Spy software? 10 other ways to keep your socially-networked kids safe

Spy software, now being offered to monitor kid behavior on social networks, is a bad idea - from both a software and parenting perspective, mostly because the software is ineffective in real-world scenarios and often becomes a substitute for real parenting.

This morning, both Larry Dignan and I received e-mail pitches about a new piece of software called WebWatcher, which is being touted as "the first remote monitoring tool for parents to be able to fully monitor their kids' social networking activity."

In a nutshell, it's spy-on-your-kids software. Concerned parents install it on the computer and then watch remotely as the kids interact on Facebook, Twitter and other sites to make sure that their behavior is appropriate and that they're not being bullied or preyed upon.

In concept, it sounds like a good idea - just like it did when these sorts of products hit the scene in the late 90s as a way of tracking kids' web surfing and IM behavior. The problem is that today, just like back then, these sorts of products do little to address real-world scenarios and, quite frankly, become a substitute for a parent actually doing some parenting.

Case in point: You drop $97 on this piece of software (regularly priced at $169), you install it on your home PC and then you start monitoring what's happening online - unless, of course, that kid is interacting with others over a web-connected mobile phone or by signing into his Facebook account from a PC at school or a friend's home. In those scenarios, that piece of software is useless.

So, here's an idea. Instead of spending money on a piece of software that does little to help you monitor your kids and does everything to betray any trust between parent and child when they realize you're a spy, here are 10 other ways to keep your kids safe in a tech-centric world:

  • Friend your kid on Facebook: Rule No. 1 when it comes to allowing a pre-teen to have a Facebook page should be that the kid must be friends with Mom and/or Dad - or an older relative that can keep an eye on activity. This is a non-negotiable rule. If the kid wants a FB page, then he or she must agree.
  • Friend the parents of your kids' friends: Would you let your kid sleep over at a friend's house without meeting the parents? Parents are all over Facebook (you've seen the kid pics, right?) so why not form an alliance with the parents of kids who are friends with your kids? This also helps you learn a bit more about the parents of these kids and their levels of responsibility - are mom and dad doing Jell-o shots in every picture? Remember: the apple usually doesn't fall far from the tree.
  • Keep the home PC in a common area: Kids are less likely to engage in unsafe behavior if anyone can walk by and see what they're up to. Heck, mom and dad are less likely, as well. Still, keeping laptops out of bedrooms help moms and dads maintain some sort of control over online adventures.
  • Monitor the tweets, Flickr page and YouTube: It's not just Facebook where bad things can happen. What sort of pictures are your kids posting? What are they reading online - and retweeting? What are they watching on YouTube?
  • Monitor the cell phone bill: The itemized bill will tell you what time text messages are being sent and received and to which phone numbers. You'll also be able to watch out for picture and video messages being sent. If your 15-year-old son is sending and receiving pictures at 1 a.m., he may be engaged in some activties that could get him into trouble later.
  • Random cell phone checks: If the parent pays the bill - and most do - then he or she has the right to randomly take possession of the phone. Check the photos and videos on the device. What time are text messages being sent and received? Are any of them threatening in any way - either those being received or sent? Why is it that the text message history is always empty? Are your kids deleting traces of something?
  • How's that browser history? When was the last time you checked the history on the Web browser? Just like the cell phone checks - watch out for empty history logs. Have the kids been deleting their footsteps to throw off a parent's suspicions?
  • Create rules around time and usage: This goes for cell phones and computers. Just like our parents imposed no-TV rules during homework time, the dinner hour or after 9 p.m., parents should impose similar rules around technology. And, more importantly, stick to them.
  • Don't be afraid of a complete shutdown: Pull the power plug on the computer or the modem for a day. Confiscate the cell phones and lock them away for an afternoon while you do something fun. It won't kill your kids - or you - to take a break from technology every now and then.
  • Talk to your kids: I know. A shocker, right? But parents should be talking regularly to their kids about the dangers of bullies and predators, the risks of sharing risque photos and messages, the importance of privacy settings (as opposed to just setting them for the kids and not telling them why.) Let them know why you're doing all of these things and give them a chance to voice their objections or concerns. Don't be afraid to compromise a bit - but stick to the rules that you see as most important.

Of course, all of these rules should be adjusted depending on the age of your kids. Should 5- or 6-year-old kids have a Facebook page? I say no. But others think I'm crazy for letting my teen and pre-teen kids have cell phones and Facebook pages.

The bottom line here is that spy software, while effective at monitoring activity on the computer where it's installed, should not be a substitute for smart parenting. Personally, I can't see myself ever installing spy software to watch my kids. My wife and I have been talking to them about the dangers of bullies and predators - at school, at the mall, at the neighborhood park - since they've been old enough to understand.

As parents, we can't keep our eyes on them around the clock - especially as they get older and become more independent. If you want them to trust you and confide in you, start talking to them when they're young and reassure them that you trust them - but not others.

Putting spy software on your computer - and risking them finding about it later - sends a message that you really didn't trust them after all.

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