In many cities there have been television stations, for years, running an ominous-sounding public-service message: "It's ten o'clock. Do you know where your children are?"
If the answer is, "Sure, they're at home," that's a little less reassuring than it used to be.
Consider these numbers from a survey commissioned by Common Sense Media, an online service that provides parents with information and reviews:
• 85% of Parents say the Internet is the most risky [medium] for kids, compared to 13% for TV• 80% of Parents worry about predators in their kids’ Internet use• 76% of Parents say they would like to make the Internet a safer place for kids• 83% of Parents say there is no excuse for not knowing enough about the Internet to protect your kids or teens
That's why a new generation of software is selling as if...well, as if the safety of America's children depended on it. The programs have such names as "eBlaster," "Content Protect," "IM Einstein" and "Safe Eyes." Several manufacturers say their sales have tripled in the last three years.
Whereas older programs--or your ability to check cookies--told you what websites a kid had accessed online, the newest ones will record screen grabs, keystrokes, or the content of online chats--and make them available to a nervous parent, at work, in real time. That's a big issue, especially with a lot of two-career couples leaving kids at home in the afternoon, and more in the summer.
(An obvious disclaimer: our mention of a particular program here is not an endorsement, and not a suggestion that these programs are better than others on the market. These are programs whose popularity we've been able to check.)
One mother we spoke with said she'd installed a monitoring program--and soon found her teenage daughter doing image searches for "hot sexy guys."
Another working parent, from Highland, Utah, said she found her daughter getting IMs from a kid named Alex, who was "sending messages to brag about his sexual prowess in what I thought was a very inappropriate way." Mother and daughter had a serious talk that night.
To be sure, parents in the Common Sense Media poll also saw benefits to their children's web use:
• 91% of Parents say that the Internet helps their kids explore things they’re passionate about• 77% of Parents say they see the Internet as an important tool to help their kids learn
But there's enough worry out there to have created a growth industry. A fair number of parents are getting emails at work, every time one of their kids uses a forbidden word.
It creates all sorts of issues that many companies haven't considered. We had a conversation with Nancy Flynn, Executive Director of the ePolicy Institute, which, among other things, does polling on workplace issues for the American Management Association.
Remember, she said, that while you're monitoring your kid, it's fairly likely that your employer is monitoring you. 55% of companies in a survey she did were scanning their employees' email--and 26% had fired someone in the past for misusing email. She doesn't know of anyone who's lost a job for caring what their kids are up to, but it could get thorny.
"If an employee is viewing an image on a screen in her cubicle and her boss walks by, a customer walks by, a supplier walks by, or a prospective employee walks by and is offended by that image, that could create a litigation issue for the organization."