IAC’s Ask.com buys Ask.fm and hires a safety officer to stem bullying

Ask.com, which is owned by IAC/InteractiveCorp., has acquired Ask.fm, a Latvia-based question and answer site that has come under criticism because of past incidences of bullying. The site, which allows people to anonymously ask questions of others, is widely used by teenagers who — in some cases — have been known to be less than civil.

As part of the acquisition, Ask.fm’s founders are leaving the company and it will now be managed by Ask.com CEO Doug Leeds. Ask also reached an agreement with the Attorneys General of New York and Maryland to establish a safety center and hire a chief trust and safety officer. That person is Catherine Teitelbaum, former director of global safety and product policy for Yahoo, and a well respected advocate for online child safety. The company is also working with former federal prosecutor and former MySpace chief safety officer Hemanshu Nigam, who currently heads up SSP Blue – a safety, privacy and security consulting firm.

As part of the agreement with the attorneys general, IAC has also pledged to maintain a user-initiated reporting mechanism on the site for reporting concerns about misuse, harassment, inappropriate content and misuse by children under 13. They will also remove users that have been the subject of three complaints and take “reasonable steps to block those users from creating new accounts under different user names.” The company also plans to work with non-profits to address issues such as suicide prevention and online safety and register with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (whose board I sit on) “and comply with all reporting requirements of sexual exploitation images.”


Safety is good business

In an interview, Leeds said that safety is not just the right thing to do, but also a good business decision. “In order for this site to become something bigger than it is today and hold a significant place in the pantheon of accepted social media sites, it had to put safety and the perception of safety as one of the very first things that it cares about.” Nigam agrees. “People who go to engage in interaction with others in a social media setting are not going there to be hurt, not going there to be bullied, they’re not going there to experience an unsafe environment. They’re going there to enjoy themselves, to learn and grow.”

Leeds said that he reached to the Attorneys General because he wanted their input before taking over the company.

Social media ‘flipped on its head’

Ask.fm., which was launched in 2010, has 180 million registered users and 42% of them are under 18. In describing the site, Leeds said, “It was flipping on its head” the push model of social media where people post that they think might interest others and instead “created this pull model where you post those things that other people want to know about you.” In other words, instead of my posting something that you might not care about, you would ask me a question that you do care about and I would answer it.

Anonymity isn’t necessarily bad

The site does allow anonymity, which means it’s possible for someone to ask questions without revealing their identity. The good news is that only the subject of that question will see it unless he or she chooses to post it, but it can still lead to some very hurtful interactions if people ask things like “why are you so ugly.” Although the site’s new administration will strive to reduce these types of hurtful questions, they do plan to maintain the ability for people to post anonymously. Teitelbaum said that “the option to ask questions anonymously is super important.” She pointed out that anonymity is not new to social media. There are numerous historical examples of anonymous authors and social benefit from other anonymous interactions such as tips to law enforcement. “It has an important role particularly for teens as they explore their identities and who they are going to grow up to be,” added Teitelbaum. As I wrote on a CNET post in April, Anonymous isn’t synonymous with ominous, there are lots of legitimate reasons for people to post anonymously ranging from whisteblowing, to exploring sexual identity to simply not wanting to forever be held accountable for what you’re thinking at the moment.

Shared responsibility

Ask.com’s efforts – and those of attorneys general and other law enforcement agencies – can help make things safer and more pleasant for users of all ages, but no matter how hard companies and cops work to protect users, the ultimate responsibility for safety remains with the user online just as it does in the physical world. People need to be aware that what they post affects others and themselves. Self-respect and respect for others along with engaging people in a civil manner (even while disagreeing) goes a long way towards creating a social media environment that we can all enjoy. The non-profit that I co-direct, ConnectSafely.org, has plenty of tips and advice on how to safety navigate social media and mobile services but — at the end of the day — it’s pretty simple. Be nice, respect others and remember that there is no such thing as an “eraser button” when it comes to online media.

