Parents habitually are warned to monitor their children's online activities. They are told to put the computer in a central location, limit kids' hours online and to warn them of the dangers of the Internet.
The problem is a lot of those precautionary actions do nothing to keep kids out of trouble or keep parents from worrying.
As a result, many parents have taken the more invasive step of monitoring every click kids make with monitoring software that records Web sites visited, instant messaging and chat conversations, and e-mails.
But a new free product from Symantec wants to help. OnlineFamily.Norton.com provides a free software program that streamlines the data from all your computers, so even nontechie parents can figure out if their kids are getting in trouble online.
Instead of a confusing list of hundreds of web addresses, objectionable sites are highlighted for parents to review — and block.
"Parents get the option here not only of seeing all the activity, but anything requiring parental attention shows up in red," said Symantec's Internet safety advocate Marian Merritt.
While parents can look at all the sites kids visit, the best feature of the program is that you can choose to flag just the questionable sites. In the past, monitoring software programs listed hundreds of links that just confused parents: Web addresses of all the pop-up ads, embedded content and the sites known to be kid-friendly.
With this product, parents can opt to just see the stuff that the advisory board at Symantec deems questionable.
"With this service you can not only see which social networking sites your children are visiting but what accounts they're opening, what names they're using — even the age that they're putting in as theirs," Merritt said.
Each child in the house has a log-on so their activity is tied to their account. Parents can choose from preset age profiles to set the level of blocking for each user.
Claire Santaniello of Simi Valley, Calif., is mother to three boys. She does everything she can to talk to her kids about the Internet and steer them in the right direction, but she likes the idea of a monitoring program that helps her with that Herculean task.
"I just would like to keep a tighter rein on what it is that they're doing so that we can take it to a discussion level," she said.
And that's the goal: If kids know parents are watching them, they'll ideally talk about their online encounters.