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.
And that's what happened with Santaniello's sons. When the boys were searching for new shoes, they typed what they thought was the Web address for a local chain, Chick's Sporting Goods.
"I came up with an inappropriate Web site," said Santaniello's 15-year-old son, Austin.
Without meaning to, the boys went to a pornographic Web site.
And that's another benefit to the more sophisticated monitoring tools available today. The OnlineFamily.Norton product allows parents to look at a child's search terms to see if they intentionally went to an off-limits site. So in the case of Santaniello's sons, she would have seen "sneakers" or "shoes" in the search terms to get a sense of the context around the visit to the inappropriate Web site. In this case, it would offer proof that an honest mistake was made.
New tracking tools promote a much higher level of transparency. Kids know they are being monitored, so secret parental spying software is not what this is about.
"It's so important for parents and kids to talk about their Internet experiences. And even though some people might've wanted this to work in what we call a stealth mode or hidden from their kids, that's just not the philosophy here," Merritt said. "We really think when it comes to parents and kids if we're going to teach our children how to be safe on the Internet we've got to be more open about the fact that mistakes can happen and that we can learn from them."
Regardless of price, many parents aren't ready to monitor their kids in this way -- they say it feels like an invasion of privacy. If children have proven themselves trustworthy, this level of scrutiny may seem too high. In those cases, Merritt said the value of talking openly about Internet activity is the number one goal for parents.
Merritt also sees this type of software best suited to 5- to 13-year-olds, and said that monitoring should be dialed back with age.
"As kids get older, I think it's appropriate [if things are going well] for parents to back off a little and give their kids some of that privacy, that room to flex a little bit and to explore their world," Merritt said.
But for parents who are desperate for ways to supervise their kids online, this tool seems like a step in the right direction.