Parents Are Listening

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Kids, Tech, and Texting

The PAL (Parents Are Listening) Guide to Protecting Your Kids

Preface

Recently, I sent an email to some friends informing them that I was launching TxtWatcher, which is an app and service to help parents monitor their children’s text messages. One of my friends forwarded the email to someone that she knew would be very interested in text monitoring. Eventually, I learned that she was the mother of a teenage daughter who died from a drug overdose. Her daughter texted about drugs during her six years of progressive use–including the day before she died–but was always steps ahead of her parents’ ability to keep up. The mother let me know that if she’d had an effective way to monitor the texts in real-time, her smart and beautiful girl might still be alive today.

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The story really had an impact on the TxtWatcher team because we are all parents. We realized that kids do not go from zero to doing hard drugs overnight. Nor do they decide to engage in high risk behaviors instantly. Instead, there are a series of choices that are made and steps taken that lead to life altering, or even life ending behavior. The ability to help your kids make the right choices early on is critical, and monitoring your kids’ text messaging is key. TxtWatcher was born from such an incident with one of my own children.

I discovered that one of my kids was engaged in some risky behavior by looking at his text messages. It occurred to me that if we did not see and understand his text messages we would not have been able to intercede. He was potentially starting a journey down the wrong path. So I began to study how kids communicate today, the tools that they use, and how as a parent I could monitor their communication to keep them safe. During this process, it was shocking to learn how little many parents actually do to monitor their kid’s online activities. I came to the realization that there are some basic things a parent can do to monitor their kids’ use of social media and internet access. However, to really get a handle on what kids are doing while protecting them from cyber-bullying, drug & alcohol use, and simply making wrong choices you have to monitor their text messaging.

Professionally, I have been in the technology field for over two decades. I have helped many companies monitor and secure their online communications in email, web, and messaging. After the above-mentioned text incident with my son, I looked into text monitoring products available on the market and they all fell short. Therefore, my business experience, combined with my primary role in life as a parent, led to the creation of an app and service that copies all of my kid’s text messages and attached pictures securely to a web server where the messages are translated. Based on the translated message content, alerts can be sent to parents. Even if the messages are deleted from the phone they are still captured. Today, this technology is available in the form of an app and service called TxtWatcher.

Based on a variety of factors, TxtWatcher “scores” all text messages, so that parents can be alerted to certain types of behavior such as, texting during school hours, sex, alcohol and drug use, and communicating with undesirables. These alerts can be sent to parents via email or even as a text message. TxtWatcher’s online and mobile portal provides parents the ability to view a history of their children’s text conversations, set alerts, and highlight any possible trends.

Examples of TxtWatcher Alerts:

  • Potential Drug or Alcohol Use
  • Sexting
  • Communication with a specific phone or person
  • Texting during specific time periods, such as sleeping hours or during school
  • Cyber Bullying (both giving and receiving)


Additional information on TxtWatcher and monitoring your kid’s text messages is provided in subsequent sections contained in this guide.

There are other actions that responsible parents should take beyond text message monitoring that will be covered as well. What follows is a simple guide to help parents keep their kids on the right track in a world dominated by technology, especially smartphones. It is based on real world experience from a parent of three children, who also happens to be a technologist. I hope that you find it useful.

The Acceleration of Adolescence

As you are reading this document, there are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of online communication dialogues taking place between your children and their “network” of friends and acquaintances. The frequency and volume of this communication is growing every day and parents have little control or even influence over it. The widespread use of cell phones, especially smartphones, by our kids is the fundamental driving force behind this growth. While smartphones provide mobile access to a wide spectrum of information and communication options, their use is having a profound impact on how our kids interact and develop. Facebook, Twitter, and most of all, Text Messaging are the main communication tools for our kids today.

Few dreamed of such awesome technology when I was a kid some 35 plus years ago. Things were simpler and easier then. Video games were in their infancy, and rarely played at home. Kids actually spent more time in outdoor activities such as riding bicycles and playing pick-up games; the primary mode of communication was verbal, actually talking on landline phones. Few, if any, personal computers were in homes and the internet was not yet available to the public. The world has changed. Today’s kids have unprecedented access to technology and information.

Based on my observing kids, as well as feedback from other parents, I am convinced that kids today engage in activities at 13 and 14 that we engaged in when we were 17. The number of teenage pregnancies and drug-related incidents involving middle-school children are strong indicators of this acceleration. Few would argue that “kids grow up faster today” and that the trend has been going on for decades. However, access to technology and information has compounded what I call the “Acceleration of Adolescence” at a rate that we have not experienced in our lifetimes. As a parent in today’s cyber world it is critical to understand this fact: What you did at 17 many kids today do at 13.

