Most parents with a teen or 'tween would rest more comfortably at night if they knew what websites their children were browsing online. Given the emergence of two wildly popular online communities—MySpace and Facebook—and new social networks springing up every month, it's a tall task for parents to determine which sites their kids are logged onto, what information they're sharing, and with whom.
MySpace has come under fire for the very quality that made it a success: making it easy for anyone and everyone to create a site of their own. In the process of enabling all users, it may have unintentionally enabled sexual predators that falsify information in order to lure young "friends" into their circle. However, MySpace plans to go on the offensive against would-be offenders with its Zephyr tracking software, which is designed to help parents keep tabs on what their teens are doing on MySpace. Some may view it as an invasion of privacy, but many see it as a necessary move for concerned parents.
"It's a little bit like a parent sneaking into a teen's bedroom to check up on their diary," says John Blossom, president and senior analyst with Shore Communications, a consulting and research services firm. "Kind of creepy. But if you think that your kid has drifted far off the mark sometimes a parent may have to resort to something fairly creepy."
Currently in development and scheduled for release this summer, The Windows-only Zephyr software will notify parents whenever someone logs into a MySpace account from that machine and will provide the name, age, and location their children have entered on MySpace. Zephyr does not grant parents access to their children's profiles and it does not let them see email or other password-protected communications.
"We believe that parents are the first line of defense when it comes to protecting teens in the offline and online worlds," says Hemanshu Nigam, chief security officer of MySpace, "and they should have as many tools as possible to safeguard their families."
MySpace is banking on its Zephyr software's ability to track when a child's profile is accessed to enable parents to act if need be. But some think that the best approach is for parents to be up-front and forthcoming with their children if they're concerned with what they are doing on MySpace.
"The best way for a parent to keep tabs on a teen's use of MySpace is for the parent to get their own MySpace account and become their teen's MySpace friend," says Kevin Farnham, author of the book MySpace Safety: 51 Tips for Teens and Parents. "When you do this, you're able to view everything that is publicly available on your teen's MySpace site, even if your teen has her account set to ‘private.'"
Zephyr will not provide account passwords to users, and according to MySpace's Nigam, the software will disclose that it is installed on the computer in use, and it will notify the teen upon log-in that the parent will be provided with limited, publicly available information from the teen's profile.
Shore's Blossom says of the Zephyr software, "I think that all parties will benefit from this service as long as it's used specifically for monitoring underage users of MySpace by their parents or legal guardians. The greater question is how—or whether—it would be used for other monitoring purposes by other parties." Or, closer to home, whether it will suffice to protect children whose lives are increasingly public, and vulnerable, online.