Katherine Boehret

Keep Tabs on Kids’ Social Lives

It’s often said that kids need their parents to be parents, not friends. With the launch of its new social-networking tool, SafeSocial, AOL Inc. lets parents practice this adage in a literal way by monitoring their kids’ Facebook activity without becoming one of their “friends” in the social network. (It also works with other sites like Twitter and MySpace.)

Through a partnership with SocialShield Inc., AOL SafeSocial uses technology that constantly scans sites where kids are social networking to identify and report any language that might be inappropriate (think of cursing, drugs and bullying) or even dangerous (suicidal words or phrases). It detects if kids have other accounts on sites that parents might not know about, and displays photos in which kids are “tagged,” or identified as being in the photo, as well as a list of most recently added friends.

SafeSocial costs $10 monthly and can be tried free for 30 days. I tested it by monitoring two people’s Facebook, Twitter and MySpace accounts, access of which was provided by AOL (AOL). I focused mostly on monitoring a 13-year-old’s Facebook account and grew to appreciate the concise way the monitoring site presents information. I easily toggled through recent photos, friends and activity without needing to know anything about how social networking works.

SafeSocial keeps all of the monitoring in one place on a password-protected website that can be accessed with any browser and set up with any email account. The site will email parents if severe alerts are triggered, like if violent or suicide-related keywords are detected. And once a week, parents receive digestible email summaries of their kid’s activities.

The site did return some false positives, like a flagged Facebook comment in which one kid used the phrase “hang out” because “hang” could refer to suicide. But an AOL representative said the site is designed not to filter alerts because the company would rather it err on the side of catching something than not. SafeSocial lacks the ability to show videos in which kids are tagged; comments that a child makes on another child’s page; or instant-messaging conversations. The representative told me that the ability for a parent to see their child’s comments on other kids’ pages may work within a couple weeks, and the other features are in the works for future updates.


AOL SafeSocial identifies any language that might be inappropriate, in this case, using the word ‘bust’ generated an alert because there are instances where it may be drug-related.

Other monitoring products, like CyberPatrol, can overwhelm parents by sending them too many write-ups and too much detailed information about kids’ online activities, much of which are confusing to parents. Still others, including PC Tattletale Internet Monitoring Software and key-logging software programs, record everything a child does on the computer, presenting parents with a lot of content to sort through.

SafeSocial works only when parents invite their kids and the kids accept the invitation; in the case of Facebook, Facebook Connect is used to link a kid’s account to SafeSocial. This way monitoring is done without the stigma of the parent actually “friending” the kid. There’s nothing in SafeSocial that lets parents hit a button to stop a child from doing something (the site encourages parents to discuss with the child why the activity isn’t allowed). Shortcuts let parents email alert items to other people, like when a spouse sees a questionable photo and wants to run it by the other. (Both parents can check the same account at the same time using the same log-in.)

The site’s technology is intelligent enough to tell if one particular friend seems like an outlier, for example, a 55-year-old man who doesn’t have any common friends with a 15-year-old girl on Facebook. SafeSocial determines if that person is a member of sites it considers more geared toward adults, like Match.com or LinkedIn, and tells parents as much without specifically saying the name of the site.

Of course, kids will be kids, and technology can’t do it all. If kids type acronyms or phrases to get around the detection technology, parents may not be notified. And if a kid creates an account on a social-networking site without using an email the parent knows, SafeSocial won’t be able to detect it. But the site scans status updates and comments against a list of hundreds of keywords, which is constantly updated.

Though AOL SafeSocial isn’t perfect, it’s an easy-to-use middle ground between banning social networking from a child’s life and watching over his or her shoulder at all times—without the embarrassment factor that kids associate with becoming “friends” with parents. More important, the site could be used to get a teen talking about what exactly they’re doing online.

Write to Katherine Boehret at mossbergsolution@wsj.com

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