With one out of three kids using smartphones for Internet access, Symantec today released Norton Safety Minder, an Android OS security app aimed at helping parents monitor the use of other apps, along with selectively blocking the use of web sites and text messaging.
Symantec’s new Android app, an addition to the cloud-enabled Norton Online Family service for Windows and Mac PCs, is aimed at protecting children and teens from threats ranging from malware-ridden apps and phishing scams to cyberbullying and online predators, suggested Yvonne Gee, senior product manager at Symantec, in a briefing for Brighthand.
Sor far, Safety Minder runs on Android OS 2.2 (Froyo) and OS 2.3 (Gingerbread), supporting “smartphones and some tablets,” she noted. Symantec, though, is also planning the release “quite soon” of an edition designed for smartphones and tablets outfitted with Android OS 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich), according to Gee.
Pointing to statistics drawn from analyst reports as well as Symantec’s own Norton Online Family Parents Study, Gee maintained that 13- to 17-year-olds exchange an average of over 3400 text messages per month, and that 32% of all teens claim to have been targets on cyberbullying.
For some teens, text messaging runs much higher, chimed in Marian Merritt, a Norton Internet Safety Advocate. Merritt ciited a niece who routinely exchanges 7000 or 8000 SMS text messages monthly. “Kids are texting instead of talking on the phone or emailng,” she observed.
The Free Service vs. the Paid Service
The new Norton Safety Monitor, a free app, offers two different tiers of possible protection. After downloading it on to a child’s mobile device and establishing house rules, parents using Symantec’s free Norton Online Family service are able to log on to the service from their PCs or Macs to monitor and block children’s web site access on the smartphone or tablet.
Although McAfee Family Protection offers similar web site filtering features, Norton Online Family also provides some capabilities absent from the rival service, including histories of kids’ Web searches and attempted Web site visits.
At a higher tier of protection, parents subscribing to a paid Symantec service known as Norton Only Family Premier get additional controls, such as the ability to monitor SMS and MMS messaging, along with which apps their children have installed and uninstalled on their smartphones and tablets.
‘White Lists’ and ‘Black Lists’ for Kids’ Text Contacts
On the messaging side, parents can set up white lists and black lists of messaging contacts, view messaging histories, and intercept messages. They can even see the content of text messages, although they can’t see which photos have been set through MMS messages, Gee said.
The new Safety Minder app attaches itself to the default browser, and it prevents the child from using any other browser with the device. The app can’t be uninstalled without the parent’s password.
Although some might consider this degree of parental control to be Draconian, the Symantec officials countered that parentals can customize protections based on age groups and specific needs of the child.
Younger kids, in particular, might not realize that “the Internet is a public space,” Merritt noted. “For kids to be safe, they need to be careful about the comments they make and the pictures they post.”
Following safe practices can also help to shield kids from downloading viruses and falling prey to cyberbullying. If a child is being bullied by classmates, for instance, a parent can always just place the bullies on the messaging blacklist, Merritt illustrated.
“A child might not want to do this, so as not to look ‘uncool.’ But if a mother does this, the child can always tell [peers], ‘Oh, that was my Mom. You said something that she didn’t like. She’s such a jerk.'”
‘It Has To Be Easy’
Meanwhile, according to Symantec’s own research, although 93% of parents say they’ve set rules on Internet and phone use, 60% of these same parents haven’t been using any parental control programs.
“We have good data to show that talking about these house rules is good for communications between parents and children,” according to Gee.
Norton Online Family and the new Safety Minder app are both designed with ease of use in mind. “It has to be easy or the parents just won’t do it. Parents are super busy. They don’t want to have to comb through forums or call their [spouses] for help,” said Gee.
Safety Minder is not a stealth app, according to Gee. Kids and their friends are made aware that activities are being monitored and/or blocked.
Like McAfee, Symantec’s been attempting to extend similar types of protections to Apple iOS devices. “We’re working with Apple through our iOS development agreement,” she elaborated.
Third-party apps in the same general category are already available for ioS, according to Gee. “But we’ve set ours up to be very flexible. Others might be more rigid,” she added.