The bottom line is that to be a responsible parent today one must accept that this acceleration exists, understand how your kids communicate with one another, develop a strategy to educate your kids (and yourself) on the realities of online communication, and above all, monitor their online dialogue within their network of friends and acquaintances.

While this may seem excessive to some parents, if you want to protect your kids from various life altering decisions and activities, you have to develop a monitoring strategy that allows them to benefit from technology and communication options while enabling you, the parent, to simply “know what is going on.” The treasure trove of information that your kids leave behind in the wake of their online dialogue is possibly the most powerful tool a parent has today. Bottom line: Taking advantage of this tool can make you a much more effective parent in many areas and keep your kids safe. Failure to take advantage of this tool can have dire consequences.

Real Life Example:

A friend of mine has a son, who could be described by others as a “perfect kid.” He is a star athlete recruited by multiple prestigious universities and he also has a stellar academic record. This combination resulted in his acceptance to Harvard. Secretly, his father has been monitoring his son’s online activity for years. If he found out that something was going on like drinking at a party, he would use this information to steer his son in the right direction without revealing that he knew what was really going on. He told me that the technique of knowing what was going on, while not revealing how he knew, was a great parental tool. He developed a monitoring strategy for his son that helped keep him safe and on course.

I am a parent of three children ages, 9, 12, and 15. My wife and I have experienced the acceleration first-hand and our monitoring strategy has been adapting to the changing times and technology. We reached some conclusions on what we need to monitor, how to do it, and how we should talk to our kids about the technologies that they use.

The main point is that to be a responsible parent today you have to create a monitoring strategy that balances your kids’ positive use of technology with the ability to simply know “what is going on” in their daily activities. What follows is a simple guide to developing a basic strategy based on the experience that my wife and I have gained. The steps are prioritized and outlined with additional detail provided in subsequent sections. Even if you have already taken a specific step, I encourage you to read the entire section as there are some useful suggestions and links to additional material.

Developing a Monitoring Strategy

Step 1: Talk to your kids (The Tech Talk)
As a parenting tool there is no substitute for talking to your kids about the realities of using technology responsibly and irresponsibly.

Step 2:

Text Message Monitoring: How to really know what your kids are doing
If you kids are “up to something” it is more than likely documented in their text messages.

Step 3: Get comfortable with the technology your kids are using
Kids’ Primary Tech Toolbox: Facebook, Twitter, and Texting
Friend them on Facebook. Follow them on Twitter.

Step 4: Tech Parenting circa 1993:
Install a parental internet access filter at home.

Step 5: Additional Options & Repeat Step 1

Step 1: Talk to your kids (The Tech Talk)

So, as a responsible parent what are some of the fundamental things you can do? First of all, and this cannot be emphasized enough, as a parenting tool there is no substitute for talking to your kids, period, end of story. Having an open line of communication with your children is by far the best parenting tool on the planet. Your ability to convey the realities about using technology responsibly and irresponsibly is a critical component of your strategy.

Just like with any parental issue: There is no substitute for talking to your kids about the realities of using technology responsibly and irresponsibly.

For example, I tell my children constantly that cameras (mostly now on phones) are everywhere. It is easier than ever to have a picture or video of your child in a compromising act published on the Internet for the world to see. High school coaches tell their prominent athletes never to have anything other than a cup in their hand while attending a party. Why? College athletic recruiters look at postings of their potential recruits on Facebook in an effort to weed out risky candidates. Teachers have also been known to “friend” students on Facebook to monitor their class network. Talking to your kids about the technologies that they use and the basic fact that nothing communicated online is truly private is the most important step in developing your strategy.

Real Life Example:

Early in my daughter’s 5th grade school year a friend alerted my wife to some Facebook chat sessions that were alarming. Our daughter had been involved in an online chat with another girl and two boys, all in the 5th grade. They boys were describing sexual activities to the girls that were right out of a pornographic magazine. This was the acceleration at work. These boys were only 10 and 11 years old and let’s just say that their words cannot be repeated. This went on for multiple postings. Fortunately our daughter told the boys to stop and she eventually left the session. We ended up contacting the boys’ parents, who had to read the postings for themselves to believe it. The postings were quickly deleted.

Once content is posted to the internet via social media sites like facebook, it is “out there” forever, even if the child deletes the posting. Few kids really understand this fact.

You must discuss these realities with your children because mistakes in their online world are irreversible even after they click “Delete.” To become more empowered to have this “Tech Talk” with your kids read on.

Step 2: Text Message Monitoring: How to really know what your kids are doing

Texting, most commonly sent via mobile devices, such as cell phones, is BY FAR the single most dominant means of communication for adolescents and teens today. Texting eclipses all other forms of online communication including actual phone conversations. In a typical day millions of text messages are sent. Dates are made, gatherings are arranged, romances are courted or terminated, and homework assignments are confirmed. Unfortunately, many negative behaviors and activities are also arranged and in a sense, documented via texting. These include illicit drug use, “sexting”, cyber bullying, texting while driving, and sexual harassment.

