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‘Big Brother’? No, It’s Parents

Mike Kemp | Getty Images

When her children were ready to have laptops of their own, Jill Ross bought software that would keep an eye on where they went online. One day it offered her a real surprise. She discovered that her 16-year-old daughter had set up her own video channel.

Using the camera on her laptop, sometimes in her bedroom, she and a friend were recording mundane teenage banter and broadcasting it on YouTube for the whole world to see.

For Ms. Ross, who lives outside Denver, it was a window into her daughter’s mind and an emblem of the strange new hurdles of modern-day parenting. She did not mention it to her daughter; she just subscribed to the channel’s updates. The daughter said nothing either; she just let Mom keep watching.

“It’s a matter of knowing your kids,” Ms. Ross said of her discovery.

Parents can now use an array of tools to keep up with the digital lives of their children, raising new quandaries. Is surveillance the best way to protect children? Or should parents trust them to share if they are scared or bewildered by something online?

The answers are as varied as parents themselves. Still, the anxieties of parenting in the digital age have spawned a mini-industry, as start-ups and established companies market new tools to track where children go online, who they meet there and what they do. Because children are glued to smartphones, the technology can allow parents to track their physical whereabouts and even monitor their driving speed.

If, a few years ago, the emphasis was on blocking children from going to inappropriate sites on the family computer, today’s technologies promise to embed Mom and Dad — and occasionally Grandma — inside every device that children are using, and gather intelligence on them wherever they go.

A smartphone application alerts Dad if his son is texting while driving. An online service helps parents keep tabs on every chat, post and photo that floats across their children’s Facebook pages. And another scans the Web in case a child decides to try a new social network that the grown-ups have not even heard of yet.

The spread of cellphones and tablets in the hands of children has complicated matters, giving rise to applications that attract the young and worry parents. Earlier this month, for instance, came revelations that an app designed for flirting, called Skout, had led to three sexual assault cases involving children across the country. Even on Facebook, studies have repeatedly shown, there are plenty of children younger than 13, the minimum age for members, and many of them join with help and supervision from their parents.

The average American family uses five Internet-enabled devices at home, including smartphones, a recent survey by Cox Communications and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children found, while barely one in five parents uses parental controls on those devices.

In Richmond, Va., Mary Cofield, 62, is one of the careful ones. She struck a deal with her 15-year-old granddaughter last year. The girl was offered an Android phone with full Internet privileges, so long as Grandma could monitor her every move.

“My theory is, you’ve got to be in the game to help them know what’s wrong and what’s right,” she said. “Keeping them from it is not going to work. You can either be out there with them in the game — or they’ll be out there without you.”

Ms. Cofield, a retired government tax agent who runs an online travel business, chose a tool called uKnowKids.com, which combs the granddaughter’s Facebook page and text messages. UKnowKids sends her alerts about inappropriate language. It also offers Ms. Cofield a dashboard of the child’s digital activities, including what she says on Twitter, whom she texts and what photos she is tagged in on Facebook. It translates teenage slang into plain English she can understand: “WUD” is shorthand for “What are you doing?” Ms. Cofield checks it daily.

Often, she says, she gleans when the girl is having trouble with a boy, or when there is conflict among friends. Most often, Ms. Cofield knows to keep her mouth shut. “Being privy to that information and not using it is also difficult,” she confessed. “If I did that, she would definitely go underground. I would be hopping on her every day.”

Surveys, including by the Pew Research Center, have found that two-thirds of parents check their children’s digital footprints and nearly 40 percent follow them on Facebook and Twitter. But the Pew study suggests that this monitoring is also likely to lead to arguments between parent and child.

What’s more, technology is at least as nimble as adolescents, and neither parents nor the technology they buy can always read a teenager’s mind. Sometimes children deactivate their Facebook accounts except at night, when they know their parents are not likely to be logging on. They roll over to new sites, often using pseudonyms. Very often they speak in code designed to stump parents.

Danah Boyd, a senior researcher at Microsoft Research who studies American youth online, offered the example of a teenage girl who was growing increasingly frustrated with her mother’s leaving comments on everything she posted on Facebook. Once, when she was feeling particularly low, she posted the song “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.”

Her mother took it literally, which is what the girl had wanted. Her friends, however, read it for what it was: The girl was sad, and her post was meant to be ironic.

Technology companies now market tools for parents of children at every age group. The next version of Apple ’s mobile operating system will offer a single-app mode so a parent can lock a toddler into one activity on an iPad.

Security companies like Symantec and Trend Micro offer computer software that detects when a child tries to visit a blocked Web site or creates a new social network account. Infoglide, based in Austin, Tex., whose bread and butter is making antifraud software, recently introduced a tool called MinorMonitor, which like UKnowKids mines children’s Facebook pages for signs of trouble.

Independent measurements of the market for family safety tools are hard to come by, and most companies do not release sales information. But that the market is large — and growing — is evident in two things: every security company and cellphone carrier is pitching such products, and start-ups in this field are popping up every month.

Symantec says it added a million new subscribers to its Norton Online Family service last year.

A text message application for the iPhone called textPlus allows Kyle Reed of Golden, Colo., to be copied on every text message his teenage son sends his girlfriend. “I feel torn a little bit. It’s kind of an invasion of privacy,” he said. “But he’s 13. I want to protect him.”

Dan Sherman of Jackson, N.J., is what you might call the alpha monitor of his children’s digital lives, which is not surprising considering that he works in computer security.

At home, he has installed a filter that blocks pornographic sites and software that tracks Web visits. He has set parental controls on the iPhones of his 8- and 13-year-old daughters so they cannot download applications. Access to the app store on the 8-year-old’s Kindle Fire is protected with a password. And the older daughter’s Facebook account is tracked by MinorMonitor, which alerts Mr. Sherman if there are references to bullying or alcohol.

Does he worry that his daughters think he does not trust them? Mr. Sherman says they should learn that they will be monitored throughout their lives: “It’s not any different from any employer.”

The older daughter, Alexis, said that for now, at least, she does not mind the monitoring. She feels safer for it, she says, “like I’m being watched over.”

She also knows that it affects what she posts for public consumption. Recently, for example, she was tempted to rail on Facebook against a friend who had spread rumors about her, but she checked herself when she thought about what her mother might say. “Having your parents monitor makes you think twice about what you put,” Alexis said.

Ms. Ross, of Colorado, once had a tool that disabled Internet access in the house after a certain number of hours. But her children kept turning it off. Now another program helps her keep an eye on how much time they spend online, so if one of her three girls complains that she does not have time for homework, Ms. Ross need only say: “Want me to tell you how much time you spent on Facebook this week?”

Last Christmas, one of Ms. Ross’s friends, Lynn Schofield Clark, gave her 11-year-old daughter a disabled iPhone on which to listen to music. The child brightly said that a friend at school had showed her how to download an app that let her send text messages and make calls — which is not what her parents had in mind.

Ms. Clark, who has written a book about parenting styles and technology called “The Parent App,” says she was relieved her child had confided in her. She hopes she will continue to confide, so she does not have to track everything her daughter does online. “It’s too easy to get involved in surveillance,” Ms. Clark said. “That undermines our influence as parents. Kids interpret that as a lack of trust.”

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