This post first appeared on Forbes.com

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Safe computing includes minding your ergonomics

 I recently set up a new home office, which not only involved countless trips to Ikea, but also having to deal with ergonomics — something I hadn’t thought much about since the last time I set up an office.

Merriam Webster’s online dictionary defines ergonomics as “a science that deals with designing and arranging things so that people can use them easily and safely.” But like many things in life, it’s really part science and part art. While there are guidelines for such things as keyboard and monitor height, lighting and how you’re seated, it is not a one-size-fits-all proposition.

An Ikea table top and four adjustable legs allows you to tailor the height of your desk

An Ikea table top and four adjustable legs allows you to tailor the height of your desk

For example, the proper height of your keyboard or monitor depends not just on your overall height, but on the size of your torso and the length of your legs. The lighting in your office depends on the position of your monitor and even the type of computer you’re using. Even the acoustics matter. A noisy fan can affect your mood, even if you don’t notice it.

Even though I spend a lot of time using my MacBook Air, I’m one of those people who still has a desktop PC. But regardless of whether you use a laptop or a desktop, it’s important to have it at the right height and be sitting in a good chair. Having said that, I admit that I sometimes use my laptop at coffee shops, the kitchen table or even on a couch, where my posture and position is far from optimal. But even when you’re away from your usual work area, and regardless what kind of device you’re using, it’s still a good idea to think about ergonomics.

Most dining room tables and even traditional “writing” desks are too high for the average computer user. For my work area, I set up a desk that’s about 27 inches from the floor because that height seems appropriate for the length of my legs and torso and the position of my chair.

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration warns that “when keyboards are too low you may type with your wrists bent up, and when keyboards are too high, you may need to raise your shoulders to elevate your arms.” OSHA recommends that you “adjust the chair height and work surface height to maintain a neutral body posture” and suggests that elbows be “about the same height as the keyboard and hang comfortably to the side of the body,” with shoulders relaxed, and wrists not bent up or down.

It also recommends that you position your computer monitor directly in front of you, and not farther than 35 degrees to the left or right. And don’t squint. If the type is too small, you can adjust it within most programs (Microsoft Office and popular browsers allow you to zoom) or within the operating system.

Rather than buy a desk or computer workstation, I picked out a table top at Ikea along with four adjustable legs that I could position at any height. The legs cost $15 each and the top about $30, so the entire desk (made of fake wood with a rather nice looking veneer) cost about $90. I actually set up two identical desks in an L formation so I have plenty of room for two monitors, my laptop, a printer and the gear I use for my CBS News and KCBS radio broadcasts.

There are plenty of other ways to customize your work area. You could, for example, lay a door over two small filing cabinets, as long as the cabinets aren’t too high. If they’re too low, you can raise the height of the door or table top with pieces of plywood. I noticed that my desk was a little shaky when I typed so I put a matching 25-inch-high cabinet under the desktop and made up the difference using shims (small pieces of plywood) so it now helps support the table top.

Even if you don’t use your home office as a broadcast studio, you might still want to dampen the noise a bit or get rid of any echoes. For that I went to the House of Foam in Palo Alto and bought foam for the walls, which I then covered in decorative cloth that I picked out at FabMo, a Mountain View organization that lets people pick up designer fabric in exchange for a small donation. You can also use a foam mattress (about $20) or hang a rug on the wall.

My office chair has an adjustable seat height and tilt and, because it’s not quite firm enough, I added a lumbar support that helps my lower back.

Of course, equipment is only part of the solution. It’s also important to sit up straight, not slouch and be aware of your posture when you’re using a laptop or tablet away from your desk. And if you search for “cellphone ergonomics,” you’ll also get advice on how to use a cellphone without straining your neck.

My parents gave me good advice by telling me to watch my posture and sit up straight. But back then they couldn’t have anticipated how our work would shift from those old writing desks in today’s on-the-move technology-immersed work styles.

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Safety, security and privacy risks of fitness tracking and ‘quantified self’

Symantec is out with a report that raises questions about the safety and security of wearable technology.

