On August 15, The LAMP blogged about a new software product by Symantec from OnlineFamily.Norton. In it, Executive Director D.C. Vito offered a critical perspective of the program designed for parents to monitor their children’s online activity, and The LAMP was flattered to receive a response from Symantec/Norton Internet Safety Advocate, Marian Merritt. (The comment itself is too long to paste in this post, but you can click here to read it in full.) We felt the comment deserved a response.
It is clear that there were some things we didn’t know about the product when we first wrote about it–Ms. Merritt mentions a council of scholars and parents who assisted in its development, as well as troves of research; she also responds to our critique that the product is essentially “spy-ware” or “stealth” by noting that an icon is always visible so kids are aware they are being watched. It is not our intent to spread misinformation. We did not see these details on the site; the ‘About’ tab for the program lists only minimal system requirements for its installation. Of course, we’re happy to hear about both of these things, and we’re also happy to hear from Ms. Merritt that “during the initial setup we encourage parents to discuss the purpose of the service and the House Rules with their children.”
Encouraging parents to talk to their kids about the Internet should always be the first step in cyber wellness. But, we also think it should have been a step for Symantec in developing their product. Of all the parents, researchers, doctors, etc., when were young people consulted about how they would react to having this program on their computers? If children and parents are meant to benefit from the product, why not talk to the children as well? Many young people respond defensively when they feel they are being over-monitored, mistrusted or preemptively punished, and start finding ways to work around a set of rules that they don’t understand or didn’t help construct. When kids want to spend more time on the computer than what they are allotted, they’ll go to a friend’s house or use computers at the library. As the adage goes, rules are made to be broken. Youth insight might have been helpful to develop something that helps parents be involved and aware, but also allows a respectful degree of privacy.
We also still have questions and concerns about why the product is being offered, for now, as free. Ms. Merritt states that Symantec takes seriously the privacy of their customers, and that all personal information is kept separate from monitoring and reporting functionalities of OnlineFamily.Norton. Isn’t monitoring and reporting the purpose of the product? Is absolutely none of the information about what sites kids visit, or how long they stay there, used in marketing research for Symantec? It is absolutely brilliant if Symantec gets all this invaluable data about where kids go online (and if they are privy to the kinds of conversations and “house rules” in many homes) so that they can sell, sell, sell more stuff to parents and kids.
Finally, part of our issue with the product is larger than Symantec, and has to do with using fear as a marketing tool. As the website says, “Like most parents, you’re concerned about what your kids are doing on the Internet.” Think about what’s really being said: “Aren’t you concerned? You’re not? Well, you should be, since most parents are. And with this product, you don’t have to worry.” The real product being sold is a sense of security, and selling the need for it is an inherent part of the marketing.
Let us be clear by adding that all of us at The LAMP recognize that bad things can happen online. We don’t labor under the assumption that the Internet is a magical land filled with unicorns and gumdrops, where no harm can be done. We just don’t think a program like the one created by Symantec is the answer. We have yet to hear of programs for “News Safety” or “Television Safety” although both of those media are becoming increasingly interactive and filled with user-generated content (which are two of the things that make most people nervous about the Internet). No, instead we have news literacy and television literacy, which use education and critical thinking rather than program settings to help people make smart decisions about media.