Most kids have a basic understanding that social media like Facebook and Twitter are public, so they reserve their most provocative communication for text messaging. They still perceive text messaging as private communication. As previously described, there is a wealth of information that your kids leave behind in the wake of their online dialogue. If your kids are “up to something,” it is more than likely documented in their text messages.

Some Interesting Texting Stats:

One in three teens sends more than 100 text messages a day, or 3000 texts a month.

Among all teens, the frequency of use of texting has now overtaken the frequency of every other common form of interaction with their friends.

The cell phone has become a new venue for harassment and bullying of teens.

Over a quarter (26%) of teen cell phone users reported having been harassed by someone else through their cell phone. Girls are significantly more likely to experience this (30%) than boys (22%).

One in three (34%) texting teens ages 16-17 say they have texted while driving. That translates into 26% of all American teens ages 16-17.

48% of all teens ages 12-17 say they have been in a car when the driver was texting.

- Source: Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, Teens and Mobile Phones Survey

“Sexting”…. or the distribution of sexually suggestive nude or nearly-nude images, has garnered increased media attention in recent years…

…. sexually suggestive images have become a form of relationship currency. These images are shared as a part of or instead of sexual activity, or as a way of starting or maintaining a relationship with a significant other. They are also passed along to friends for their entertainment value, as a joke, for revenge or for fun.1

- Source: Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, Teens and Mobile Phones Survey

Help!

A key to preventing negative and often life threatening behavior in today’s mobile world is monitoring your children’s text messaging. This is a challenging problem, since many children delete inappropriate messages, along with attached pictures, so their parents will not be able to see them if they physically check their phones (spot check).

Text Messaging Code

By definition, text messages are short and most importantly are often written in “code” which needs to be translated in order for a parent to understand what the messages actually mean. For example, “8” translates to “oral sex”, “KGB” translates to “Marijuana” and “PAL” translates to “Parents Are Listening.”

Making the translation challenge even harder is that the code or “text language” is constantly evolving to add new terms or codes meant to facilitate two primary functions: compress the amount of text in a given message and keep parents in the dark. TxtWatcher incorporates a powerful message Translation engine called SmartAlec that automatically translates text code and slang into English, so that appropriate alerts can be triggered as well as enabling parents to understand the true meaning of their kid’s text messages.

There are thousands of texting codes, as well as slang terms in the SmartAlec translation engine. As new texting codes or slang become prevalent they are added. Parents can also suggest translation additions. The patent-pending capability to alert parents based on automatically translated text code, as well as slang terms is unique to TxtWatcher..

Example of TxtWatcher’s detail view of messages including automatic translation and links to view pictures if any are attached

The team who created TxtWatcher is extremely proud that the service has prevented numerous negative activities from taking place by our user’s children. You can start protecting your children and download the free TxtWatcher app now.

Other Text Monitoring Options

Until recently, parents had few options to monitor their kid’s text messages. Some parents conduct random spot checks of their children’s phones to inspect the text messages. The downside to this is that kids frequently delete their messages, especially the sensitive ones. Other parents purchase reports from their cell phone provider that lists all of the text messages. The problem with this is obvious: you have to read through all of the messages, the messages themselves are outdated, and some of them are in the texting code. There are products on the market that will copy all of the text messages sent over a period of time and send them to parents via email however, this approach shares some of the common short comings. The need to know what is going on BEFORE something bad happens is critical.

Real Life Example:

Certainly you have driven your kids and their friends to various activities. During most of these drives the kids are texting not just with other friends but, to each other. They do not want you to know what they are saying. Sometimes they will get a cell phone call during a drive and what do they do? “I can’t talk right now, driving (in my parent’s car) I’ll text you.” Then the fingers start typing away. As a parent, simply not knowing what is being communicated should concern you

Regardless of how you monitor your children’s text messaging, what you do with the insight that you gain and how you address issues with your children is critical. As parents, we have found that it is better not to let your children know that you are monitoring their messaging. This yields future benefits. If we find something inappropriate in their messaging we use the insight that we have gained to steer our child in another direction. Again, this is a parental choice and up to your discretion. Just knowing “what is going on” gives us piece of mind.

Now that my wife and I monitor our children’s text messages we have been amused and at times amazed at what is being communicated. If my oldest son is going out we have a better handle on who he is with and what he is doing. When pictures are being sent we can see what they are to ensure that they are not inappropriate. If one of my children’s friends is known to get in trouble we can monitor the text message conversations with that specific friend. Fortunately, most of the communication has been benign. However, there is the occasional reference to compromising activity, in which case we have used our parenting skills to steer our child in the right direction without revealing the source of our insight.