In a report, How Safe is Your Quantified Self, Symantec “found security risks in a large number of self-tracking devices and applications,” including the finding that “all of the wearable activity-tracking devices examined, including those from leading brands,are vulnerable to location tracking.”

report from ABI Research estimates that  wearable computing device market will grow to 485 million annual device shipments by 2018 but lots of people are already wearing fitness trackers from Fitbit, Jawbone, Samsung and others and even more are using smartphone apps that track their movement throughout the day.

Report shows security risk of wearable devices

If your device is hacked, said Symantec, the perpetrators could know:

  • The mileage that you are covering
  • When you usually go running
  • Where you usually go running
  • Where you live
  • Your age, sex, height, and weight
  • Your heart rate
  • Your altitude
  • Steps taken
  • Where and when you are on vacation

In the clear

The report also found that 20% of the fitness apps “transmitted passwords in the clear.” A staggering  52 percent of apps examined did not make available privacy policies, according to the report.

The report suggests that “the information could be useful to governments, marketers, businesses, and of course cybercriminals.”

In an interview, Symantec’s Director of Security Response, Orla Cox said that “some applications were actually communicating with up to 15  different remote locations,”including “analytics companies and a variety of different organizations.” She said that “there are companies interested in this data,” and that “attackers are very much driven by money so it’s possible that this data could be taken and sold to third party companies.”

Cox said that securities companies are looking at developing security software for wearable devices. Symantec, like most security companies, already has software for mobile devices which, typically, are used to send the data back to servers, but that software isn’t likely to protect you for data that’s transmitted from the device itself, such as the Bluetooth signal it uses to connect with the phone.


Cox recommends that users of these devices turn off Wi-Fi and Bluetooth if you’re not using them and being “a little bit more wary when you’re installing applications and getting an understanding of what the application is going to do with your data.” She also suggests that device manufactures make it easier for consumers to turn off these signals when they’re not in use.


The MoveC300 watch I wear from Lifetrack is able to sync with Android and iOS devices but you have to press a sync button each time you want to transmit data. That not only makes it harder to hack but also preserves battery life, which is one of the reasons the watch can run for up-to a year on a coin-sized battery.

LifeTrack Move 300 requires you to press a button each time you sync

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Don’t let stalkers or abusers and creeps track your phone’s location

Modern cell phones know where you are. This can be a very good thing, but — in the wrong hands — it can also lead to potential abuse.

As Kaofeng Lee and Erica Olsen point out in the article, Cell Phone Location, Privacy and Intimate Partner Violence from the website of the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV):

Sharing one’s location can be quite dangerous, however, when a stalker or abuser uses this information to stalk, harass, and threaten. For victims of domestic violence, assault or stalking, knowing how much information may be inadvertently shared about them is key to planning for privacy and safety.

NNEDV has more advice at Cell Phone & Location Safety Strategies

Fortunately, there are ways to control your phone’s location features. I’ll get to specifics for iPhones and Android phones later in this article.

Location for first responders

Although there are now plenty of commercial uses for location-aware devices, they were first put there — and required by the federal government — so that first responders could find you in an emergency. If you dial 911 from a landline, the operator knows exactly where you are because they can trace that phone’s location. That didn’t used to be the case for cell phones but now 911 operators have access to geolocation data from GPS satellites, Wi-Fi hotspots, Bluetooth signals and cellular networks.

Lots of location apps

But now that data can also be used for navigation, commercial purposes and a wide variety of apps, including some designed specifically to share your location  with others. There are “phone finder” apps that allow you (or anyone who knows your Apple or Google ID and password) to track your phone. There are apps designed to share your location with friends or family and there are apps like Yelp, Facebook and Foursquare designed to share your location with the app developer and — depending on how you use them — your friends on those services. Even photos you take with your smart phone (or a regular digital camera) can record your location and disclose it to those you share the photos with.

Turning off location (almost) completely

The good news is that (with the exception of e-911), you can turn off location completely or limit what apps have access to that location. Here’s how to turn it off (almost) completely:

iPhone or other iOS device:
This advice applies to iOS 7. Here’s an Apple help page that covers other versions

1. Go to Settings > Privacy > Location Services

2. Turn location services off by touching or swiping the Location Services slider. You can also turn off location awareness of specific apps by touching or swiping their slider just below the general location setting.



