UPDATED: Corrected list of supported messaging protocols.
Known for its security software, Symantec on Tuesday launched a new program aimed at educating parents about their children's online usage. Norton Online Family, now available in beta, is a parental control suite with multiple levels of restriction and an emphasis on usage reporting.
Citing a Rochester Institute of Technology study that found a huge gap between the percentage of parents versus children who report no online supervision, Symantec says that Online Family is intended to bridge that gap by "fostering communication" between parents and their kids. According to the RIT study, only 7 percent of parents think their children have no online supervision, while 66 percent of kids think they go unsupervised.
To address that, Online Family uses a desktop client called the Norton Safety Minder for Windows and Mac that reports to the parents' Norton Family account with options to e-mail notifications, too. Norton Online Family features parental-controlled customization levels based on the computer's user accounts, so that multi-child families can have different monitoring levels for different kids. It runs in the system tray, too, so that its presence is obvious to all users.
Online Family can log Web sites, block sites using both a topic blocker or a traditional blacklist, and report on social-networking activities. When it tracks visited Web sites, it automatically filters out advertisement URLs that get pinged when visiting media-rich sites. This makes the log easier to parse through.
Online Family includes some innovative features that lend credibility to the claim that this is more than just a souped-up keylogger or blacklist. The blocked sites feature, for example, can be set so that kids can "appeal" to their parents for approval via either e-mail or a Norton-based chat app. It can also be set so that it lets kids through to see the flagged site, regardless of parental approval, but then the parents' log flags the visited site. The responsibility of discussing the content, of course, is left up to parental discretion.
Importantly, Online Family tracks how children represent themselves on social-networking sites, and alerts parents when a child misrepresents their age. Age misrepresentation, Symantec said, was often an indicator of a child associating with people or groups that the parents weren't aware of. It also keeps track of how long a kid has spent on a social-networking site, what time they log in and out, and how often they visit the site.
The new program monitors client-based instant messaging, too. This includes Google/Jabber, Yahoo, Microsoft Live, AOL, Skype, ICQ, Trillian's native chat protocol, as well as Trillian's multi-protocol features and Digsby's, too. However, site-based messaging can not be tracked. Once a child logs into Facebook, for example, Online Family won't be able to follow what they're doing within the site.
Other monitors include a personal information blocker, where personal information specific to the child can be blocked from being sent out from the computer, a parental notification whenever a kid creates a new account on any site, a time monitor to enforce a "computer curfew," and a notification for when the Norton Safety Minder is turned off.
Online Family requires a Norton account, and the registration is free until the program leaves beta. Final pricing for the Online Family stable release that's expected in the spring has yet to be announced, but the beta trial is free for now. Symantec has said that they want to make Norton Online Family affordable, though, so it's unlikely that the price point will be exorbitant.