Social media monitoring services stir debate

Some companies offer services that update parents when children post unsafe information online.

As cyber bullying and inappropriate online behaviors become more commonplace in today’s technology-rich world, some companies are offering services that alert parents when their children are at risk or are misbehaving on a social network. Critics say the services amount to spying, but supporters say they open lines of communication and help children understand what is and is not acceptable online.

The services typically work like this: A parent opens a Facebook account and runs the monitoring service as an application. Once the parent and child are “friends” on Facebook, the parent invites the child to run the monitoring service as an application on the child’s own Facebook account.

When the child accepts the application, the parent is notified and able to view their child’s Facebook activities only when the service detects pre-selected words or phrases that the parent deems worrisome or inappropriate. Some services also send notifications when children establish new friendships on Facebook, or when their children are tagged in photos on the site.

Social media monitoring services include:



AOL Safe Social

Company representatives say the services are necessary even if a parent and child are “friends” on a social networking site, because sites such as Facebook let users choose how much personal information—including wall posts and photos—their different friends can see. These monitoring services notify parents regardless of the parent’s permission status.

Chicago-based TrueCare introduced a social media monitoring service that tracks a child’s use of popular social networking services, including Facebook and Twitter, for inappropriate content.

Parents are notified with real-time alerts whenever questionable content is found on a child’s social networking profile. TrueCare sends an eMail with the full content and context of the post, along with a link to the page.

The $9.99-a-month service will search a child’s social media accounts, including posts, photo captions, and friends’ posts, for more than 500 keywords from categories such as bullying, suicide, and drugs. It also includes an online reference dictionary of slang and acronyms.

“These problems, whether they be cyber bullying, damaged reputations, or online predators, are real issues that our kids deal with,” said David Barker, product manager for TrueCare. “Parents, schools, and teachers lack the tools, and perhaps the resources, to help kids protect themselves.”

And as more news headlines feature reports of cyber bullying among students of all ages, parents and teachers may need to play a more active role in their children’s social networking practices.

“It’s unfortunate that over the last year in particular, we see more and more of these stories where kids are just being really nasty to one another online,” Barker said. “We definitely think there’s a need right now, for parents and teachers.”

Still, TrueCare helps create a dialogue between schools, parents, and children, so they can all work together and send the same message on creating safe social networking habits, he said.

“We don’t want to take this technology away from kids, because this is the way they live, communicate, and exchange information,” Barker said. “We need to find a way to educate them on the best way to go about using social networks.”

Part of that education should include how online communication differs from face-to-face communication, he said.

Barker and his team are visiting schools and talking with principals, administrators, and teachers about TrueCare in an attempt to increase parental awareness about children’s online and social networking behavior.

Barker said he hopes to get teacher feedback on how TrueCare can help educators communicate with their students and make social networks a safer environment.

Another service, GoGoStat Parental Guidance from Schakra, runs as an application on a child’s Facebook page. Parents and children define rules and criteria to be monitored on Facebook, and then exchange a security code offline to ensure that only parents monitor the child’s Facebook. The cloud-based service is free.

Once these steps are complete, Parental Guidance notifies parents about potentially harmful details in their children’s profiles, such as exposed contact information that might lead to unsafe situations. Parents receive alerts if established rules are violated, inappropriate text is posted, new friends are made, and when photos of their children are uploaded.  The Parental Notification database includes acronyms, curse words, and slang terms.

Ron Stevenson, a product Manager at Schakra, said the company envisions GoGoStat Parental Guidance as a way for parents and teachers to work together.

“With cyber bullying, most parents think their child is the victim, and they don’t always think their child might be the [one bullying],” Stevenson said. “When parents see these notifications pop up, they can tell their child’s teacher that they keep seeing certain names or things come up” and can ask the teacher if their child is having problems with people in school or is causing problems for other students.

“The relationship between parents and teens as the teens get older is interesting,” Stevenson said. “What boundaries does the teen have? Most don’t like it when their parents want to ‘friend’ them and look over their shoulder.”

