Norton Online Family gives parents new tools to monitor kids

Symantec is introducing Norton Online Family, software for the PC and Mac intended to give parents a way to keep track of what their children are doing online via up to five household PCs and a cloud-based analysis service that provides reports.

Symantec’s Norton consumer division today introduced the beta version of a product www.onlinefamily.com intended to let parents monitor children’s online activities, generating reports for review, including red flags to note questionable behavior.

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Norton Online Family, offered as a free beta for download today and expected to ship in the second quarter for Windows and the Mac, lets parents monitor a wide array of activities, including Web, chat and social-networking sites, on up to five household PCs. Pricing hasn’t been set.

But more than just software, Norton Online Family is a cloud-based service that can analyze a child’s actions — from Web site visits to whether kids are declaring themselves to be older than they really are on social-networking sites — while giving parents browser-based access to log in via password to get reports about what their kids are doing.

“Parents were struggling with a need to understand what their children were doing online,” says Jody Gibney, group program manager, about why Symantec nearly two years ago to start designing parental-monitoring software, a market already crowded with competing products like Net Nanny and Web Watcher.

Highly customizable, Norton Online Family could be used for permissive or strict parental controls, even paying attention to the number of social-networking accounts that kids have online and how they’re representing themselves, says Gibney. The software can confirm kids’ instant-messaging friends and monitor conversations with unconfirmed friends.

By setting up a password-controlled family account at the Norton Online Family portal, the parent in charge can restrict access via the software to more than 40 types of content; enforce time-management “curfews” to limit computer usage; and even track and report personal information a child might on purpose or by mistake via e-mail, instant messaging or social networking.

Break the rules, and Norton Online Family could even send out a customized e-mail alert to the parent.

But will children, especially the teens in the household, rebel against this monitoring?

“The goal is promoting discussion between parents and children,” says Gibney. She says it’s hoped that parents and their children will discuss and reach agreement on appropriate behaviors and safety issues so that monitoring is viewed by children as fair.

Norton Online Family also provides real-time messaging so kids can send information to their parents about their intentions if they hit a blocked site. In addition, children will be able to view the “house rules” they set up with their parents at any time, because Norton is not intended to be a ‘”stealth” monitoring tool.

Symantec has established what it calls the Norton Online Family Advisory Council composed of half a dozen experts in child health and media, children’s online safety, plus one teen blogger, Vanessa Van Petten, to help test the beta and provide feedback on the software’s use.

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