Symantec previews child-protection software

Family Safety software lets kids have a say in online rule-making

Symantec at this week's DEMO conference will showcase child-protection software that monitors children's activities online as well as encourages children to be involved in setting the rules for safe and appropriate online behavior.

The Windows-based software, which Symantec is designing under the working name "Family Safety," is meant to give parents a way to understand what their children are doing online, says Gerry Egan, Symantec's director of product management for the advanced concepts division.

The software could tell parents, for instance, who among 100 buddies a child spends the most time with, Egan says. "The parent could get a message if a child adds a new buddy. The parent could be able to make the decision to add the name to the buddy list."

Family Safety is being designed for flexibility in setting rules related to Web browsing, chat and social networking. "Strict enforcement" might block use, while "soft enforcement" might send an alert or let kids "ask for an extension," Egan says.

But the underlying premise is that the child-safety software will be most effective when children understand why the monitoring is there on the family computer and accept the rules.

"Your child may spend too much time on gaming sites or in social networking," says Egan. "This gives parents the means to know about it. But this isn't intended to come down too heavy on the kids, or to feel like too much invasion of their privacy."

Symantec is developing the software to be an online training and education tool for parents who may be far less savvy about Internet-based social life than their children. The idea is for families to get together and decide their own child-safety plan with the kids in the house reaching consensus on what's expected.

"With this, the child knows what's expected of him," says Egan, who acknowledges that if there's fierce rebellion over the idea of monitoring, a child may try to find alternative computers.

The Family Safety software is still in the research phase and may be turned into a commercial product when the R&D phase is completed and the business aspects are nailed down, Egan says. Next month Symantec will be starting a controlled beta for it.

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Ellen Messmer

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