Parents today like to keep tabs on the online life of their kids, and exercise a degree of control over the experience. But usually this is via intrusive internet "nanny"-type software. Which may be why Symantec's offering its new OnlineFamily.Norton service, which seems like a more open and honest way to do the job.
OnlineFamily.Norton is setting itself apart from other similar services by being web-based, and "created by parents, for parents." While that could have resulted in a draconian, iron-clad piece of software, the actual product seems to be pretty sensible. It's got three main features: ease of use, encouragement of discussion, and customizability. The "ease of use" bit speaks for itself, with nobody wishing to take a lot of time fiddling with a tricky software tool—hence OnlineFamily settings are all web-accessible, and it auto-populates a suite of accounts that relate to age-appropriate content for each family member. The customizable tools let you control downloaded content by barring "more than 40 topic categories", adjust the settings of the auto-populated profiles for each child and work out what personal information your kids may have inadvertently shared. There's also a handy curfew setting, which will limit each user's internet time.
If you're in a situation where you need to snoop into what the kids are doing, then there's also the standard toolset for working out what keywords they've been searching for, and what sites they've visited—stripped of unnecessary adverts and so on, so that it's easier to view.
But if you're a more free-thinking parent, then OnlineFamily's best feature is likely to be those aspects designed to promote discussion. According to a survey carried out by Norton, 47% of the kids they spoke to admit to looking up "touchy" subjects, but only about 35% of the kids have discussed such issues with their parents. Norton suggests a dialog with kids is necessary. The "house rules" for each OnlineFamily user, for example, are clearly visible—it's not a sneaky, stealthy system, and that should encourage a discussion with your kids about what is and is not permissible. There is also a real-time messaging system that lets kids explain to you why they were attempting to access a blocked site, and custom email alerts to let you know if their time limit's up and so on. And with the rise of social networking, the system even lets you monitor how your kids "present themselves" online, which could also spark discussions about Facebook etiquette (parents might learn as much as the kids).
The service is free until January next year, which gives concerned parents an opportunity to test it out. But if you do, I'd suggest you work on your thinking about why you bar your kids from certain activities online—those free and frank discussions OnlineFamily promotes aren't guaranteed to be free from stress and tears.