Walt Mossberg

Monitor Kids on Facebook Without Being Their ‘Friend’

Parents fret all the time about protecting their kids on Facebook, but many of the products and services I’ve seen that aim to help are intrusive, and inject the parents into the child’s normal, healthy online social life in a way that’s awkward for both.

You could co-manage your child’s account, or “friend” them on the service, which technically has a minimum age of 13. But those are time-consuming and embarrassing practices, especially when the offspring are teenagers, who generally crave some degree of privacy, even if they don’t merit full treatment as adults.

So I’ve been testing a service called ZoneAlarm SocialGuard that I think strikes a good balance between safety and privacy, between a parent’s peace of mind and a teen’s sense of freedom. Every five minutes, it monitors kids’ Facebook accounts for approaches by potential predators and strangers, cyber-bullying, age fraud, account hacking, and links to inappropriate or malicious websites. It uses algorithms that look for certain types of language, profile data, or other clues that unwanted activity may be under way.

However, SocialGuard does this in a way that is invisible to the kids’ friends, and doesn’t require the parent to be on guard all the time, or even to be on Facebook at all. If the service finds a possible problem, it emails the parent, the child, or both. This happens outside of Facebook itself. The service doesn’t give the parent the ability to directly read, or leave comments on, the child’s Facebook wall.

ZoneAlarm SocialGuard comes from a veteran security firm, Check Point Software Technologies. It costs $2 a month or $20 a year, though there’s a free seven-day trial (the company is also randomly testing a free 30-day trial.) It takes the form of a stand-alone computer program connected to a back-end monitoring service, and can be downloaded here. A new version coming in August will add several features, including a toolbar that can deliver SocialGuard warnings when you use Internet Explorer or Firefox.

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SocialGuard offers parents multiple settings and views of possibly troublesome situations on Facebook. Above, the Account Settings screen. Right, the Review Friends screen.

Before I get into describing how it works, let me note several caveats about SocialGuard.

First of all, the program (and toolbar) only work on Windows PCs. There’s no version for Macs, Web browsers, smartphones or tablets—and no definite plans for such versions. However, it can monitor Facebook accounts that are accessed by your kids via Macs or mobile devices, or via different Windows PCs.

In other words, the software you use for monitoring needn’t be on the same device the child uses for accessing Facebook.

Secondly, there are some holes in its coverage. While it monitors such things as messages, profiles and wall posts on a Facebook account, it doesn’t monitor Facebook chats; places and events; or photos, though it does check on the text accompanying photos and the people who tag the pictures. So, if your daughter is posting pictures you consider inappropriate, SocialGuard can’t warn you.

Also, SocialGuard can’t protect your child if he or she manages to set up a second, secret Facebook account that you and the service don’t know about.

Finally, like all security software, it isn’t a silver bullet, even in the areas it does cover. You still need to do active parenting, including discussions with your children. The child is likely to be aware that SocialGuard is monitoring his or her account, because, in order to set it up, you must use her Facebook sign-in credentials. In fact, the company stresses this point, noting that, if you do get an email about, say, language in a post that indicates cyber-bullying, you should discuss it with your kid.

Still, in my tests, SocialGuard did what it promised, and I believe it could be a real benefit to parents and children alike, so they are warned about potential problems early.

SocialGuard can cover up to five Facebook accounts simultaneously, and each account can have its own settings as to what is monitored, and whether only the parent, or both the parent and child, should get emails when suspicious events occur. For instance, for an older teen, you might not worry about content classified by the program as “sex education,” but for a younger one you might.

For my tests, I entered my own, real, Facebook account; a fake account I created; and several test accounts for imaginary children of different ages that the company had created, complete with some events that triggered emails to me.

When I tried, using my fake account, to friend one of the test children, I was flagged as a “potential stranger” because I wasn’t connected to the child or any of her friends, according to the company’s algorithms. Another example: I was warned that one of the test kids’ friends had a declared age of 14, but also had stated on Facebook he graduated high school in 1972.

In other cases, language or links figured into the warnings that appeared in my email inbox. When one child sent another a Web link to a lock-picking site, I was warned. When an imaginary friend posted on one of my imaginary kids’ walls a message that included curse words commonly used by bullies, it was flagged as possible cyber-bullying.

Obviously, not all of these cases may be real causes for concern. True friends sometimes use bad language in situations that aren’t bullying. Sometimes websites are passed along that SocialGuard knows are malicious or inappropriate, but the sender doesn’t. An older aunt, outside a child’s social circle, may wish to friend him. And different families have different levels of tolerance. That’s why discussions matter. SocialGuard only warns. It doesn’t stop these activities.

I am not so sanguine about the forthcoming toolbar, which I also tested. Managed in part by a separate company, it has various features, like a search box for the Bing search engine and a link to an app store selling Web-based games and other services, that are unrelated to the core mission of SocialGuard, and which I found both annoying and distracting from the purpose of the security service.

But, overall, if you’re a parent with limited time who worries about your child’s safety on Facebook, yet wants to give her some privacy, SocialGuard is worth trying.

Write to Walt at walt.mossberg@wsj.com


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