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The Online Mom provides internet technology advice and information to help parents protect their kids, encourage responsible behavior and safely harness the power of technology in the new digital world. Social networking, photo sharing, video games, IM & texting, internet security, cyberbullying, educational resources, the latest on tech hardware, gadgets and software for kids 3-8, tweens and teens, and more.

Tech Report – Do social networking “safety engines” work?

By Paul O’Reilly

There has been quite a bit of recent press coverage about two start-ups aimed at providing parents with information on their kids’ social networking activities. This week, Denver-based SafetyWeb announced that they had secured $8 million in additional funding, and San Mateo-based SocialShield entered the marketplace with a powerful endorsement from the National PTA.

These services are in direct response to parental anxiety over cyberbullying and other threats that today’s teens and even younger children face when they venture online. SocialShield in particular puts the emphasis on cyberbullying, promoting a “cyberbullying promise” that they will help parents of victims track down those responsible and “do what it takes to get it stopped”.

Although they go about it in different ways, both SafetyWeb and SocialShield are essentially monitoring services, scanning the popular social networking sites and providing reports and alerts whenever they come across suspicious activity.

But how reliable are these services and do they actually work?

SafetyWeb

The first thing that surprises you about SafetyWeb's site is the lack of information. There’s a lot of background on the founders of the company and an impressive section outlining the various dangers facing our kids, but very little on how the service actually works.

Instead, the home page issues the challenge: “Everyone on the web knows what your kid did last night. Do you?” This is followed by a box for typing your child’s e-mail address, accompanied by the boast: “We’ll show you.”

Unfortunately, the results received from entering a few test e-mails failed to live up to the bravado. In my own case, despite entering the primary e-mail I use for all my social networks, it reported back that I had just 1 friend on 4 services. (I do have a few more friends than that, honestly!) Most surprisingly, it completely ignored my Facebook account, which has been registered under the same e-mail address for several years.

Other e-mail searches of friends and family yielded similarly poor results, with incomplete or incorrect data. After these disappointments, the only “next step” that SafetyWeb offers is to proceed directly to a Checkout form where you are expected to sign up for the $100 annual subscription plan.

I don’t know about you but I expect a little more proof-of-product before I shell out even $10, never mind $100. I can only assume that the recent fundraising indicates that SafetyWeb is not long out of beta and that there is much development still to be done. In its current state, it’s certainly not ready for primetime.

SocialShield

SocialShield takes a different approach, offering a wealth of information about how the service works and what parents can expect. It has a less impressive “For Parents” section than SafetyWeb but instead offers advice for kids on what to do if they are cyberbullied.

With SocialShield, parents can expect the results from the social networking scans to be much more thorough – for one simple reason: they rely on getting direct access to your child’s social networking accounts and passwords. There are two ways to do this – either parents can hand over the passwords, or SocialShield sends an “invite” to the child, which he or she has to accept.

Once SocialShield has the password information, it “connects” with the relevant social networking accounts to monitor activity and report back. The service costs $10 per month or $96 for an annual subscription.

Of course, the irony here is that parents that know or have access to their child’s social networking passwords are unlikely to be the ones that need a service like SocialShield. It’s the kids that wouldn’t dream of handing over a password – or accepting an invitation to be monitored – that are the ones at risk.

Although both services are obviously well-intentioned and will surely improve their search and monitoring techniques over time, parents need to be sure they will get what they’re paying for before they commit.

In particular, SafetyWeb in its current form seems certain to disappoint. For one thing, it relies on tracking one e-mail per child. If other kids create, change and abandon e-mail addresses as often as my own daughter, then teens are likely to remain where they are now when it comes to these types of monitoring services – one step ahead of the adults!



Comments:
Comment by Paul O'Reilly, posted 7/6/2010, 3:46 PM:

Hi Amy D: Not sure why I need to go further if the results from SafetyWeb's own suggested trial run are so poor. (I have to assume that the home page uses the same search algorithms as the actual service.) Having thoroughly tested the service using the tool that SafetyWeb provides, I couldn't recommend spending $100 on a leap of faith that the service was actually significantly better than advertised. Not sure why you would regard that as biased or incomplete.
Comment by Amy D, posted 7/4/2010, 4:54 PM:

Interesting. You based your review of SafetyWeb by only entering your email into the field on the homepage screen while actually trying out the SocialShield service? Seems a tad biased and not very complete. As a parent who has tried both services, I've chosen to go with SafetyWeb. When you sign up for the SafetyWeb service, there is a lot more information found when a deep scan is done and there is the option of adding additional email addresses and monitoring more of you children.
Comment by Bob, posted 6/24/2010, 8:27 PM:

What do you think about the "security systems" and "parental controls" hat companies like AT&T are offering?
Comment by SocialShield Support, posted 6/23/2010, 12:16 AM:

Paul - Thank you so much for taking the time to review us. One point you made, that is very valid, is the whole password/invite question. While there are several reasons, it's important for us to know that you, the client, are truly the parent of guardian of the kid and that we are not inadvertently giving private information to someone who shouldn't have it. We could only figure out one foolproof way and that's for the kid to tell us. Thank you again for your thoughtful comments!
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