Symantec tests a 'Net watchdog for kids

Symantec is developing a new parental control system called Norton Family Safety.

Symantec has developed a new online service to protect children from Internet dangers.

Called Norton Family Safety, the service is now being tested with a select group of several thousand parents, and Symantec expects to make a beta version public in about two months, said Anton van Deth, a Symantec marketing director. "We'd been hearing quite a bit from our customers that there was a need to do something in the family safety area," he said. "We wanted to create something that was built by parents for parents."

Norton Family Safety, code-named Watchdog by Symantec's development team, can manage the amount of time little Web surfers are online, monitor chat messages, and steer them clear of inappropriate sites.

But van Deth says that Symantec is trying to do more than build a better NetNanny. "The traditional forms of parental controls drive children underground," he said.

Family Safety is designed to give kids, as well as parents, a picture of what is going on so they can collaborate with each other and jointly set their rules for online usage. It also allows users to adjust these rules as the children mature.

Parents can share their computer usage rules with other parents and read up on how to handle prickly online safety issues. "If a child, for example, does get themselves into trouble, we'll equip the parent on how to handle that conversation," van Deth said.

Family Safety will also help parents keep tabs on things like search, cyber bullying, online reputation and social-networking sites.

John Palfrey, co-director of Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society, says that a new generation of tools is now emerging to help parents manage problems that were unheard of a generation ago -- cyber bullying, user-generated content, and what it means to personal privacy to have a generation of children growing up online.

"Parents are worried that they don't have the skills and proper tools to help their kids," said Palfrey, the author of Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives. "We've never seen a generation live from cradle to grave where they mediate their lives with technology."

Symantec's new service, which will support both Windows and Macintosh computers, is expected to go online next year. Symantec is still working out what it will charge for Family Safety.

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