Stevenson said children are more likely to accept a monitoring service if they know parents are only notified when pre-selected or flagged language appears.

Some parents might be tempted to block social networking sites from home computers or home networks. This, Stevenson said, does not educate children about appropriate and inappropriate online behavior, and it also does not keep children from accessing those sites in other places, such as at a public library, friend’s computer, or smartphone.

Informed parenting versus snooping

Lori Getz, founder of Cyber Education Consultants, said there exists a delicate balance between children’s online privacy and their safety, and open discussions about social networking can help children remain safe.

“Setting expectations by maintaining a presence while respecting boundaries will help guide children to making the right decisions about their social networking behavior,” she said.

Children are likely to be more receptive to the application if they know parents aren’t standing over their shoulders reading every social networking communication.

“We don’t want this to be used as spyware,” he said. “The child has to know the application is running on their social networking site and has to grant permission.”

“It’s a tool that will help parents engage their children and be more involved” in their children’s online lives, Barker said. “Parents aren’t reading every post; they’re only alerted to what’s harmful, and they have the opportunity to start a dialogue if they do see things that are inappropriate.”

Barker said parents who snoop in children’s computers and on their social networking profiles have a harder time bringing up worrisome material because the parent must first explain why he or she snooped and how the information was discovered.

“[We] need to educate kids on how to handle these situations when they come up, whether it’s bullying, someone asking for personal information, what to post and not to post, etc.,” he said.

While acknowledging that parents want to protect children from harm online and off, “employing social network monitoring services to monitor your son or daughter’s Facebook account is misguided for several reasons,” wrote Christine Greenhow, an assistant professor in the University of Maryland’s College of Education & College of Information Studies (iSchool), in an eMail to eSchool News.

“First, while it’s true that young people face risks online, these are often the same risks that they face offline (bullying, encountering problematic content, sexual solicitation) and despite publicity surrounding unfortunate incidents, the majority of social networking teens do not experience these harmful behaviors,” she said.

Some parents may not realize how personal their child’s Facebook account is and how highly it is valued.

“Parents might cringe at the thought of installing hidden cameras in their child’s bedroom, school cafeteria, or friend’s house or eavesdropping on a cell phone conversation, but this is, in a sense, what such services advocate,” Greenhow said. “A better solution is education, not infiltration.”

Greenhow said using such services could be “potentially harmful to effective parenting practices such as establishing trust, discussing responsible, ethical online and offline practices and educating one’s children on potentially risky behaviors.”

She suggested parents become familiar with social networking websites and open their own accounts to gain a sense of how the sites work and what privacy settings are available.

Parents may be pleasantly surprised by their children’s behavior while on social networking websites.

“In my research with high school students, I’ve found that high school social networkers rarely friend people they don’t already know or who do not come recommended through their existing network,” Greenhow said. “I’ve also found that young people’s social networking practices can have positive effects on their relationships…Over time we might find that such positive effects on their relationships may benefit students’ sense of social belonging and ultimately, their success in school.”

GoGoStat’s Stevenson said the service is designed for kids ages 12-16, “where parents still have some ability to influence behavior, provide some guidance, and where, hopefully, some trust still exists between kids and their parents.”

And it may be more alarming when parents do not want to be involved in their children’s social networking use, he added.

“Our biggest concern is parents who simply don’t care,” he said, recounting a recent time when he explained GoGoStat Parental Guidance to a former co-worker. “After describing Parental Guidance to her, she said, ‘Oh, when it comes to what my kids are doing on Facebook, I don’t want to know,’ and just shook her head.  That, to me, is the scariest approach of all.”

Greenhow said that too much monitoring could have the opposite impact on a parent’s relationship with his or her children.

“My concern is that social network monitoring services could short-change the parent-child (and the teacher-student) relationships, shut down these educational conversations, and move teenagers from sharing to silence, which is something that no parent, educator, citizens – none of us wants.”

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Laura Ascione

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