AOL UK launches paid-for monitoring tool for kids' socnets – better than just talking to them?

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Raise Your Hand If You *Already* Had The Beatles On Your iPhone!

Today AOL UK launches SafeSocial, a service previously launched in the US, which is designed to allow parents to monitor their child’s activity on social networks. AOL is now offering a free 30 day trial for the new product, after which it costs £6.99 per month.

The child has to agree first (quite how AOL verifies this is unclear, especially if the parent knows their kid’s password), then the softare can monitor key pieces of information about a kids’ internet accounts, social media friends, photos and posts. Key words like “shoot” and “bust” trigger alerts in the system, though as you can see from the examples supplied by AOL themselves, these can lead to a lot of false positives. “Watch me bust a move” or “Shoot! I’m late for school” are hardly worrying, but what is more cack-handed by AOL is that no British school child uses these kinds of phrases. One hopes AOL adapted the software to include the more typical language of British children, like shit and fuck.

Other red flags include suspicious and/or worrying conversations with other about drugs (coke?), sex, violence, alcohol and suicide. SafeSocial will also flag friends who show up in national criminal databases. Safesocial also only scans for ‘publicly available’ information and alerts parents to any concerning behaviour (e.g. posts, images) or friends (e.g. a friend who also appears to be on traditionally adult networks such as LinkedIn or Match).

On Facebook, Twitter and MySpace, the service gets access to information that may not be publicly available, depending on the privacy settings the child has set. But remember how kids can use video records/game consoles way easier? Yeah, that.

SafeSocial is simply SocialShield’s technology re-licensed, which can screen kids’ friends across 50 databases. But the dashboard format is pretty easy to understand. Parents can also see the ages of their child’s friends including flags against anyone who’s age might not be age appropriate, like their Uncle maybe (another potential false positive).

A child’s general posts and conversations are only summarised, which gets around charges of privacy invasion – until you realise the system also allows parents to look at a full conversation.

Perhaps it’s main draw is that Parents don’t actually have to friend their kids on Facebook, avoiding all that icky embarrassment amongst the child’s peers.

Clearly it’s addressing the thorny issue that, with an average of 173 friends (according to AOL) tracking a young person online is not easy, and friending them will only allow a parent to see a slice of their activity online – embarrassing for the child maybe, but at least it’s free.

On last issue with SafeSocial – it’s probably better than nothing, but would it create a false sense of security in the parent? Shouldn’t parents just teach their kids some basic safety rules such as those available at Your thoughts are welcome in the comments.

Update: An AOL spokesperson has contacted us to say: “The images I provided were US images. In terms of language we have adapted the product for the UK market. We make every effort to keep up with slang and text abbreviations used by young people. We are continuing to review and evolve the product to include more popular slang terms and text abbreviations.”

  • Eamonn Carey

    This is almost absurdly creepy. I can understand parents being concerned and wanting to keep an eye on their kids. Indeed, it’s something I’m starting to see happening among my friends and their kids. However, this technology is not only something that will drive a wedge between protective parents and outraged kids; it’s also something that produces (as is rightly pointed out in the article) false positives.

    Spying on kids is not a good thing – for parents or for the kids. If I knew someone who signed up for something like this, I would take it as a sign that they were a) overprotective and prone to snooping and b) that they couldn’t be bothered to take the time to talk to their kids on an ongoing basis about some of the potential pitfalls involved in being online. I’d imagine that most kids would be furious if their parents signed them up for something like this – as it’s symptomatic of a real lack of trust. Not exactly something that’s going to build the type of relationship that people should have with their kids.

    To be honest – I think services like this are a gimmick at best and at worst a way for lazy, incompetent, snooping parents to get around their duty of care to their kids by spying on them instead of talking to them.

  • Pete Danks

    I guess from Eamonn’s wording about friends with kids, that he has no kids. And I largely think that on topics that relate specifically to parents and kids, that insightful opinion should come from er, parents, and kids!

    As a parent, this is something we worry about. My child is super young, but already using apps on ipad, watching videos on youtube and enjoying skype with family. And while I don’t ever want to snoop, it’s nothing to do with trust – supervision is the same as snooping in effect. You don’t trust a child to know what’s best for them in a world where there are a tiny minority of people out to do harm one way or another. ‘Lazy’ or ‘incompetent’? Maybe caring and worried – especially for parents that have no idea about the potential pitfalls – from in-app purchases to full on predators – the web has some real losers on-board. I will welcome any tech with open arms that helps me deal with this.

    • Eamonn Carey

      I can see something like this potentially being useful for people who have kids that perhaps aren’t teenagers yet. However, those kids probably shouldn’t be on Facebook or MySpace (you’re not supposed to be on either if you’re under 13).

      With teenagers, I remember what it was like to see friends whose parents were the types of people who would try to get this stuff installed nowadays. Pete – I might not be a parent, but worried and caring parents are the types who tend to cut their kids some slack and allow them to make their own mistakes. They’re not the slightly neurotic ones who would engage in a crude spooks-esque campaign of espionage against their kids to ‘protect’ them from the big bad world.

      Supervision is not the same as snooping. Snooping is reading emails, checking conversations threads, monitoring SMS messages and phone calls (I know a company that’s already providing this service). It’s interfering with your child’s life in a way that will make them resent you. And maybe I wasn’t clear enough in the definitions I used in my previous comment – there’s a world of difference between younger kids and slightly older teenagers. I’m not saying that one group has more sense than the other (as the brother of a recently graduated teenager – I know this is the case), but I do think that services like this can be extremely harmful to parent/child relationships. And I do think that they will be used by lazy parents as a salve to make them feel better about not talking honestly to their kids.

  • JohannQ

    You can charge 7 pounds for some crap that just bascially monitors certain keywords in status update?!? Who is so stupid and pays that kind of money for that??? Well, there will be some people, I suppose, but…

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