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

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.”