Woda's KidSafe.me is one of several businesses that have recently joined the battle against "sexting"--a relatively new phenomenon involving teenagers sending and receiving sexually explicit messages and images via their cellphones. Television is helping stir the pot; a recent episode of the Tyra Banks Show featured stern adults reading the salacious details of teenage girls' text messages to a shocked audience. On Good Morning America,
That description might sound over the top, but there is at least some evidence that sexting has become widespread. According to a survey by the
The outrage over sexting has created controversy over whether the laws meant to protect minors have gone too far. The district attorney in
Woda thought parents, instead of depending on the law, would want tools to track what their kids are up to online. Closely related to the sexting scare have been news reports of teens committing suicide after "cyberbullies" revealed embarrassing details about them online. Woda had already worked in the world of online safety when he started buySAFE in 2000, a company that certifies online merchants and guarantees transactions so customers don't have to fear fraud. Since June, Woda and a small team have been working on KidSafe, which he hopes to launch as both an online program and mobile application in early 2010. KidSafe, which is currently in beta testing, looks like the phone bill that parents wish they had. When the parent logs in to the program, KidSafe displays who texts or calls their child most often, mines publicly available information in order to identify those people, shows if the kid is texting or calling more frequently than the national average, and flags text messages that might contain suspicious words, like references to sex or drugs. A database of more than 10,000 instances of textspeak and emoticons identifies code words that might confound parents. The number eight, for example, is commonly used in text messages as a stand-in for oral sex, says Woda. He is also working to link the program to social networking sites so it can display similar data about how much time a child is spending on sites like
But KidSafe can access the sensitive information on a phone or social networking account only if the parent can access the phone and install the KidSafe application or provide the user name and password for a
Woda concedes that kids are often more tech-savvy than their parents, so no tool can provide perfect oversight. But parents' concern over sexting, cyberbullying, and other online threats is driving businesses to improve protection. Several other start-ups are now competing to offer products to help parents keep tabs on their kids. SafetyWeb, in the process of being launched by
The difficulty for these businesses is similar to the difficulties facing parents. It's a challenge to keep up with kids who are finding new websites and developing new lingo all the time. "The way kids are communicating is changing faster than the market can adapt," says Woda.
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