AOL’s two new, easy-to-use safety tools

By Anne Collier

Not many Internet companies know more about parental controls than AOL, which has been providing a range of them longer than I’ve been writing about youth and tech (since ’97!). So I was interested to hear that AOL was releasing two very Web 2.0 tools, one free, the other $9.99/month. First the free one:

1. Safety Toolbar

This light little software app, which AOL says takes about a minute to download, is designed to be easy on families as well as their PCs. Another plus is that it’s one of those smart new parental “control” products that are as much about conversation as control, requiring openness on everybody’s part (see this on “soft power” parenting ). Kids know the software’s in place (the toolbar can’t be hidden) and parents know where kids have been on the Web. Features include customizable filtering with two levels to choose from (the G-rated one linking only to sites human-reviewed for kid-appropriateness and a less strict one more appropriate for teens); safe search (that adds a new safety layer on top of the filters provided by Google, Bing, and other search engines); kids’ Web activity reports that parents can have emailed to them or view from the toolbar; and a passworded on/off switch right in the toolbar. Right now, the tool works on Windows XP and Vista computers and, even though free, has no ads.

2. SafeSocial

A new study by AOL/Nielsen found that 29% of kids would unfriend their parents on Facebook if they could get away with it (the study also found 76% of FB-using parents say they’ve friended their kids). Well, now AOL has come up with a way for parents to keep tabs while giving kids and parents that option and reducing teen embarrassment levels. It’s offering a new tool called SafeSocial that lets you monitor your children’s social networking without friending them on Facebook.

This is another light tool that promotes parent-child conversations. To use SafeSocial to monitor a site, parents need to know the email addresses their kids used to set up their accounts on all the social sites you want to monitor (AOL says the product currently monitors 20 social sites, including Facebook and MySpace). It doesn’t log their every keystroke like more heavy-handed, “traditional” monitoring products – which may be needed if your child’s very uncommunicative and you feel s/he’s at risk in some way, but which could otherwise overwhelm you with teen communications you don’t want or need to see. Rather, it’s a convenient way to get a feel for how your kids are presenting themselves online. Because it monitors only their public Web activity, SafeSocial falls as much into the new reputation-management category as it does the filtering and monitoring categories of parental tools.

By “convenient,” I mean it flags activity parents would want to know about: social site friends registered as adults (do they have mutual friends with your child?), key words indicating risky activity, problematic photos your kids have posted or in which they’ve been flagged, etc. Where text is concerned, there are two levels of alerts. References to violence or suicide fall into the “severe alert” category, where an immediate email is sent to the parent, separate from the standard activity report. For more details, here’s the product’s FAQ, and here’s AOL’s parental-controls page.

If there are lingering doubts that teens could entertain fairly strong feelings about parental “friends” in Facebook, click over to, which gets “at least 20 embarrassing submissions a day from despondent teens,” the Los Angeles Times reports. If these two posts don’t bear out AOL’s research for you (Mom: “…didn’t want to be one of those parents who embarrass their kids on Facebook (because I love you so much sweetie pie)” or Mom: “Dad thinks you look like Cher Please change photo fast”), then maybe slightly more overt advice from fellow parent Sharon Cindrich in “Parental Faux Pas on Facebook” will help.

Anyway, you can tell I really like the sound of these products (which unfortunately are not yet available for Macs), because communication and informed parenting are baked right into them. I only wish software could ensure that conversations about kids’ online well-being were ongoing and mostly easygoing.

Related links

* AOL is launching SafeSocial in partnership with SocialShield, creators of the software, reports my ConnectSafely co-director Larry Magid in CNET, where (at the bottom of the article) you can click to an audio interview with Holly Hawkins AOL’s director of Consumer Policy and Child Safety.
* Here’s the full range of Web 2.0 safety tips and advice for parents at
* Why “soft power” parenting (and school discipline) works a lot better in the new media environment

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