As a parent, there have been many moments in my life when I considered locking my child in a closet. It would have been for her own safety, mind you. And, I would have let her out when she was, say, 30 or so. I realized that I might have had some legal entanglements to deal with along the way, but there were still those moments when I wondered “what if…”

It’s Scary Out There

Before you call the authorities to report me, there are two important things you should know:

  1. No, I never really did this – not even for a second. But, it is a scary world out there. I also never used one of those leash-things with my daughter, but I did come to understand why some parents choose to do so.
  2. My child is no longer a minor and perfectly able to manage her own life now. She somehow managed to make it through her formative years relatively unscathed, despite my occasional urges to save her from the outside world.

We all want to protect our children for as long as possible, yet we also want them to learn how to navigate the world on their own, making smart decisions along the way. How do we find that balance of holding on and letting go? It is already an enormous challenge in the real world. For many parents, the prospect of helping their children stay safe in the virtual world is even more overwhelming.

Enter SocialShield

If you are looking for a way to monitor your kid’s online browsing activity or chat/IM conversations, there are many easy tools which will allow you to do so. There are numerous keystroke-logging programs which record each word your child types on the keyboard, meaning you get to see everything – emails, passwords, the whole enchilada. These tools may let you know what your child is doing online, but tell you nothing about the identity of their friends or their friends’ activity. It is often this more meaty information that parents seek in order to prevent their children from falling prey to a bully or sexual predator.

Stating that their tools “give parents a 360° view of their kids’ social networking activities,” SocialShield has recently received quite a bit of media attention. After reading yesterday’s post on ReadWriteWeb about the new service, I decided to sign-up for the trial period and take it for a test drive.

Setting Up My SocialShield Account

SocialShield provides a free 14-day trial period. Like most services, this requires credit card information up front. Once the information was entered, I moved on to “Add a Child.” I wondered how they would be able to access my child’s information without knowing her password and how they would verify that it was indeed my own child I was adding. I was curious to see what would prevent me from monitoring a friend (or a stranger) by adding them to my account.

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To add my daughter, I added all of her email addresses and selected “I attest that this is my daughter” from the drop-down list of choices. On the list are son/daughter, nephew/niece, grandson/granddaughter, other male/female. To test whether SocialShield magically knew if the person I was adding was really my child (of course, it can’t know this), I decided to add another person. Not wanting to spy on a friend or a stranger, I chose the one person in that comfortable middle-ground. I selected “other – female” and added my mother, feeling fairly sure I wouldn’t uncover anything scandalous.

Once you’ve added a child, there it is front and center: you need your kid’s passwords. If you were looking for the secret door into your kid’s accounts without having access to their login credentials, this isn’t it (hint: it doesn’t exist). And, simply being Facebook friends with them isn’t enough to get you the information needed for SocialShield to do its thing and alert you to potentially problematic friends and activity. At this point in the process, you can either connect SocialShield to their accounts yourself if you know their usernames and passwords or you can generate an email which is sent to the child asking them to allow access.

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This will then lead the child to add their accounts to SocialShield by using Facebook Connect, for example. I discussed this with my daughter ahead of time and she authorized access to her account herself.

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My SocialShield Report

  • I received a number of alerts for my daughter’s Facebook account. SocialShield highlighted her Facebook friends who were “significantly older” and those who have “adultlike accounts.”
  • To take another look at how alerts were triggered, I also added myself to my SocialShield account. As I did with my mother, I selected “Other – female.” I received 12 pages of alerts for my own friends, most of which were triggered by “adultlike accounts.”
  • SocialShield was able to find and display 150+ photos of me from Facebook, yet was not able to find any of my daughter’s 700+ Facebook photos.
  • SocialShield alerted me to an update posted by one of my daughter’s friends on her Facebook wall because it included the word head. Of course, each parent needs to evaluate the context on their own. In this instance, her friend was referencing a song which “got stuck in” his head.
  • While I did not request that my mother authorize access to her accounts, SocialShield did tell me that she has (wait for it…) a MySpace account. Really? My mother, whose 75th birthday is this weekend, is on MySpace? After the laughter subsided, I went to MySpace to search for her. Searching for her name delivered no results. Searching for her email address delivered one result – a 24 year old male with Tom as his only MySpace friend. Something seems wonky here. It seems someone may have used her email address to set up an account and that SocialShield did a simple search for her email address without any way to verify her identity.

The Important Stuff: My Overall Impressions

Straight to the point, my high-level thoughts:

  • SocialShield and other monitoring tools are gaining traction because there is real risk out there in the online world. The concept is a solid one. Many parents want a quick and, for the less savvy parents, easy way to keep on eye on their kids’ activity.
  • There is no way to automate parenting. We cannot assign responsibility to software or an online service to do the hard work for us. Nothing replaces having an ongoing dialogue with our children about the world and how to make the right choices. (More on this to come in an upcoming post.)
  • While the concept may be solid, SocialShield’s execution needs quite a bit of work  (examples below).

Specific concerns (in no particular order):

  • One of the key points in the ReadWriteWeb article was the endorsement of the PTA. While I was able to find this information repeated on many other websites, I could not find anything about it on either the PTA or the SocialShield websites. If the endorsement is real, I would expect to be able to verify it easily.
  • The FAQ section should be much more robust. For example, when my results indicated “adultlike accounts” for a huge number of my own and my daughter’s friends, I naturally wanted to understand the meaning of this term. Nowhere on the site is this explained. Does this mean that these people have LinkedIn profiles (which usually means the person is an adult) or that they post porn to their Facebook accounts? I tweeted the question to SocialShield and received this reply: “An account like costco really should be only for adults, not kids. we may find someone who says he’s a kid has this=red flag. A red flag like that says there’s something wrong and you need to look deeper at that person or account. we look at more than fifty sites like this to see if we can find suspicious items.” I’m pretty sure it wasn’t Costco that triggered hundreds of my friends to be labeled as an “adultlike account,” but I get the idea. Either way, the triggers and definitions need to be explained in order to be useful to parents.
  • I think most adults don’t understand what goes on behind the scenes when granting access through Facebook Connect. It is entirely unreasonable to generate the email shown earlier, send it to a (presumably) young child, expect them to read/understand it and then walk through the Facebook Connect process. There is no way for the parent to know ahead of time what will be sent to the child.
  • Take the results with a big grain of salt. Given that SocialShield told me it could find no photos of my daughter on Facebook (despite the fact that there are over 700) and that it returned a false positive MySpace result for my mother leads me to question the accuracy of the report.

These are my initial impressions after using SocialShield for two days. In this time span, the report has shown no new activity even though both my daughter and I (and our friends) have been active online. Obviously, the tool is not intended for short-term use, so you may choose to try it on your own. I look forward to hearing your feedback and experience with this and other similar tools.