Keep Kids Safe on Facebook

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Scammers, spammers, purveyors of porn, hate mongers, and cyber predators -- it's no wonder parents are paranoid about what their kids are doing online.

Most software solutions focus on shielding your child from the Net's seamy dark underbelly -- filtering out porn, blocking certain keyword or image searches, and preventing them from sharing certain information (like their home address) in email or IMs.

(For my money, the cloud-based Norton Online Family is as good as these things get -- not perfect, but pretty good -- and it's totally free, though I have to imagine that won't last forever.)

The problem? None of these content filters do much about what information your kids are putting out there about themselves, or who can see it. As search engines turn into reputation engines, what your kids say and do online will affect what happens to them down the road.

For example, roughly one out of four college admissions offices say they Google applicants before deciding whether to accept them; one out of five look at their social networking profiles. And in nearly 40 percent of the cases, the information colleges find has a negative impact on the applicant's chances.

What your kids are saying on Twitter or MySpace or posting to Facebook and Flickr could impact their futures, and not necessarily in a good way. That's where SafetyWeb steps in.

SafetyWeb's premise is simple: Enter your child's email address, and it will scour the most popular sites and services, let you know if your child has accounts on them, and if so how private they are or aren't. That service is free.

For example, searching on one of my email addresses produces a quick report that notes that I am "Public" on MySpace, Friendster, and Twitter; "Private" on Facebook, Flickr, and Bebo; and "exposed" on Flixster and Linked in. (By "exposed," I'm assuming they mean all of my profile details are public.) Click on the screen shot to see the setup.

But if you want to see what your kids are actually posting to these sites, or add new email addresses or new sites to the dozen or so SafetyWeb automatically checks, it will cost you $10 a month. Whether that's worth it depends on how clued in you are to your kids' social media activities, as well as how sneaky they are.

In my brief experience with the product, I found it a little inconsistent. Some of the data is old or outdated. For example, I changed my Twitter handle more than a year ago, but SafetyWeb still reports on my old one. It lists my Facebook profile as "private" when it's really more than half public. It found a Twitter account for my son that belonged to someone else entirely (though it also found one I didn't know about). It told me my son had an Amazon account, but (because it's private) gave me no way to find out what he's using it for.

In short, SafetyWeb is not a total solution. It's only as good as the databases it uses to cross check these sites, and some of them clearly need to be updated more often.

Still, I can see some good uses. It offers a quick, one-stop glance at your kids' social activities online -- a lot easier than schlepping between MySpace, Facebook, Flickr, YouTube, etc. How effective that is depends on how open your kids are about what services they belong to and what email addresses they use.

My not-quite-14-year-old son, for example, is a devious little bastard who uses multiple email addresses online, some of which he refuses to reveal, and is militantly opposed to sharing his online life with his parents. So SafetyWeb is a bad choice for kids like him, because it could give parents a false sense of security. (Not us -- we have no sense of security.) Also, at $10 a month per kid, it can get very pricey for large families. SafetyWeb co-founder Geoffrey Arone says the company plans to offer family pricing discounts at some point in the near future.

Hey, when you're raising a digital native, parents need all the help they can get. Tools like SafetyWeb are another helpful weapon to add to your arsenal. Your kids may not appreciate it now, but they'll thank you later. Maybe.

Author Dan Tynan has no online reputation left to protect, and it's his own damned fault. Check out one of the reasons why at eSarcasm (Geek Humor Gone Wild) and follow him on Twitter: @tynan_on_tech (another reason).

This story, "Keep Kids Safe on Facebook" was originally published by ITworld.

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