SALT LAKE CITY –– When Melissa Belanger saw an ad on Facebook for a free yearlong subscription to Net Nanny, she jumped at the opportunity to use it.
Belanger, of St-Antoine-sur-Richelieu in Quebec, Canada, has three children. Her 18-year-old son and 15-year-old daughter have been on Facebook since they were about 13, and her 8-year-old son is just beginning to chat online with his friends.
She let her subscription to Net Nanny, Internet filtering software, end a couple of years ago after using it for one year, and she is glad she spotted the ad for it.
"I was able to find out that my perfect little angel wasn't perfect," Belanger said. "She was planning things behind my back…something that could have ended up quite dangerous."
Cyberbullying and cyber predators have been prevalent dangers for web-users since the onset of the Internet in the '90s, but as social networking grows ever more popular among all generations, it's the younger generations that have many people worried.
Consumer Reports' recent State of the Net survey found that 7.5 million of the estimated 750 million people on Facebook are younger than 13, and more than 5 million of those are 10 and under.
One of the biggest threats for these young children is their innocence because they don't know the potential dangers and risks they might face online, said Russ Warner, CEO of Net Nanny.
"There are lots of cases of kids finding friends online and becoming friends with people who they don't know," he said. "It's just a matter of educating and talking to kids."
The Net Nanny filtering software and other monitoring software like PC Pandora, which works like TiVo for a personal computer, is a way for parents to monitor their children's online activity without having to sit and watch over their shoulder.
It frustrates Ken Shallcross, director of media and public relations for Pandora Corporation, to no end that every parent in the U.S. doesn't use monitoring software when it is such a great solution to cyberbullying, predators and keeping kids safe online.
"For some reason, when it comes to using software to monitor child Internet activity, many parents are apprehensive," he said. "They feel they are invading the privacy of their children and that the simple filters and blocks are good enough to keep their kids safe."
A recent study by Symantec's Norton researchers reveals that 43 percent of parents surveyed don't have online parenting software installed, 40 percent check the computer's browser history, 18 percent said they know a little of what their child does online, 10 percent ask but aren't told, and 6 percent don't know if they have monitoring software installed, reported PC Magazine, which provides information about monitoring software on its website.
Many kids are finding their way into the online world without guidance or protection from their parents, who themselves either don't recognize the potential dangers and risks of allowing their children to forge their way alone on the Internet or don't put much stock in the reality of those dangers and risks, Shallcross said.
Both Warner and Shallcross said this needs to change, and parents need to open their eyes because the dangers of cyberbullying and predators are real.
In the same Norton study, almost a quarter of parents said their children have been involved in cyberbullying in some way –– 68 percent of those said their child was a victim, 17 percent said their child was the bully, and 15 percent said their child was a witness.
Net Nanny, PC Pandora and similar software programs typically cost between $30 and $100 depending on the services. Catching children's conversations with potential cyber predators or discovering they are victims of cyberbullying or that they are the bully is much easier because the software records instant messaging conversations, archives all the websites users visit and prevents users from gaining access to pornography or whatever parents configure the software to block.
That's how Belanger found the e-mail address of a person her 15-year-old daughter had been having questionable conversations with. Once she sent him an e-mail warning him to leave her daughter alone, the problem dissolved. If she hadn't seen the records of those conversations, Belanger would have remained ignorant to the potential danger her daughter was putting herself in.
"It helps me keep an eye on what they don't always tell me," she said. "With my 8-year-old I can keep an eye on who he's chatting with. I can't necessarily be behind them watching."
Of Net Nanny's one million users worldwide, about 800,000 are in the U.S. The company doesn't track its customers in Utah, but Warner said the market here is not as big as one might expect because people here don't think they need it.
"They tend to think, 'My kid is good. My computer's in a safe place in the house like the kitchen,'" Warner said. "It's a matter of not paying attention and waiting until something bad happens."
But not everyone agrees that Internet monitoring is the way to go.
"A lot of parenting websites don't see it as an aid, they see it as a crutch," he said. "If a parent has to use this software, it's a cop-out."
David Ballard, president of The Cyberhood Watch, an online digital community promoting Internet safety in Utah, said that even if kids aren't doing anything wrong online, there are others who use the Internet nefariously, and if parents don't spy on their kids, there is a good chance someone else with ulterior motives will spy and not worry about it.
He agrees that innocence is one of the biggest dangers to young kids, but parents can help curb that danger.
"They don't have the level of maturity that adults have. Many kids are starving for attention, to be socially active out there," he said. "I sometimes forget that there are so many people who aren't aware of what's going on. Parents have abdicated their rights with technology."
The Cyberhood Watch's Internet-based live radio show is how Ballard and others at the company, Bill Wardell, try to spread awareness to parents and kids about the dangers of cyberbullying, predators and the need for educating kids before setting them loose in the online world.
Harassment, no matter how much or how little, can result in many problems emotionally, mentally and physically, even driving some to suicide, tragedies the U.S. has witnessed all too often in the past few years. But dangers like this are what motivated Warner, Shallcross, Ballard and their predecessors to start promoting child online safety.
"From predators to cyberbullying or just their own naiveté, the threats to our kids every time they get online are real and there's just too much at stake," Shallcross said. "You read any story where a kid committed suicide or a girl was having a sexual relationship with a guy she met online –– the parents of the people involved never say, 'I knew about it.'"
His point: Much of today's cyberbullying and cyber predator problems could be fixed if more parents were involved or actually knew what was going on in their children's online life.
Belanger plans to renew her Net Nanny subscription as long as she has young children even though her daughter doesn't like it.
"I see it as a way to protect our kids. They take the wrong path sometimes," she said. "We can find out. We can solve the problem."
For more information about Internet monitoring software, visit internet-filter-review.toptenreviews.com/.
To download free podcasts of The Cyberhood Watch radio programs, visit itunes.apple.com