Later this year, MySpace will release a software program to enable parents to find out the user name, age and home town their kids are displaying on their MySpace profile.
The software, code-named Zephyr, will run on the family's home computer but will reveal this information even if the child logs on from another computer. It will not reveal the actual content of the child's profile, e-mail or instant messages nor where they signed on from. It will alert the parent if the child changes his or her user name, age or home town. MySpace had planned to announce the software when it was ready for distribution, but word of the project was leaked to the Wall Street Journal, which wrote about it in its Jan. 17 edition.
Disclosure: I help run a not-for-profit Web site, BlogSafety.com, which receives financial support from MySpace and several of its competitors, including Facebook, AOL and Xanga, and I was briefed about the software earlier this week. Also, I was quoted in the Wall Street Journal article.
Even if a child creates another profile, the software will report to the parents if the child ever accesses that profile from their home computer. Kids who go to great lengths to conceal their usage from their parents can probably find a way to slip under the radar, unless they even once sign on to that profile from a home PC that's running the software.
The software is not a panacea but it is a useful tool. It won't necessarily keep children from engaging in risky behavior nor will it give parents a blow-by-blow description of what their kids are doing on MySpace, but it will give parents a few bits of essential information about how their children are representing themselves, including the child's claimed age. MySpace has safety tools designed to isolate children under 18 from adult users who aren't known to the child, but those protections can't work if the child lies about his or her age so as to appear to be over 18.
For the foreseeable future, the only way that MySpace or any other Web site can know the real age of any user is based on the date of birth the person enters when they register or modify their profile. Some, including several state Attorneys General, have suggested that social networking companies use age verification technology, but such technology is not practical according to John Cardillo, CEO of Sentry, a leading provider of identity, background and age verification. When I interviewed Cardillo for a book I coauthored about MySpace, he said that while it is possible to verify age, identity and credit information for adults, it can't be done for people under 17, because there are no publicly available records that can be used to confirm their identities. If such technology were practical, Cardillo's company would stand to make a great deal of money from social networking companies and other Web sites seeking to verify the age of their users.
It's also useful for parents to know their child's user name. If the child has a public profile, the parent can use that information to access their kid's site. As is now the case, no one — including parents — has access to private profiles unless they are accepted as a "friend" of the person.
The Wall Street Journal quoted an attorney general who worries that Zephyr offers an inadequate level of protection by informing parents after-the-fact if a child changes his or her age. But the program — by itself — isn't designed to protect kids. It's designed to give parents a little bit of information about how the child represents him or herself on the service. And because the software tells the child that the parent is using the software, it helps provide an incentive for the parent and child to talk about how the service is being used. That conversation is probably more important than any reporting mechanism, because it helps create a dialog between the parent and the child. Ultimately, it's up to parents to create and enforce rules about how their children use such services and to talk with their children about the safe use of the Internet.
Some might worry that the software invades a teen's privacy, but all it does is give parents information that is already publicly available to anyone using MySpace's search tool who knows the person's e-mail address or display name. There is also the question of whether a predator could use the software to track a child, but it must be installed on the child's home computer and, again, it doesn't provide any information on the child's whereabouts or what they post online. Of course, if the child has a public profile, the parents can read what they're posting, but so can anyone else who signs on to MySpace, which is why the company requires children who say they are under 16 to have a private profile and allows people of any age to hide their profile from people who they have not admitted as "friends."
The other issue is whether it will have a chilling effect on teens' use of the service. My son Will (20), a college student who spends far more time on Facebook than on MySpace, thinks that it could help drive some kids away from MySpace because it allows parents to invade their turf. That may be the case with some kids, but social networking works because of the community of users and kids aren't likely to leave unless most of their friends leave with them. Besides, it's up to parents to explain that there is a difference between spying and parenting in both the online and offline world.
When my kids were in high school, we required them to tell us where they were going and who they were hanging out with, but we didn't record their conversations or ask for a detailed report of what they did with their friends. They had their privacy, yet we had the reassurance of knowing where they were and who they were with. Even though my kids are now 20 and 22, I still worry about them, but I worry less knowing that they grew up in a trusting environment where they learned to look out for their own safety and well being — lessons that will hopefully stay with them for life.
A syndicated technology columnist for over two decades, Larry Magid serves as on air Technology Analyst for CBS Radio News. His technology reports can be heard several times a week on the CBS Radio Network. Magid is the author of several books including "The Little PC Book."
By Larry Magid