You can start protecting your children and download the free TxtWatcher app now. For additional information please visit: http://www.txtwatcher.com

Step 3: Get comfortable with the technology your kids are using

So you already have established an open line of communication with your kids and have experienced many “talks” on a variety of topics. However, in today’s environment you also have to get acclimated to your kids’ world before having the “Tech Talk.” And in a word their world is “online”.

If your kids are awake they are online. Checking Facebook, Twitter, and text messages is one of the very first and last things they do each day. If you are not comfortable with the technology that your kids are using you need to get comfortable, especially with what they use on their smartphones.

Kids’ Primary Tech Toolbox: Facebook, Twitter, and Texting

Facebook: Facebook is a social networking service and Web site launched in February 2004. There are over 800 million active users. Users must register before using the site, after which they may create a personal profile, add other users as friends, and exchange messages, including automatic notifications when they update their profile.

Steps to monitoring facebook:

  • At least one parent should register and set up a facebook account.
    http://www.facebook.com
  • “Friend” your kids and make sure that they accept, so you will see their profile updates, postings, and pictures that they put on their “wall.” Who gets “tagged” to pictures that they post is also worth monitoring. Per facebook Help: “A “tag” links a person, page, or place to something you post, like a status update or a photo.”

Twitter: Twitter is an online social networking and microblogging service that enables its users to send and read text-based posts of up to 140 characters, informally known as “tweets”. Twitter rapidly gained worldwide popularity, with over 300 million users as of 2011,[6] generating over 300 million tweets and handling over 1.6 billion search queries per day. Users may subscribe to other users’ tweets – this is known as “following” and subscribers are known as “followers.” (Selected text from Wikipedia as of November 28, 2011).

Twitter seems to be more popular with older teens or high school age children than with adolescents. Therefore, if your children are not using Twitter yet, they may become active Twitter users as they get older. If your children have Twitter accounts, which you can verify by going to the Google search engine (googling): Your child’s full name Twitter. If they have an account they will show up simply sign up for an account and “follow” them. This way you can view their “tweets” of messages which often provide the status of what they are doing and who they are with. Per Twitter’s site: “What you say on Twitter may be viewed all around the world instantly. You are what you Tweet!” Due, to the public nature of tweets, most are benign. However, an occasional tweet about undesirable behavior gets posted.

Real Life Example:

Recently, a high school football player, who was being recruited by several colleges, was expelled from school based on his tweets. The story gained national media attention and the student-athlete’s tweets were published for the world to see. Many of them were obscene and some were anti-Semitic. One can wonder what the colleges, who were interested in recruiting him thought about his tweets. Not only was the content of his tweets very offensive but, he also displayed a fundamental lack of common sense in posting them on a public forum like Twitter. Perhaps his parents would have interceded if they had read this guide.

Steps to monitoring Twitter:

  • At least one parent should register a Twitter account. http://www.twitter.com
  • “Follow” your kids on Twitter OR option3 below
  • After you have registered for a Twitter account you can log in and search for your child’s Tweets by entering: “@his or her username” and clicking Search

What about email? Most kids today do not use email to a great extent, especially on their smart phones. Many parents simply “spot check” their children’s email accounts by knowing the account ID and password. Since almost all personal email is now web based, it is easy to log onto the account and look at their email activity. There are products available today that will monitor your child’s email activity. However, the use of email is not very prevalent among children today. From your child’s perspective, email is a non-hip adult communication tool, and who uses it anyway when you have Facebook, Twitter, and Texting?

The underlying theme with Facebook and Twitter, as well as with other social media services is that they are “public” in nature. Specifically, most kids today realize that their posts are being viewed by others so they keep their sensitive communications to something they still view as private, Texting.

Step 4: Tech Parenting circa 1993: Install a Parental internet access filter at home

It is a fundamental assumption that you have already taken this step. However, it must be stated that if you have not yet installed a parental web filter on your PCs and Macs at home do so immediately. There are products like NetNanny that allow you to tailor internet access to your children’s ages. For example, you can easily block access to adult content. In the near future these products will also block access to adult content for tablet devices like iPads.

Step 5: Additional Options & Repeat Step 1

There are additional options for monitoring your children’s online activities. You can go as far as recording every key stroke or click that they make. There are many products available to do this. However, these approaches are typically too intrusive and not very effective. At the end of the day, there is no substitute for talking to your kids about life, including the realities of using technology responsibly.

In a world where everything is evolving at accelerated pace it’s comforting to know as a parent nothing has changed the above. So when things seem to be out of control: Repeat Step 1 as many times as necessary.