Location settings can be slightly different on different Android devices but in general:

Go to Settings and scroll down until you see Location. In some cases you need to first select General and then Location.

google lll


Controlling location history and what apps have access

You may want to use location for some purposes, such as navigation, but turn it off for other apps.

On an iPhone just below where you turn location on or off completely, you’ll find a list of apps that may be location aware. Simply turn off location for any apps that you don’t want to be able to access that information.

On an Android phone you can sometimes control location awareness from individual app’s menus. If not, consider deleting the app or turning off location in general.

Google also stores location history but you can turn that off or delete what’s been collected.

  1. Open Google Settings  from your device’s apps menu:
    • Devices running Android 4.3 or lower: Touch Location > Location History.
    • Devices running Android 4.4: Touch Account History > Google Location History > Location History.
  2. Touch Delete Location History at the bottom of the screen.
  3. Read the dialog box that appears, check the box next to “I understand and want to delete,” and touch Delete.
    (Source: Google location help page)

You can also delete specific location history by logging into your Google account and going to Google’s Location History website. From there you can delete individual locations, locations by date, or your entire location history.

Other considerations

Be aware that anyone who has physical access to your device can change the settings, so be careful who has access and check the settings periodically if you have reason to worry. Also, be careful about the apps that you install and how you use them. Look at the permissions that they ask for (especially location) and if you do install an app that can disclose your location, be careful how you use it. Something as innocuous as recommending a restaurant you’ve visited could get you in trouble. Kaofeng Lee & Erica Olsen recommend that domestic violence survivors “put a lock code on the phone” to make it harder for an abuser to modify your settings and they further warn survivors to “be careful not to install programs that are unknown, especially if the suggested app is from the abuser or mutual friends. Survivors should also make sure that family and friends do not download apps onto their phone without knowing about it or knowing what the app does.”

Parents can get mobile phone advice from A Parents’ Guide to Mobile Phones from ConnectSafely.org (the non-profit Internet safety organization where I serve as co-director).

This post first appeared on Forbes.com

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Don’t let stalkers or abusers and creeps track your phone’s location

Read the full post at Forbes.com

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Let’s stop persecuting ‘Auschwitz selfie girl’ for smiling at a camera

I grew up Jewish so I’m naturally very sensitive to the horrors that took place at Auschwitz during the Holocaust. I’m also very critical of Holocaust deniers and those who would minimize what the Nazis did to Jews, gays and other “undesirables.”


This selfie of a girl in front of Auschwitz has prompted unfair social media outrage

But I think we need to give that young girl who took a selfie at the concentration camp a break. Alabama teenager Breanna Mitchell has been vilified in social media for gross insensitivity for doing what many others have done before her.

I’ve been to concentration camps and other infamous places including ground zero in New York, Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam and battlefields in the U.S. and other countries where countless people were slaughtered and I’ve seen people taking pictures of themselves in front of these scenes with a big smile on their face. It’s natural. It’s what we’re taught to do when we stand in front of a camera.

And just because someone smiles in front of such a site, doesn’t mean they’re insensitive to what happened there. Breanna tweeted and told a TV interviewer (scroll down to watch) that she does “understand what happened there” and had planned to visit there with her dad, who died before they could make the trip.

Had this been a seasoned politician or journalist, I might criticize them (perhaps gently) for misjudgment. But this is a teenage girl who visited the site because she has a strong interest in the history of World War II and the Holocaust. If anything, she should be congratulated for caring about what happened there.


If I saw her partying at the site or trying to diminish the horror and historical importance of what happened there, I would think she was being insensitive, but smiling? Come on, we’re all taught to smile in pictures. I’d like to think I would have the judgement not to smile at such a locale, but I honestly can’t swear that I’ve never posed with a smile for a picture at such an important but horrible place.

