. One day it offered her a real surprise. She discovered that her 16-year-old daughter had set up her own video channel.

When her children were ready to have laptops of their own, Jill Ross bought software that would keep an eye on where they went online. One day it offered her a real surprise. She discovered that her 16-year-old daughter had set up her own video channel.

Using the camera on her laptop, sometimes in her bedroom, she and a friend were recording mundane teenage banter and broadcasting it on YouTube for the whole world to see.

For Ross, who lives outside Denver, it was a window into her daughter’s mind and an emblem of the strange new hurdles of modern-day parenting. She did not mention it to her daughter; she just subscribed to the channel’s updates. The daughter said nothing either; she just let Mom keep watching.

“It’s a matter of knowing your kids,” Ross said of her discovery.

Parents can now use an array of tools to keep up with the digital lives of their children, raising new quandaries. Is surveillance the best way to protect children? Or should parents trust them to share if they are scared or bewildered by something online?

The answers are as varied as parents themselves. Still, the anxieties of parenting in the digital age have spawned a mini-industry, as startups and established companies market new tools to track where children go online, who they meet there and what they do. Because children are glued to smartphones, the technology can allow parents to track their physical whereabouts and even monitor their driving speed.

If, a few years ago, the emphasis was on blocking children from going to inappropriate sites on the family computer, today’s technologies promise to embed Mom and Dad — and occasionally Grandma — inside every device that children are using and gather intelligence on them wherever they go.

A smartphone application alerts Dad if his son is texting while driving. An online service helps parents keep tabs on every chat, post and photo that floats across their children’s Facebook pages. And another scans the Web in case a child decides to try a new social network that the grown-ups haven’t even heard of yet.

The spread of cellphones and tablets in the hands of children has complicated matters, giving rise to applications that attract the young and worry parents. Earlier this month, for instance, came revelations that an app designed for flirting, called Skout, had led to three sexual assault cases involving children across the country. Even on Facebook, studies have repeatedly shown, there are plenty of children younger than 13, the minimum age for members, and many of them join with help and supervision from their parents.

The average U.S. family uses five Internet-enabled devices at home, including smartphones, a recent survey by Cox Communications and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children found, while barely 1 in 5 parents uses parental controls on those devices.

In Richmond, Va., Mary Cofield, 62, is one of the careful ones. She struck a deal with her 15-year-old granddaughter last year. The girl was offered an Android phone with full Internet privileges, so long as Grandma could monitor her every move.

“My theory is, you’ve got to be in the game to help them know what’s wrong and what’s right,” she said. “Keeping them from it is not going to work. You can either be out there with them in the game — or they’ll be out there without you.”

Cofield, a retired government tax agent who runs an online travel business, chose a tool called, which combs the granddaughter’s Facebook page and text messages. UKnowKids sends her alerts about inappropriate language. It also offers Cofield a dashboard of the child’s digital activities, including what she says on Twitter, whom she texts and what photos she is tagged in on Facebook. It translates teenage slang into plain English she can understand: “WUD” is shorthand for “What are you doing?” Cofield checks it daily.

Often, she says, she gleans when the girl is having trouble with a boy or when there’s conflict among friends. Most often, Cofield knows to keep her mouth shut.

“Being privy to that information and not using it is also difficult,” she confessed. “If I did that, she would definitely go underground. I would be hopping on her every day.”

Surveys, including by the Pew Research Center, have found that two-thirds of parents do check their children’s digital footprints and nearly 40 percent follow them on Facebook and Twitter. But the Pew study suggests that this monitoring is also likely to lead to arguments between parent and child.

Independent measurements of the market for family safety tools are hard to come by, and most companies do not release sales information. But that the market is large — and growing — is evident in two things: Every security company and cellphone carrier is pitching such products, and startups in this field are popping up every month. Symantec says it added 1 million new subscribers to its Norton Online Family service last year.

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