When it comes to children and the Internet, there is no substitute for parental supervision. It’s certainly not wrong to use parental control software, but parents must understand that software is intended to assist, not do their job for them. The problem is that many vendors don’t seem to appreciate the difference. Thanks to Norton, that’s changing with today’s launch of the OnlineFamily.Norton service.


According to Jody Gibney, Group Product Manager of OnlineFamily.Norton, many parents don’t understand what their children are doing online and only about 20% of parents with kids aged 6-18 use technology to help.

It should be no surprise to parents that kids do a lot online:

  • They consume, create, and share web content.
  • They socialize one-on-one and in groups.
  • Kids who use social media have an average of 145 online friends.
  • They often have multiple complex online identities.

It’s no surprise that parents have a hard time keeping up.

Parents also may not realize where the real dangers lie.  While pedophiles have lured children across the Internet, such occurrences are very rare. Much more common is, as Jody put it, “plain kid-on-kid meanness.”  Social media sites allow kids to post hurtful words, images and videos that can result in real-world embarrassment. Parents need to know what sites their kids are using and decide if and how they should monitor it. Rather than simply prohibiting access to sites, Jody suggests that parents negotiate age-appropriate solutions with children.  For example, a teen may be allowed to use Facebook on the condition that they ‘friend’ Mom so that she can see what is being posted.  If the child sets up a second Facebook account, it’s important that Mom have a way of finding out about it.


Some elements of Norton’s approach, like categorizing web sites and reporting on use, are similar to other products, but their philosophy is different.  Norton’s service is designed to encourage dialog and negotiation between parents and children. For example, Norton encourages parents to log in to OnlineFamily’s web-based interface with their children and discuss the various choices and options. The selections made for each child become “house rules” and include web site categories as well as rules relating to the use of instant messaging, what times the Internet can be used, for how long, and what happens when rules are violated.

Most rules and limits can be configured as hard or soft. Hard time limits log the child out after giving a 15 minute warning, while soft time limits simply report the activity. Similarly three options exist for web sites: Monitor use but don’t block, warn the child first but let them proceed to blocked sites, or actively block access to sites that violate the house rules.

Norton’s approach, Jody explained, is to “understand intent, guide online behavior and discuss online activities.” When a web site is blocked, OnlineFamily gives the child options that include “Oops, I made a mistake! Let me go back.” and “I want to tell my parents why I tried to go to this Web site.” There is also an option to dispute the categorization of the site. When a child researching a homework assignment is prevented from accessing a site, he or she can explain why they want access and the request is sent to parents in real-time.

I’m often concerned about the ethical implications of monitoring software and I believe that spying on family members can erode trust and damage relationships. OnlineFamily avoids that issue completely. Not only does it display a notification every time the child logs on, but the child can also click on the application’s icon and display a summary of house rules, including information on what types of activity is being monitored.


Last week I created an account on OnlineFamily.Norton.com while it was still in beta. I downloaded the program and installed it on our family computer. Then I logged into the OnlineFamily web site, added my daughter as a family member, identified which computer account she used and sent an invite to my wife giving her ‘parent’ access. Next I set the rules and explained the system to my daughter.  Overall, I’m impressed. I did run into a few rough edges with the beta, but by the time you read this they will have been fixed.

OnlineFamily.Norton is the first product in this space to actively involve parents and that makes it a winner. It officially launches today at http://Onlinefamily.Norton.com and is free until January 1, 2010. Norton hopes to receive feedback from parents and say they will consider it carefully before deciding on the future pricing model.

One Response to OnlineFamily.Norton: Setting the House Rules

  1. Evolving Squid
    Apr 27, 2009

    >>If the child sets up a second Facebook account, it’s important that Mom have a way of finding out about it.

    Technically, if a child sets up a second facebook account, they’re probably violating the terms of service which require that your account be in your proper name.

    I must say, this software seems to be more in line with what I’d consider appropriate.

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