New monitoring tools for parents can foil Facebook bullies and predators

Schakra –  a Redmond, Wash.-based startup co-founded by ex-Microsoft executives –  is launching a tool called “GoGoStat Parental Guidance” designed to help parents protect their children online. Initially, Parental Guidance is free and only works with Facebook, but plans call for adding other social networks, as well as a  paid, premium version later this year. Also this week a company called SocialShield is rolling out a similar parental monitoring tool that works on Facebook, Twitter and MySpace; it costs $10 a month, after an initial 14-day free trial.  In this LastWatchdog guest blog posting Ron Stevenson, Schakra’s co-founder and product manager, explains why parents should welcome the arrival of tools like Parental Guidance and SocialShield.

By Ron Stevenson

Many children now feel compelled to participate in online conversations.  As these “digital natives” start spending more time on Facebook during the summer months, they face rising exposure to cyberbullying and inappropriate online contacts.

Cyberbullying and online sexual predation are profound problems. The tragic suicide of Phoebe Prince in Massachusetts illustrates just how terrified and isolated one can feel as the target of constant cyberbullying from peers. The article Why Kids Bully, by safety expert Lori Getz, offers excellent insight on this subject.

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Meanwhile, one in five U.S. teenagers who regularly log on to the Internet say they have received an unwanted sexual solicitation via the Web. And 75% of children who are  sexually solicited  online do not tell a parent, according to ParentalSpy.com. Internet predators look for children who are seeking attention and/or are having trouble at home or at school. Provocative photos, status updates and having an excessive number of online friends can attract the attention of a sexual predator.

Clearly our kids and teens desperately need their parents help to avoid potential pitfalls in social media interactions. Teens are not neurologically equipped to make the best choices for themselves. Their brains aren’t fully formed and the frontal lobe which is responsible for reason, logic and impulse control is still developing.

It remains crucial for parents to understand how and with whom their children are communicating on social networking sites.  In some families the right to spend time online socializing is tied to chores or allowance.

Technology can help. Today there are certain types of tools on the market to help parents control their kids’ online activity. Parents often know about blocking or filtering software that prevents kids from accessing inappropriate content. Other tools include keystroke loggers, web activity monitors and screen capturer programs. Yet two-thirds of households with Internet access are not using any kind of software to protect or limit their children’s online activity, according to the Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

And yet technology is changing the very nature of kid’s friendships. The use of Facebook worldwide has exceeded the use of Google in overall traffic. So at Schakra we’ve developed Parental Guidance, an online application that allows parents to monitor their children’s behavior on Facebook.  Parental Guidance provides them with notifications when pre-established family ground rules are broken or inappropriate contact is made.

Here’s how it works: A parent creates a Facebook account and “friends” his or her child. The parent adds the Parental Guidance application and sends a request to the child to add the application as well. Once the child accepts the invitation, parents and child exchange a parental security code offline to ensure that only legitimate parents can establish a monitoring relationship. Then Parental Guidance notifies parents about details in their children’s profiles that may expose private information that could lead to unsafe situations such as personal contact information.

Parents learn of new status messages containing unsafe or potentially offensive comments to know how their teens are interacting online. This information can help alert a parent to a potential cyberbullying incident or a sexual solicitation. Parents can choose from a list of rules and only when those rules are broken are the they notified of the situation.

Importantly parents can even define their own rules in addition to using the built-in rules (bad words) the application offers. A “panic button” feature responds to emergency situations. It generates a report for law enforcement agencies that contains child profile information and photographs, to help them deal with emergency situations.

Bullying and sexual predation no longer take place just on the playground or neighborhood streets. Parents need to understand the risk of cyber bullying and sexual predation in the online realm. There is an immense draw for children to participate in these online discussions, yet social media interaction can be safer if parents become more effectively involved. And while online tools can help, they are not a replacement for watchful, loving and informed parents.

About the author:

Ron Stevenson is a Product Manager at Schakra where he says he contributes to the company’s passion for developing technology.

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