Parents, Kids, and the Internet: The Evolution of Online Protection Tools

by | Jan. 24, 2014

Statistics about Kids, the Internet, and Social Networking

At a time when both social networking and Internet access (particularly on mobile devices) have proliferated, it has become far more difficult for parents to keep tabs on their children’s online activities. Whereas previously parents might have relied on website filtering and blocking software to minimize their children’s access to potentially harmful websites, it’s much harder to control their access today. Below are some statistics from recent studies:

  • According to a 2013 study by McAfee, 95% of young people (age 10-23) have at least one social media account.
  • In its own 2013 study, Kaspersky Labs reports that vast numbers of children attempt to access websites that are inappropriate.
  • A 2013 study from AVG and Plymouth University finds that nine out of ten (89 percent) of all parents with children in primary and secondary school believe their child has not been involved in cyberbullying or sexting (as either the perpetrator or victim). The McAfee study, however, reveals that 27% of youth have witnessed “cruel behavior” online, with 13% indicating that they have been victims of such behavior.

A 2012 study from the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project reveals that 50% of parents with teens have used parental controls in an attempt to manage their child’s Internet use. Another 31% have configured privacy settings on their child’s social networking account. However, the McAfee study finds that children are quite adept at circumventing the controls that parents attempt to place on their use. For example:

  • 58% of tweens say they know how to hide what they do from their parents, and this number jumps to 65% for teens, and 80% for young adults.
  • 69% of young people continue to take some measure to hide their online behavior from their parents.

It’s not just social networking about which parents needs to be concerned. The amount of texting among teens skyrocketed between 2009 and 2012, according to the Pew Research Center. This presents new challenges to keeping an eye on kids’ behavior, particularly with such behavior as “sexting” a huge risk to youngsters. With smartphones becoming the norm among teens, parents have the dual threat of malicious or dangerous behavior manifesting itself – whether on the web, through apps and social networks, and in communication – all outside the home.

Announcements from CES Pertinent to Parental Controls

There were several announcements of note from the 2014 International Consumer Electronics Show that pertain to parental controls. The announcements that I saw all pertain to how parents can leverage tools within the home network to better controls how their kids access the Internet while in the residence. For example:

  • Qualcomm unveiled its Internet Processor (IPQ) system-on-chip (SoC) solution that is intended for so-called “headless” connected devices such as set-tops, routers, and media servers. Qualcomm has integrated parental control and monitoring software from Qustodio that not only incorporates traditional parental controls elements such as filtering and blocking, but also tracks kids’ online use and can report to parents if dangerous activity (inappropriate language, cyberbullying, etc.) is detected.
  • Linksys showed off a new router that has - among many features - the ability to help parents manage the Internet use at home on kid's devices.
  • Prior to CES, a company called PowerCloud Systems announced that it was working with a group called Common Sense Media on its solution to use a Wi-Fi network management tool to better enable parental controls. The company’s Skydog smart router incorporates both blocking and filtering as well as reporting capabilities.


Social Networking Monitoring and Analysis

The announcements from Qualcomm and PowerCloud Systems point to a relatively recent focus for parental controls – monitoring and reporting. Instead of just blocking and filtering the websites that kids access or resorting to spy tactics like keystroke logging and recording, this new class of parental monitoring solutions aims to alert parents for dangers that might be lurking on the Internet and/or social networks. These can include cyberbullying, predators, and discussions about such topics and drugs or sex. Many of these products work using a keyword tracking system that is inherent in the product and can be updated and managed by parents as the needs arise.

Examples of such solutions include Avira Social Network Protection, BullGuard Premium Protection, MinorMonitor, Net Nanny Social, SafetyWeb,, SociallyActive, and TrueCare. Providers of antivirus and anti-malware software, such as AVG, BitDefender, McAfee, Symantec, and Trend Micro also have social networking monitoring solutions.

Social Networking and Communications Intelligence Tools

Beyond monitoring social network activity by keyword alerts, the evolution of parental controls has now reached an area that we’ve termed parental intelligence. One challenge to solutions that rely on keyword alerts or keystroke logging is the deluge of information that parents may receive, forcing them to sift through tons of data to figure out what their children are doing. Another potential frustration with these solutions is that they are not necessarily nuanced to detect the context of a conversation that a child may be having online. For example, Junior discussing a sex education class is very different conversation than one pertaining to other more nefarious activities.

Currently, three solutions around found in an area classified as parental intelligence tools.  Instead of logging, controlling, or recording, these solutions use natural language/semantic tools to better understand the context and sentiment behind communication. Parents won’t get overwhelmed with reports about their child’s activity, but instead received detailed analyses about potential threats and out-of-bounds activity. Companies in this realm include uKnowKids, PureSight, and United Parents. Instead of reams of information presented to parents, these solutions use dashboards that present parents with a much more focused look at a child’s online and social networking activity, with an emphasis on potential dangers or malicious behavior. Also, these tools are presented as ways in which parents can initiate conversations with their children about online dangers, in addition to simply keeping tabs on their behavior. As one executive told us in a briefing, tools like these help to keep “good kids good.”

Industry Trends Point to Increased Activity in This Space

Several acquisitions in the past couple of years point to heightened awareness that major Internet Security Vendors (ISVs) and others are placing on social networking monitoring tools. Recent acquisitions include:

Already, companies like uKnowKids have significant wins, as their solutions are already being white-labeled by major service providers. For example, Comcast’s Family Sense® solution ($9.95 per month) is powered by uKnowKids. It’s just one example of how we’ll see both service providers, software vendors, and hardware manufacturers implement enhanced tools to help parents keep tabs on their kids.

As the number of Internet-connected devices skyrocket, access to the web becomes only easier for youngsters. While this presents significant opportunities in education and collaboration, it also brings with it huge challenges for parents in monitoring behavior and figuring out the best way to discuss sensitive issues such as bullying, sex, drug use, and other dangerous behaviors. The evolution of parental controls tools continues, and it will be interesting to watch how software companies, service providers, and hardware manufacturers, create new solutions to try to keep pace with significant technology challenges.

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