It’s hard not to agree with her followup tweet, asking people to “quit tweeting to, quoting, retweeting and favoriting my picture…”

Look, social media is great. It’s our international “water cooler,” where we share our thoughts about just about anything. But sometimes it’s just too easy for people to use social media to express judgements that condemn others before really thinking about how you are affecting that person and his or her reputation.

So, this is a teachable moment for all of us. On one hand it’s a wakeup call to put more thought into those “selfies” and other spontaneous pictures that can so easily go viral. But on the other hand, it’s a lesson for the rest of us as well. “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”


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Privacy and security tips for newly-minted college students

Univerity of Califirona Berkeley (Flickr Creative Commons -- photographer unknown)

University of California Berkeley (Flickr Creative Commons)

This post first appeared on Forbes.com

by Larry Magid

Congratulations. After a long and sometimes stressful childhood you (or your teen) are ready for college. It’s a big step that involves a great deal of freedom and independence and an exciting time.

When I started college, the big “risks” were gaining weight (the “freshman 15″), drugs and alcohol and of course accidents. Those are still with us, but so are hackers, online privacy risks and the possibility of getting into trouble because of something posted about you on social media.

Don’t drink and post

Depending on where it's taken, a picture like this could get a student into trouble (Flicr Creative Commons Gregg O'Connel)

Depending on where it’s taken, a picture like this could get a student into trouble (Flickr Creative Commons Gregg O’Connell)

There are verified cases of students being disciplined and even expelled because of what’s posted about them online. For example, it’s hardly shocking to hear about students under 21 enjoying a forbidden adult beverage in their dorm room, but when those pictures wind up on social media, school officials sometimes feel as if they have no choice but to take disciplinary action. Even if (as many do) you think it’s OK for an 18-year-old to drink in a dorm room, don’t force officials to react by doing so in public. The same, of course, goes for drugs or anything else that violates the law or school policy.

Hemanshu Nigam, a former federal prosecutor and one-time head of MySpace security who now runs SSP Blue, a safety, security and privacy consulting firm for online businesses, suggests that students “treat your social media presence like its your resume for future employers while you still have all the fun college is meant to deliver.”


Many college students have roommates or at least suite mates and while you don’t want to hide things from your roomies, you do want to make sure that they aren’t riffling through your files. Of course, common courtesy should be sufficient to avoid that, but putting a password on your computer, tablet and phone can help keep a curious roommate or visitor from acting on an impulse. As always, don’t share those passwords with anyone, including roommates. Also, be aware of what you’re posting and what’s on your laptop’s screen when in the library or other public spaces,


Cybersecurity is important for us all, but especially when you’re on a public or semi-public network like campus networks. Again, use strong passwords but also make sure that you’re using appropriate firewall and security software. Check with your school IT department as to what it recommends and whether it offers free software and/or security assistance. This may have been fixed since then, but when my son was living in a dorm at UCLA, he was able to see some of the files of his fellow residents because they were sharing a network and not properly securing their computers.

Physical security

Be very careful to protect your equipment from theft and loss. Kensington makes a security cable that enables you to lock (most) laptops to a desk or table. Make sure that any tablets and phones have the “find my phone” feature turned on. Both Apple and Android equip their phones and tablets with software that enables you to locate the device remotely and cause it to ring or wipe the data, but for the service to work, the device has to be turned on and connected to the Internet via WiFi or a cellular network. SSP Blue’s Nigam suggests that students “scratch your name, email and phone on all your devices in places where the ‘thief’ may not look.” He said that it’s very common for devices to get stolen and then recovered and this helps campus and regular police know it really belongs to you, especially if a student decides to remote wipe a stolen device.

Campus data breaches

There is also the risk that the school’s network and servers will suffer a data breach that can affect your personal information. There is little you can do to protect yourself from an attack on a cloud-system you don’t control, but if it happens, be sure to carefully monitor your bank and credit card accounts, your social media accounts and your campus accounts. You should change all of your passwords and avoid using the same password for multiple sites. Here’s advice on how to create and manage strong, unique passwords that are easy for you to remember and hard for others to guess.

