Parents’ concern for their children’s risky behavior with new technologies is an untapped market
Last year, Northern Virginia entrepreneur Steve Woda experienced an incident that seems all too common in the Internet Age: A young member of his extended family was contacted online by a suspicious adult. While the family member was not harmed, it forced Woda and his family to think about ways to prevent the new technologies their kids use—such as social networking and text messages—from opening doors to sexual predators. But he didn’t just think about what his own family could do. He and his brother Tim started a business to help parents monitor their children’s use of the Internet, text messages, and cellphones.
Woda’s KidSafe.me is one of several businesses that have recently joined the battle against “sexting”—a relatively new phenomenon involving teenagers sending and receiving sexually explicit messages and images via their cellphones. Television is helping stir the pot; a recent episode of the Tyra Banks Show featured stern adults reading the salacious details of teenage girls’ text messages to a shocked audience. On Good Morning America, Diane Sawyer declared that sexting has reached “epidemic proportions.”
That description might sound over the top, but there is at least some evidence that sexting has become widespread. According to a survey by the Associated Press and MTV released December 3, 30 percent of 14-to-24-year-olds have sent or received nude photos through cellphones or the Internet. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Democratic congresswoman from Florida, introduced an antisexting bill to the House in March that claimed, “One in 5 teenagers…used their cell phones to send explicit photos of themselves to a peer.”
The outrage over sexting has created controversy over whether the laws meant to protect minors have gone too far. The district attorney in Wyoming County, Pa., threatened to bring child pornography charges against three teenage girls who took seminude photos of themselves—but did not send the photos—on cellphones that were later confiscated. In March, the ACLU came to the defense of the three girls, suing the prosecutor for allegedly violating their right to freedom of expression. Earlier this year, Vermont legislators relaxed antisexting laws concerning minors after the state’s chief prosecutor argued that teenagers shouldn’t be pinned as sex offenders. “It’s become a bit of a panic,” says Woda. He’s not taking sides on exactly what the right legal response to the problem should be. “I don’t know if tightening the laws is the right thing. As a parent, you don’t want to rely on that.”
Woda thought parents, instead of depending on the law, would want tools to track what their kids are up to online. Closely related to the sexting scare have been news reports of teens committing suicide after “cyberbullies” revealed embarrassing details about them online. Woda had already worked in the world of online safety when he started buySAFE in 2000, a company that certifies online merchants and guarantees transactions so customers don’t have to fear fraud. Since June, Woda and a small team have been working on KidSafe, which he hopes to launch as both an online program and mobile application in early 2010. KidSafe, which is currently in beta testing, looks like the phone bill that parents wish they had. When the parent logs in to the program, KidSafe displays who texts or calls their child most often, mines publicly available information in order to identify those people, shows if the kid is texting or calling more frequently than the national average, and flags text messages that might contain suspicious words, like references to sex or drugs. A database of more than 10,000 instances of textspeak and emoticons identifies code words that might confound parents. The number eight, for example, is commonly used in text messages as a stand-in for oral sex, says Woda. He is also working to link the program to social networking sites so it can display similar data about how much time a child is spending on sites like Facebook and if he or is she is receiving suspicious messages there.
But KidSafe can access the sensitive information on a phone or social networking account only if the parent can access the phone and install the KidSafe application or provide the user name and password for a Facebook account. More mature teenagers with their own disposable income could easily evade the program. “The parent of the 15- or 16-year-old is not the perfect customer. It’s the parent of the child who is saying, ‘Can I get a phone?'” says Woda. The parent then could strike a deal with the child—he or she only gets the phone if it contains KidSafe.
Woda concedes that kids are often more tech-savvy than their parents, so no tool can provide perfect oversight. But parents’ concern over sexting, cyberbullying, and other online threats is driving businesses to improve protection. Several other start-ups are now competing to offer products to help parents keep tabs on their kids. SafetyWeb, in the process of being launched by Mike Clark, a former executive at Photobucket, is a website that will scour the Web to find any trouble a child or teenager may have gotten into online, such as friending a sex offender or cyberbullying classmates. SafetyWeb recently raised money from venture capital firm Battery Ventures. Woda says his team is trying to a develop a system for KidSafe that could similarly search for potential threats in publicly available information. Some companies claim to have those tools in place already. ReputationDefender is a Silicon Valley-based company started in 2006 whose services include finding and destroying “inaccurate, inappropriate, hurtful, and slanderous information” online. Its MyChild product claims to defend a child or teen’s online reputation for $14.95 a month.
The difficulty for these businesses is similar to the difficulties facing parents. It’s a challenge to keep up with kids who are finding new websites and developing new lingo all the time. “The way kids are communicating is changing faster than the market can adapt,” says Woda.
Reprint from U.S. News & World Report, by Matthew Bandyk
Tim Woda is a passionate advocate for protecting children from today’s scariest digital dangers – cyberbullying, sexting and predators. He co-founded KidSafe, is the author of Keeping Kids Safe: A Guide for Parents of Social and Mobile Children and is a frequent public speaker on the topic.