09/19/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

To Big Brother or Not to Big Brother: the Internet Safety v. Parental Control Debate

As the founder of an Internet safety startup with a passionate and active user base, I get hate mail and fan mail everyday. The fan mail is from parents who value our service, while the hate mail is from kids who are using their iPod Touches with our software installed. A sample:
"... should be allowed because it's just games...what is wrong with that?! I hate this software."

"Thank you so much for offering this solution to protect our children."

No points for guessing who said what.

In an age where children are more technology savvy than their parents, and parents arguably more worldly wise than their children, it is interesting to see this dichotomy in our user community. To be loved and hated for doing the right thing is weird. Of course, you can't make everyone happy. But it is still intriguing.

Sexting, online predators, and child pornography are part of the lexicon that every parent worries about. While these are extreme occurrences and relatively rare, there are the mundane transgressions that happen in every household. For instance, according to a Pew Internet study, 70% of teens are exposed to pornography accidentally on the web. As a responsible parent, what do you do? Do you cut off the Internet? But what if Internet access is built into the portable gaming device, how do you control that? For a movie, you can look up the MPAA rating and decide if it is appropriate for your child's age. How do you do that for billions of websites?

Many parents setup parental control software on their computers, which filter the Internet and ensure only age appropriate content flows through. In addition to filtering content, many solutions keep track of Internet usage and generate activity reports. This allows parents to be a watchdog for Internet access and take remedial action when a violation occurs. More importantly, depending on whether you are an optimist or pessimist, these solutions either disincentives children from doing anything inappropriate or forces them to find technology-assisted creative workarounds to circumvent the rules.

I came across a raging debate on an open source software forum where members were divided over even the need for parental control software to protect children. Children need to be exposed to the real world so that they can make the right choices when they grow up, one faction says. If spying on your kids is the only way to keep them safe, then you are not a good parent, retorts the other.

I think they are arguing over the wrong problem. The issue is not a question of whether a parent should or should not play the role of an all-seeing omnipresent Big Brother. I think the right argument is over what is appropriate for our children. This is usually based on the social context of our times, since what was inappropriate 50 years ago is concerned perfectly appropriate today.

So here is a hypothesis. What if a parent can negotiate with a child a contract on what content would be inappropriate and what activity monitoring would be appropriate based on his or her age level. What if parents with children in similar age groups, geographies and social contexts can identify with a group that is closest to their preference, and help determine the group's customized content filtering and activity monitoring levels. And what if Internet safety providers were to configure and offer a series of pre-determined filtering levels that are aggregations of polls and negotiations by each group.

A self-organizing Internet safety social network would have seemed impossible a decade ago, but in the age of social media, this type of collaboration is not only possible, but also a natural way to go about the task. Whereas a survey would provide a snapshot in time, a social network approach would represent a continuously evolving measure of the participants' preferences. The challenge would be to ensure that there is enough unbiased data to draw meaningful statistical conclusions, but going by how vocal both parents and children are around this topic, that doesn't appear to be a problem.

Perhaps this approach would bring about a synergy between the viewpoints held by parents and children, and the seemingly opposing goals of parental control and Internet safety. Perhaps you can make everyone happy after all.

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