For additional advice, check out ConnectSafely’s Parents Guides (that apply to students, too) on cybersecurity, mobile phones, Instagram, Snapchat and cyberbullying.

Also see ConnectSafely’s

Tips for Strong, Secure Passwords


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LG’s new tracking watch for young children


There are lots of apps that can allow a parent to track their child’s phone. Assuming the phone and kid are together and the phone is turned on and in range, you can also use those apps to track your kid.

But now there’s a wearable device from LG just for that purpose. The KizON wristband, which was just released in South Korea and will be available in the U.S. and Europe later this year, comes in blue, pink and green and enables parents to track their kids from a smartphone or tablet. It’s also a phone without a dial, that the parents can use to call the kid or the kid can use to call a parent by pressing a button.

“Children as well as the elderly are ideal customers for wearable technologies,” said Dr. Jong-seok Park, president and CEO of LG Electronics Mobile Communications Company. He added that “Wearables allow us to stay connected without the worry of losing a device or the inconvenience of having to carry a large item in a pocket.”

The device’s battery is rated for 36 hours and parents will get an alert on their phone if the battery falls below 25%.


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The ‘real world’ is a lot more dangerous than cyberspace

by Larry Magid

This post first appeared on Forbes.com

The media is full of horror stories about online dangers, but — in all but a few categories — offline risk dwarfs its online equivalent.

Stranger danger vs. trusted adults

Let’s start with children. Every parent worries about their kids being harmed by strangers, but – whether offline or on — children are at far more risk from trusted adults than people they don’t know.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Facts, Myths and Statistics page, “in as many as 93% of child sexual abuse cases, the child knows the person that commits the abuse” and as many as 47% of the perpetrators are family or extended family members. And there are numerous cases of abuse by teachers, clergy, police officers, pediatricians and others kids trust. Based on actual risk statistics, instead of keeping kids offline, maybe we should keep them away from school, clinics, houses of worship and even their own homes.

We also worry about cyberbullying, but research from the Centers for Disease Control and other studies puts both the rate of cyberbullying below physical bullying. And, where cyberbullying does occur, it typically is an adjunct to bullying at school or other places where children gather. If you are concerned about cyberbullying, check out this parents’ guide I helped write.

Even sexting, which sometimes gets kids into legal trouble, has been blown out of proportion. As a general rule, I think it’s a bad idea to send out naked pictures of yourself — even to an intimate partner, but lots of people do and most of the time the pictures stay where they are intended and aren’t shared. But as problematic as it might be, it’s arguably a form of “safe sex” that — unlike real sex — can’t possibly cause a sexually transmitted disease or an unwanted pregnancy.

Physical safety

Like most parents, I worried about my kids’ physical safety, but I was a lot more worried about car and even bike accidents than about online dangers.  Hundreds of thousands of children and teens are injured annually in car accidents.

And don’t forget school sports. Every year children are injured playing baseball, football, soccer and other sports. Yet most families encourage school sporting programs because of all the benefits. Social networking, texting and smartphone use also benefits and even though they are associated with some risk, the harms associated with these technologies are a lot lower than what can happen on an athletic field.   According to Safe Kids Worldwide (not affiliated with my site, SafeKids.com), one in three children who plays a team sport is injured seriously enough to miss practice or games.

I’ve been a print and online journalist since the 1980′s but the most dangerous job I’ve ever had in the publishing industry was when I delivered newspapers by bicycle as a kid.

Although we were of course concerned about our kids’ online contacts, my wife and I were a lot more concerned about the friends they knew from school. Most, of course, were great, but I can think of a couple of who were pretty bad influences on our kids who, fortunately, had the discipline, resilience and self-respect to resist those negative influences. And there were also those non-friends, including the girls who bullied my daughter in middle school and the boys that bullied me in school, long before there even was an Internet.

And lest you think things have gotten worse since kids started going online, check out The Internet, Youth Safety and the Problem of “Juvenoia” by Crimes Against Children Research Center director David Finkelhor who points out that since the early 90′s, the rates of sexual assault, unwanted pregnancy and even bullying, crimes committed by teens and teen suicide has gone down, not up.

