Should You Spy on Your Kid's Online Life?

Want to Find Out What Your Kid is Doing Online?

It's 4:00 on a weekday. You're at the office, but your kids are already home from school. Soon, they'll be going online to chat with friends: Facebook, instant-messaging, video-chatting. You can't help but wonder, is all this online communication safe? Who are they talking to? Can they post something that'll get them in trouble? Could they be cyberbullied?

What are the options? As parents, we have few things we can do. We can check browser histories, friend our kids, make agreements with our kids about which sites are appropriate to visit, and place limits on the kinds of discussions that can happen online.

But if you have more serious concerns about what your kids are up to online, a new breed of parental control software may tempt you. They're called web monitors and they're different from the web blockers and content filters you've probably heard of. Web monitors scour the Internet for references to your child's name -- from their online profiles on Facebook, to their tweets on Twitter, to photos they're identified in.

How Web Tracking Works

For a monthly subscription or download fee, programs like SocialShield, SafetyWeb, and AOL's SafeSocial offer a window on your kid's online activities. You can see all of the social networks they're registered on, their friends' names, their photos, their videos, and the comments they've written. They'll also red-flag any connections that look questionable. A friend who isn't connected to any of your kid's other friends -- and whose other social networks are all adult-oriented -- would be brought to your attention. But there is a catch: these web monitors will only uncover public information. Any information your kid has set to "private" won't show up.

There are some programs you can install on your computer that act more like a stealth computer spy than a web monitor. WebWatcher, for example, records every keystroke your kid makes. Other programs can cough up all of the information your PC has ever processed, including deleted files and passwords. A transcript lets you read everything your kid types, including instant-message conversations.

All of the programs have technology that checks for "alert" words, like drugs and sex, and will call your attention to any conversations that have those words. You can even program them to email you when a specific word or phrase appears, like "new bike," for example.

Some of the programs work invisibly, without letting your kids know they're being monitored.

Curiosity…or Snooping?

Curiosity about what these programs might uncover is hard to resist. Several programs let you test drive them -- and the results may leave you wanting to know more. But it's hard to know whether your nagging suspicions really warrant the programs' hefty costs -- not to mention the lack of trust your kids may feel when you tell them what you're up to. Remember, the teen years are about exploration and trial and error. Your kids will do things online that may not be harmful but may not be ideal either.

Still, you do want to help your teens avoid the pitfalls of social networking. What they do online creates a record of who they are, and poor online judgment can affect their reputations. Not only that, in today's social networking world, your kids can be identified by their friends, who may tag them in photos or even tell people where they are. Web monitoring programs can give you a picture of just how much of your kid's information is on the Internet. And some of the programs can actually help you do something about it.

How to Decide

Think web monitoring is for you? The following questions can help you decide:

Do I need this? Ask yourself if there is any real reason to worry. Have you heard reports from friends that something is wrong? Can you find non-technical ways of figuring out if your kids are using safe and best practices (like asking your kids to friend you on Facebook or show you their text messages, or checking browser histories)? If you don't feel you can get the information you need, then these programs can show how much personal information your kids are leaving behind.

Are they necessary? This is a judgment call. You know your kid. For some, frequent conversations about responsible online behavior and the importance of privacy settings will be enough to keep their activities on the safe side. But with other kids, you may have legitimate concerns that they may not be able to keep themselves adequately safe. If that's the case, consider trying one of the programs for a month. Approach these programs, as well as the conversation with your kid, as one tool you can use to determine their digital footprint and help them stay safe.

Do they work? Technically, yes. The web monitors we tried returned a respectable amount of information that you couldn't find out on your own. But since they only find public information, there may be lots of stuff you just won't be able to see unless your kid actually shows you. And none of the programs is a good substitute for real conversations about safe and responsible online behavior.

Will I feel like a spy? Probably. SocialShield, SafetyWeb, and AOL's SafeSocial all work better the more information you plug in to your search. You'll need at least your kid's email address (and for some, their passwords), but their cell phone number, home address, and other info makes the results more accurate. The programs encourage you to talk with your teen about why you want to use these programs, and recommend that you stress the program's safety value.

Will they prevent cyberbullying? No. The better programs on the market make no claims about stopping cyberbullying, predators, or sexting. None of the programs can make your kid entirely safe online -- and we found some that overstate online threats to scare parents. What they can do is give you a sense of the scope of your kid's online trail and reinforce the importance of privacy settings.

Product Details

AOL SafeSocial; $9.99/mo
What parents need to know: 30-day free trial offer; doesn't require kid's email passwords, but kids have to connect you to their social networks; toll-free help covers product support only, not guidance on handling specific social networking problems.
Best for: Newbies. AOL provides a lot of set-up guidance to new users, and the product is marketed as a tool parents and kids can use in partnership.

SafetyWeb; $10/mo; $100/year
What parents need to know: Requires only child's email address (not passwords); logs cell phone calls and texts; robust website links parents to helpful resources; Toll-free help and email support to help parents solve problems; no free trial offer (free first search only).
Best for: Families with older kids. This product stresses the importance of managing your kid's online reputation.

SocialShield; $10/mo; $96/year
What parents need to know: 30-day free trial offer; requires you to either log-in as your kid (with their password) or requires them to connect you to every social network they use; email support offers guidance on handling social networking problems; company website isn't well-maintained.
Best for: Facebook users. Although it checks other social networks, SocialShield started as a Facebook monitor.

WebWatcher; $97
What parents need to know: 7-day toll-free support; monitors computer use only; doesn't monitor social networks but records all of your kid's conversations; PC only.
Best for: Parents who think their kid may be at risk for serious issues like suicide, cyberbullying, or questionable relationships.