Does your teen have a MySpace account? No? Are you sure?
Rather than find out the hard way, you can use a BeNetSafe account to locate your child's page on MySpace, Xanga, or Friendster and either shut it down or schedule a heart-to-heart talk about online safety.
Yes, you can barricade your home computer with ContentProtect, Safe Eyes or another Web-filtering parental-control solution. You can put social-networking sites completely off-limits.
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But your kids can still use a public computer (or a friend's) to do exactly as they please. And face it — they're probably more tech-savvy than you are.
Fortunately, Web-based BeNetSafe works no matter where they log on, with no local installation required.
To initiate your BeNetSafe account, you define profiles for up to three children, giving detailed personal information, including home address, phone numbers, school name and date of birth. There are also slots to fill in the child's instant-messaging screen names and e-mail addresses, if you happen to know them.
BeNetSafe uses this profile information to track down matching pages on MySpace, Xanga, and Friendster.
Once per day, week or month the service will generate a report and optionally e-mail it. The reports are also accessible from any Internet-connected computer — just log in to your account.
BeNetSafe's report suggests caution if your child's online pages make public too-personal information such as his or her home address, real name and age.
It warns if your child's account is open to public view and offers a link to the online profile photo he or she has chosen. It also provides a summary report on the friends registered at your child's page.
Of course, the biggest news may be the simple fact that your child has a social-networking account in the first place.
Trolling for Trouble
I created an imaginary teenage daughter named Mimsey and set up a MySpace page for her several months ago.
To get her started with a posse of friends, I polled the PC Magazine staff for MySpace users. Then I created a BeNetSafe profile for Mimsey.
BeNetSafe quickly found her page by matching personal information in the profile.
I also set up a profile for my real-world teenage daughter. Each week I got a nice summary report for each — all clear for my daughter, but with warnings for Mimsey.
To fan the flames, I filled in more personal information for Mimsey, responded to a random new-friend request from a complete unknown and added a blog post about drinking gin and tequila.
An hour or so later, I changed Mimsey's profile slightly, forcing BeNetSafe to create a new report right away, rather than waiting for the next day's report.
Sure enough, this time it was marked "Warning" in red rather than "Caution" in yellow.
But on closer examination, I couldn't see any difference in the report detail. It didn't mention the alcohol references, and the new friend didn't show up.
I also noticed that the "number of friends" field showed "0," even though it listed eight friends by name just below.
Of course, since BeNetSafe gives you the URL for your child's page, you can go look at the full friends list yourself.
I checked these results with Michael Edelman, one of BeNetSafe's founders. He confirmed that BeNetSafe's ability to flag dangerous blog posts based on keywords is limited at present.
The company plans to have it "evolve over the next few releases," possibly offering parents a list of trackable keywords to choose from.
He also verified that the problem I observed with the friends list is a bug; BeNetSafe is working on fixing it.
Edelman said that the company will add more social networks "based on popularity as well as requests from parents, law enforcement, and users."
Certainly, that's an important point. MySpace is the 800-pound gorilla in this space; Xanga and Friendster are also big.
But there are numerous other choices for kids. My own daughter belongs to several interest-specific social networks that aren't tracked by BeNetSafe.
If your child's page includes e-mail or instant-messaging contact info, there's nothing BeNetSafe can do to prevent a predator using that information to initiate contact.
Some products such as Safe Eyes have an option to monitor all IM conversations, but only on systems where the software is installed.
You'll definitely want your child to pull that sort of dangerous information from the page. The Resources page at BeNetSafe's Web site offers links to help you and your child understand just what is and isn't safe at social networking sites.
BeNetSafe is a one-trick pony, but what it does, it does well. If it doesn't find a MySpace page with your child's personal information, you can conclude either that there is no such page or that your child is playing it very, very safe. Some parents will find the peace of mind worthwhile.
Still, the price ($19.95 monthly or $79.95 yearly)is rather high and coverage is currently limited to the three biggest social-networking sites.
I look forward to seeing wider coverage, better tracking of dangerous content, and more detail in the reports.
BOTTOM LINE: BeNetSafe is a one-trick pony, but it's good at what it does. If your child has a MySpace, Xanga or Friendster page, BeNetSafe will find it and flag specific problems. And it offers resources to help your teen understand online safety.
PROS: Finds your child's social-networking pages by matching personal information you supply. Warns of problems such as too-personal information made public. No local installation needed.
CONS: Only searches MySpace, Xanga, Friendster. Can't protect against inappropriate e-mail or IM contact. Limited ability to flag dangerous content. Some minor bugs in reporting.
COMPANY: BeNetSafe LLC
Price: $79.95 Direct
OS Compatibility: Windows Vista, Windows XP, Linux, Mac OS
EDITOR RATING: Two and a half out of five stars
Copyright © 2007 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Ziff Davis Media Inc. is prohibited.