Risk for adults

Adults face risks both online and off. For example, there are risks associated with shopping online, but there are also risks when you shop offline. Your wallet could be stolen, you could leave the credit card at the store, the clerk could clone your card or you could have a car accident on your way to or from the store.

Adults who date online also take risks, but so do those who meet their partners in bars and other locations.

Regardless of our age, there are privacy risks when going online or using smartphones and I would agree that online tracking, phone geolocation features and the hundreds of thousands of mobile apps do present some privacy concerns that we don’t have in the physical world.  Still, there are plenty of reasons to worry about privacy in non-cyber settings, including school, workplaces, hospitals and even grocery stores that track what we buy. Failing to shred sensitive paper records remains a risk as does talking about private matters in public.

The bottom line is that we need to be concerned about all risks whether online or off, but we should thinking that technology related risks are any more pernicious or serious than ones we’ve been taking for centuries.

And, whether the risk comes from online or offline activities, we also need to remember that life can never be risk free. Everything we do has risks and the trick is to try to balance those risks while still enjoying life.


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Why I don’t want to hear about any new parental control products

It’s hard to get through a week without hearing about a new product designed to protect children online or on mobile devices. Some of these products block content, others give parents some control over who their kids can communicate with but most offer some sort of monitoring, giving parents a glimpse into what their kids are doing on their mobile and other connected devices. Increasingly, these products are being marketed as a way of detecting and preventing bullying.

It’s not uncommon for these products to be developed or at least inspired by parents who have had an experience with their kid being bullied or exposed to inappropriate material. The parent may have been outraged by the incident with a sincere desire to help other parents avoid the same issues.

My advice to anyone thinking about creating such a product is to first take stock of the many other products and services in this already saturated field and second take note that even those products — collectively — have relatively low penetration rates.

I also urge any would-be parental control entrepreneurs to consider that one product can’t possibly serve all families. Controls that block inappropriate content usually work well for young children but not for older ones. Products to monitor Internet or mobile use may be necessary for some kids, but not for most. Studies have shown that kids who get into some type of trouble online are usually risk-takers in other aspects of their lives as well. And if you think a monitoring program will stop cyberbullying, consider that the majority of bullying takes place in-person and not online, and even when it is online (or mobile) it is often a reflection of what’s going on at school or wherever kids gather in the physical world. For more on bullying, see A Parents’ Guide to Cyberbullying.

And, before you think you’re going to earn a lot of money from your product, be aware that there are a number of excellent free parental control tools from Microsoft, Symantec and other companies.

I’m not aware of any accurate up-to-date data on the parental control marketplace but everyone I’ve spoken with in the know admits that it’s pretty small. A 2011 study done by Hart Research for the Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI) found that just over half the parents (53 percent) said they have used controls to limit or monitor their child’s online behavior with products ranging from PC filtering programs that limit what sites a child can visit to services that monitor children’s activities on mobile devices. But “have used” is not the same as using. I’m one of many parents who used controls for a short period of time and then stopped after realizing that having occasional conversations with my kids was a more effective, and lasting, way to influence their behavior. 

Even though the survey found that 47 percent of parents haven’t used these tools, 87 percent of them were aware that such tools are available, and 93% had a set rule to limit or monitor their children’s Internet usage. Parents know these products exist and most have other ways to help their kids stay safer online.

That same study found that 60% of parents who are not using controls say that controls aren’t necessary because they have household rules that their kids follow.

And even for parents who do feel a need to use parental-control software or service, it’s important to remember that they are never a substitute for common sense, engaged parenting and — most important — teaching kids to be respectful of others, self-protective and resilient. Eventually your kids will grow up and one of the purposes of childhood is to learn to protect yourself long after mommy and daddy and whatever tools they employ are off the job.

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FOSI survey summary. Click here or on image for full-size infographic


Digital citizenship & media literacy beat tracking laws & monitoring

Evolution of online safety: Lessons learned over 20 years

The Internet, Youth Safety and the Problem of ‘Juvenoia’,” by David Finkelhor PhD

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