Any parents concerned about children's safety is going to keep an eye on what their kids do online—be it to protect them from predators, keep them from visiting inappropriate Web sites, prevent downloading of harmful software, or some combination of all three.
Computer security company Symantec (SYMC) recently introduced Internet watchdog software, OnlineFamily.Norton, aimed at assisting in the effort. But rather than just helping parents spy, Symantec says the software is designed to foster household cooperation, incorporating features that encourage kids and parents to have a dialogue about what sites are being visited.
Symantec's Web monitoring software relies heavily on a Web site, www.onlinefamily.norton.com, that parents can use to set parameters for their children's Web visits, then check on where they ended up. There's still software to install; a downloadable program called the Safety Minder collects information about where a child has been online. But parents interact with the software through the OnlineFamily site after creating an account they can access from any PC running Microsoft's (MSFT) Windows or from an Apple (AAPL) Mac.
Working Out the Kinks
Using the software, parents assign names to each person's computer log-in. I tested the software on a PC running Windows Vista and found OnlineFamily.Norton delivered simple-to-understand summaries of the sites visited by each logged-in user. But the software is overly restrictive at times. Facebook is blocked by default, for example. And unblocking sites took several hours, which could be too slow if a child needs immediate access to a site, for instance to complete a school assignment. And there were glitches; in one instance, the activity summary for one account I set up simply wouldn't load.
Symantec has some time to work out the kinks. OnlineFamily is free until Jan. 1, when the company plans to start charging about $60 a year for a subscription.
The company's pitch centers on simplicity and cooperation. When parents set up the software and enter their kids' ages, they also establish a set of "house rules" that automatically blocks certain broad categories of sites, including those related to pornography, drugs, suicide, tobacco, even lingerie. Categories can also be customized. The software's screens also make it uncomplicated for parents to tell at a glance what sites a child has visited, and even what search terms they have typed into sites like Google (GOOG), YouTube, and Wikipedia. Kids always know they're being monitored, and it's easy for them to request access to a blocked site. But unless they're skilled at hacking, they won't be able to override controls without a password set by parents.
At many steps in the process of surfing the Web, the software encourages kids to have a conversation with their parents about what they're doing. For example, when I tried to visit Facebook from one of the dummy accounts I set up for my test, Symantec's Safety Minder displayed a page that warned "You are not allowed to go to this site" in large letters. A message in smaller type said, "You may not know it, but www.facebook.com is considered a 'discussion and social networking site.' " Children then have three choices: to say they made a mistake; fill in a box that tells their parents why they tried to visit the blocked site; or check an option that says they don't think the site should be barred.
Parents and Kids' Dialogue Starter
Kids also know they're being monitored courtesy of a small icon in Windows' system tray at the bottom of the screen. And they can view the "house rules" parents lay down at any time.
Symantec's OnlineFamily software adds an element of cooperation between parents and kids to the category of Web monitoring software that is by nature more about surveillance than dialogue. I encountered a few technical problems, and it's hard to decipher why the company included some of the categories parents can elect to block—among them sites about "art," "business," and "politics." But the product should be applauded for at least trying to get kids in on the conversation about what constitutes acceptable online behavior.