After Big Brother Is it Big Mommy?

If it all comes down to trust, why buy the software?
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The quest to be a perfect mother or parent is unceasing. There is an ever-expanding publishing and research industry devoted to the topic and the parenting debates are endless and ongoing.

But it is not only the quest for perfection, but also the fears of danger to children that pushes mothers to be and do more. The news and entertainment media is full of stories of kidnapped and lost kids, murdered children, pedophiles and drug abuse.

But has the desire for perfect parenting and perfect protection gone too far? "Extreme parenting" has emerged, and with it stories of "helicopter" mothers who spend vast amounts of time hovering over their children.

Who is to blame for this? There is a parenting advice industry, but there are also products to support extreme parenting and businesses use advertisements that play on the worst fears of parents.

One sort of product that is heavily marketed to mothers and parents is "parental control" software. The term itself conjures up the hope and the dream that parents can control their children.

In a project on examining how family relations are changing in the digital age, I have been researching the marketing of "parental control" software. What I found was that neither parents nor these software companies can really deliver the control they promise.

What marketing sells is a sort of 'war' between parents and children, enabling a mother to become more feared than loved -- more police than parent.

First of all, the marketing sells by reminding parents of panic-causing events in the news: sexting, cyberbullying, stalking on social media and sex predators.

To be sure, there are dangers, and parents have to be caring and protective. Yet many of the fears have little relation to actual risks and parents are being manipulated in order to buy more products.

Here is a short list of software you can buy to protect kids: Netnanny, Eblaster, Spector Pro, Win Spy, IamBigBrother, PCTattletale, PC Pandora, McAfee Family Protection, Qustodio, uknowkids, SocialShield, Nearparent, MinorMonitor, PhoneSheriff, BeSecure, Safeeyes, AVG Family Safety, and WebWatcher.

Generally, such software works by blocking URL's on a list in the repository, identifying and blocking banned words or in some instances, images that have too much "skin." Screen captures gather images reached on the monitor, logs of sites visited and a history of chat and IM messages. Some can collect lists of keystrokes.There is software for monitoring mobile phone usage so that location of phones, photographs taken and uploaded, IMs and mail sent and received and websites visited can all be monitored. Another technology is time control software that controls time spent on games or chatting or social networking sites. A third mechanism not only records information but also sends alerts to parents. More cloud computing means that there are companies offering dynamic monitoring as well.

But how do you get started on using the software?

You enter information about your children into the software -- age, gender, phone number and computer information, for starters. As you purchase the software, you enter your own information too. Then, you think, children can visit safe sites, pay games that are age-appropriate, use the Internet for school work and entertainment.

What happens with all this information that you enter?

I found that some "parental control" software companies sell this collected information to other companies for more targeting advertising.

Congress has created legislation to protect children from online companies. The Child Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998 (COPPA) was passed to prevent (though not wholly forbid) websites from directly marketing to children and collecting information from them. Through this legislation, which became enforceable in 2000, online companies were required to get verifiable parental consent before gathering and selling personal information from children. They had to post privacy policies online and protect the information gathered from children. They were prohibited from asking children to give information as a requirement for participation on the Internet, for instance, for playing games online.

In addition, COPPA allows self-regulation and so there are non-profits set up by businesses for this purpose. For instance, the FTC allowed one such agency, the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) to be created as a "safe harbor" program under the terms of COPPA. However, research has shown that sometimes the for-profit companies regulated by such programs do not always have a good record for ensuring the privacy of consumers.

In 2009, the Electronic Privacy Information Center brought a complaint to the FTC against a parental control software company which was selling data collected from parents to third parties seeking consumer information. EPIC stated in its complaint that the company used "unfair and deceptive trade practices by representing that the software protects children online while simultaneously collecting and disclosing information about children's online activities."

So the fears of mothers are being used to get personal information, and businesses profit from this information.

And what of the effectiveness of the software?

A quick online search told me that children, especially technologically adept ones, can find ways around the software by using proxy servers. Some parents who feel they are not as tech-savvy may let children do initial set ups that give them information about administrative settings and passwords, resetting system clocks.

The marketing suggests that a good mother becomes one who can do surveillance at all hours of day and night.

And of course, it is the mother's fault if she does not monitor the software 24/7, or if the software fails, as well it might, where there is a web-savvy child or teen.

But who can do so much surveillance? Parenting includes much more than simply protecting children -- or it should!

As one article in PC Magazine said, ultimately, parents need to have good relationships of "trust" with their children, because such software is not always effective.

So if it all comes down to trust, why buy the software?

To be sure, mothering does involve protecting children from dangers. Every computer these days comes with some built-in parental control software that can be used quite easily. There are reasonable concerns about age-appropriate access to different Internet sites and teaching children about being sensible about online dangers.

But all this software goes beyond such reasonable fears to turn mothering into policing.

That is why the quest for the perfect mother is perfect for selling products, but not for mothering.

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