WASHINGTON — With the days of teenagers having to call the family phone to get in touch with your child long past, cyberparents are looking for new ways to unobtrusively monitor what their children are doing, and with whom.
Nowadays, most older children have mobile phones and social media accounts, which can multiply the number of potential touch points with people parents would prefer their child avoid.
The Arlington-based company uKnowKids provides powerful web-based tools to help parents keep an eye on their children.
“Let’s take a typical teenager or middle-schooler,” says co-developer Tim Woda. “They may have a Facebook account, an Instagram account and a Twitter account.”
On a desktop, or with a uKnowMobile Android app, parents can monitor a child’s text messages, call history, downloaded apps and the pictures taken on the child’s phone. Text messages can be read by parents.
Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter mobile activity is also monitored, and the child’s location is available through the phone’s location services.
Most of the same services are available on iPhone, with the exception of monitoring SMS messages.
Despite the capability of watching almost every action a teen makes online, “our product is not used for spying on kids,” says Woda.
How is that not spying?
“The child needs to be a willing participant in the process,” says Woda.
Parents must obtain their child’s username and passwords for all of his or her social media accounts to use the service, and the child is made aware that what is done online will be visible to parents.
“They’d be able to see what pictures their child posts, what pictures are posted by other people where their child is tagged,” says Woda. “They’ll be able to get insight into when they make new friends online.”
A parent can monitor any online conversations between their children and adults.
“Are they with 42-year-old Uncle Steve, or 42-year-old Steve the plumber from down the the street who we have no idea who he is,” says Woda.
In addition to monitoring known social media accounts, uKnowKids also searches the Internet to alert parents about undisclosed accounts.
“So, they can say ‘Hey, honey, I didn’t know you had a Tumblr account. I thought we talked about that, the rules were you’d tell me if you created an online account,'” says Woda.
With the popularity of private messaging apps, including SnapChat and WhatsApp, Woda says some young people are determined to elude their parents’ scrutiny.
Woda says his company is constantly adapting to keep up with new developments in social media and technology.
“It’s a little bit like playing Whac-A-Mole,’ says Woda.
Putting online activity into perspective
Woda says what differentiates uKnowKids from other similar services, including SocialShield, ZoneAlarm SocialGuard and MinorMonitor, is the ability to crunch the data to find dangerous patterns and trends.
“We’ll look for things that might present a risk in the child’s life,” says Woda. “Like risky people or risky behaviors.”
“We’ll analyze patterns around usage,” says Woda. “Like maybe the reason your child is getting a D in Spanish isn’t a Spanish problem, but maybe that happens to be their peak Facebook hour.”
Parents can be alerted to potentially dangerous situations “like possible sexual content, possible threatening language, or possible solicitation,” says Woda.
Alerts are sent by email and though the online dashboard. In the near future, alerts will be sent by push notification to the parent’s phone.
In general, Woda says, the technical scrutiny is needed, because parents no longer have traditional ways of learning about people involved in their children’s lives.
“When you and I were young, our friends came to the front door,” says Woda. “They called the family phone, so mom and dad knew what we were doing and who we were doing it with.”