Social Icons


Monday, October 10, 2011


TypePersonalOS CompatibilityWindows Vista, Windows XP, Windows 7Tech SupportPhone, chat, email.More

As a parent you have a pretty good chance of meeting your children's friends, perhaps at a school function, or while giving them all a ride to jai alai practice. You don't get any similar opportunity to check out their social network friends. SocialShield ($10/month or $96/year direct) tracks your child's social networking activity and warns if it encounters dangerous reputation-damaging activity. Unlike traditional parental control tools, it sticks strictly to social network monitoring.

SocialShield specifically tracks Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, FormSpring, and Google+. Google+ appeared in the lineup just as this review was going to print, and the company plans to keep expanding the service's range. ZoneAlarm SocialGuard ($19.99 direct for five licenses, 4 stars) performs a very similar function, but it focuses strictly on Facebook.

Full Disclosure versus Privacy
ZoneAlarm SocialGuard warns parents about problems like cyberbullying, dangerous links, account hacking, and problems with friends. However, by design it avoids recording all Facebook activity. Parents can view the child's list of friends and specific problem posts, but they don't get full access to the account.

MinorMonitor (Free, 4 stars) also focuses solely on Facebook and also only shows comments that may be a problem. Parents can view comments in context only if the child's Facebook security settings allow it. MinorMonitor also offers interesting statistics including a graph of Facebook activity for each hour of the day.

In contrast to these two, SocialShield does record all social networking activity. However, it strongly emphasizes alerting parents to actual problems. The company suggests parents respect the child's privacy by steering clear of the full activities list except when they need to dig up context for a reported problem. On the other hand, they strongly recommend that parents obtain the child's account password, to be used only if a cyberbullying investigation requires it.

SafetyWeb ($100 direct, 4 stars) swings the other way. Using only information that's available to the public, it alerts parents to possibly dangerous posts and helps children secure anything that might affect online reputation. SafetyWeb can also track phone usage and alert parents about abuse.

Other products impact the child's privacy more than any of these. In particular, Bsecure Online v6.16 ($49.95 direct for three licenses, 4.5 stars) and AVG Family Safety ($19.95 direct for three licenses, 4.5 stars) capture the child's login credentials, giving parents complete and total access.

Cooperation Required
Before setting up SocialShield you'll want to sit down with your child and explain what the service is and how it can help them. The next step is to install the SocialShield app on the child's various accounts. Parents can install the Facebook app directly, if they have the child's password, or invite the child to log in and accept the app.

There's also an option to have SocialShield send the child an email invitation with a personal message from the parent. The child can click a link to accept the app without giving away login credentials.

Clearly this product can't function without the child's cooperation. It's easy enough to uninstall an app, or limit its privileges. Don't know how to do that? Ask your kids!

Online Monitor
SocialShield is a fully Web-based service, like SafetyWeb and MinorMonitor. You can log into its console from any computer. By contrast, ZoneAlarm SocialGuard runs from a local client program, so you can only view its reports from the computer where it was initially installed.

The main SocialShield overview page summarizes all activity that might be problematic, using a green/yellow/red safety dial to represent the child's overall reputation score. It further breaks out four specific areas of interest: friend-related safety, safety related to words in posts, reputation related to words in posts, and photo-related reputation. For each category it offers a link to the latest alerts.

There are two levels of alerts, critical and warning. Parents get real-time email notification of critical alerts, and these have more of an effect on the overall score. Newer alerts also count more than older ones. A weekly email summarizes all alerts, with links to get more details.

Clearly some alerts will be false positives. That new 60-year-old friend isn't a problem if it's the child's grandma, for example. And despite SocialShield's efforts to fine-tune detection of problematic language using context, some posts will always be flagged incorrectly. I like the fact that parents can simply dismiss these false positives, removing them from the child's reputation score.

Alert Types
Like ZoneAlarm SocialGuard, SocialShield analyzes friend activity and warns if its analysis suggests problems. It will warn if it suspects an adult pretending to be a kid, or an adult sending your child a friend request. Someone who has no friends in common with your child may also be flagged as suspicious. SocialShield's algorithms for analyzing relationships are proprietary. They don't want pedophiles gaming the system, so they don't spell out details.

Posts containing profanity or talk of violence, sex, drugs, depression, or suicide will trigger an alert, as will posts that seem to involve arranging a real-world meet-up. Photos are flagged when the service detects comments that suggest a problem.

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