We will spy on your teen's website for you
More and more worried parents are resorting to using data-tracking services to keep up with what their teenagers are doing on the internet, writes Siobhan Cronin
Irish parents are the best in Europe at monitoring their kids on the internet. However, their kids are the least likely of all European children to turn to mum or dad for advice when something happens to them online.
These were the results of a recent survey by the European Commission into internet supervision by parents.
While our parents might be good at keeping tabs on their kids, cyber bullying is still on the increase, sometimes with tragic results.
Cork girl Leanne Wolfe's horrific tales of bullying were revealed in her diary, days after her death by suicide last year.
Her sister later told of the nasty text messages and vicious internet entries which led Leanne to take her own life.
It is real-life stories like Leanne's which have led thousands of American parents -- and now a few hundred Irish ones -- to resort to using a service that will keep tabs on what their children are reading, and uploading, on the web.
But it's not just bullying that worries parents. Unfettered access to the web for our kids has also meant open access to them from anyone who is 'roaming' around in cyberspace.
This has led some parents to take the ultimate action -- spying on their own children.
The founder of Reputation Defender, Michael Fertik, has been called to justify his online service: "Would you like to know your 16-year-old daughter is putting pictures of herself wearing only a bra on the web? Yes. People are not born with good judgment and it rarely develops by 15," he says.
But another defence of Fertik's service is, he claims, the prevalence of web bullying.
"When we were at school, we wrote mean notes to each other but you threw the piece of paper out the next day -- now it's on the internet wall forever," he says.
Fertik's solution, MyChild, scours the internet for all references to your child -- by name, photography, screen name, or social network profiles.
For about €9.95 per month, the 'online spy' will send you a report of what your child has posted on the worldwide web.
Its approach is unashamedly tapping into parents' paranoia: "Worried about bullies? Concerned that your teens' friends and peers are posting inappropriate materials online," the site asks.
Fertik, who says he has a "few hundred" Irish customers already, says his company grew out of a need to protect online privacy.
"Young people do the same things that they always did," he points out. But now it's on a wall on a web page. The internet is like a tattoo parlour."
The firm, which started in his apartment in Kentucky, and now employs 65 staff servicing 35 countries, brought in revenues of $5.5m (€4.3m) this year.
He insists there is no "hacking" involved. His staff go through legitimate channels, but are simply better trained in the ways of teenage internet usage than most parents.
"We always encourage the parent to get the password -- we don't want to be spying on kids," he adds.
One of the things that often causes concern among parents is the practice of their own lives being discussed on a website. "These things have always been discussed by children, but now it's up there for everyone to see. Things like: 'My parents are fighting' or 'I think they are going to get a divorce'."
In pre-web days, we all had very intimate conversations with our peers about our home lives -- either in person, or on the phone. Now it's all on the internet, Fertik notes.
Once the offending material is identified, Reputation Defender can delete it, on the instructions of the parent, whether it involves comments, photographs or videos posted on social-networking sites, or on chat rooms or forums.
The service has become so popular that the company now offers packages to adults to manage search engine results, 'reputation' for career purposes, and general 'privacy' -- so that you can stop sites selling your personal information to others.
But that very privacy is the reason that children's rights organisations around the world have come out strongly against the practice.
Michael McLoughlin of Youthwork Ireland, which provides support and youth services for over 40,000 young people, says that while there may be some justification of the service for younger teens, this could become somewhat blurred when dealing with children of 16 or 17 years of age.
"At that stage in their lives they should really know what they are doing themselves," he says. Youthwork Ireland is currently preparing guidelines for youth workers dealing with online bullying. "We try to tool them up on social networking, and try to improve the safety aspects."
The ISPCC agrees that children need to be made aware of the risks of online networking. However, National Childline Manager Margie Roe says that while parents need to respect privacy and maintain trust, they also need to police their children if they think they might be in any danger.
"If a parent is concerned about their child, they have a right to protect them," she says.
"They need to be careful they don't damage the trust between them and their child, but if they feel their behaviour is in anyway unusual, or their child is disappearing a lot, then it could be justified."
This would be particularly relevant if parents are concerned their children might be making plans to hook up with people they have only met online, says Margie.
Michael Fertik is adamant that he is not doing anything ethically wrong.
"If a kid is 18 or older, we won't do it. Parents who are signing up for this feel they don't know how to keep up with their kids and they don't understand Facebook or Bebo."
He says the children themselves have mastered the art of 'multiple' personalities, in order to make discovery of their sites more difficult, but Reputation Defender is on their case.
However, even Fertik's own 'solution' can be subject to unsavoury interference. The system flags a query when the last name of the parent does not match the child's, prompting further requests from the applicant, before they are given information on the child's use of the web.
Fertik's attitude appears to be that online surveillance is now a necessary evil in our modern world.
"There is no medical privacy for kids, no legal privacy. We are not suggesting they shouldn't be allowed use the internet, but it's like driving a car -- you want to make sure they know how to drive first.
"We are not spying on someone else's kid. It's a new day, the internet brings new threats, and we need new armour."