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Joan Quiglry

Cyber-safety or cyber-snooping?
Software shows parents what kids are doing online

Wendy Miller tracks her daughter's every cyberspace move.

She knows when the 13-year-old logs on to one of her favorite sites: www.mtv.com or www.neopets.com, and how long she dallies there. And she knows when her eighth-grader scours the Web for lyrics to the latest Avril Lavigne song or fan sites devoted to heartthrob Hayden Christensen, who played Anakin Skywalker in Episode II, Attack of the Clones.

Miller, 39, a single parent in Fort Lauderdale, is not clairvoyant. She's part of a generation of plugged-in parents who increasingly rely on high-tech software to monitor what their children are doing online -- and with whom.

''I just need to know she's not doing inappropriate things or using inappropriate language,'' Miller said. ``The main thing is that she doesn't wind up being a statistic.''

Parents have long tried to keep tabs on their children's activities, from eavesdropping on phone calls and snooping in diaries to chaperoning school dances. But worried mothers and fathers are now importing computerized surveillance tools from the workplace into their own homes -- deploying child-protection software on their offspring (or occasionally on a cheating spouse).

''It's designed to do what parents do already in the real world,'' said Bob DeMarco CEO of I.P. Group, the maker of software called Watch Right, which monitors and records for review an AOL user's e-mail, chat, instant messages and websites visited.

Widely available for purchase on the Web, child-protection software ranges in simplicity from parental controls that filter objectionable language and content to products that forward exact copies of both sides of a child's e-mails, instant messages, chats and keystrokes moments after they are executed. With names such as Watch Right, Cyber Sentinel and eBlaster, the programs tout peace of mind in a downloadable file. Programs can cost up to $99.95, but some dial-up services include protection in their monthly fee.

In the era of Amber alerts, channeling parental anxiety helps the corporate bottom line. Although software makers declined to release specific sales figures, Security Software Sytems has sold almost two million units of Cyber Sentinel -- a $39.95 site- and service-blocking software -- in the past four years, according to company president Dan Jude.

Software makers credit increasing parental knowledge and acceptance of their products.

''I think parents are becoming more and more aware,'' DeMarco said. ``We've tried to design a software to give them eyes and ears so they can see what [their children] are doing.''


Still, law-enforcement officials -- and family counselors -- say high-tech eavesdropping should supplement traditional parenting, not replace it.

''Our suggestion is the parent is the best monitor,'' said detective Robert Williams, a spokesman for the Miami-Dade Police Department. ``When your child is on the Internet, you should be there to monitor what's being disseminated.''

Parents also should keep the computer in a common room, not the child's bedroom, and ask their children who they are chatting with online, according to James Doyle, president of Internet Crimes and a former sergeant with the New York Police Department's computer-crimes unit.

''Really, the answer is education, awareness, and then technology,'' Doyle said. ``Because unfortunately, the computer becomes a new baby sitter.''

Children left alone at home after school may be vulnerable to advances from sexual predators, law-enforcement officials say.

''People that prey on kids are looking for latchkey kids, single-parent kids, kids who indicate online they feel misunderstood or unloved,'' said Florida Department of Law Enforcement Special Agent Don Condon. ``Kids are just extremely vulnerable when they're talking online.''


Busy parents such as Miller -- and even stay-at-home moms and dads -- say even if they wanted to, they do not have the luxury of looking over their children's shoulders every time they surf the Web or enter a chat room.

Miller, for example, has set limits.

She prohibits her daughter from entering chat rooms and using instant-messaging. Also, concerned by the amount of time her daughter spent online, she limits her usage to one hour per day during the week (down from two).

Still, when Miller is at work or traveling for business, she cannot keep tabs.

Just over a year ago, she turned to eBlaster, which generates a report every half-hour on her daughter's e-mails and Web surfing -- without blocking access to sites containing words such as ''sex'' that she might need for homework.

''Because of her age and maturity, I didn't want to lock down her computer,'' Miller said. ``I thought it was a little too invasive.''

Miller reviews the reports, which she receives by e-mail, at the office or on the road. So far, they have not triggered any alarm bells.

''She doesn't go to any strange sites,'' Miller said. ``She does normal kid stuff.''


Still, Miller's peace of mind may come at a price: she has not told her daughter about the extent of her cyber-snooping, Miller said. Her daughter knows only that Miller's employer, which pays for their Internet access, monitors their usage for inappropriate language and content.

One psychologist suggests that parents disclose their snooping up front, reminding their children they care about them and want to protect them.

''That way there's no breach of trust,'' said Margaret Crosbie-Burnett, a professor of counseling psychology at The University of Miami. ``That's the big issue.''

Miller, who knows she has fudged the truth, says she can live with the consequences if her daughter finds out.

''I'm probably going to get totally busted for this,'' Miller said. ``But that's OK, because she gets an A-plus for her usage.''

Source: www.miami.com

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