Sales manager Eric Wong Yiu-wai began to monitor the online activities of his younger son two years ago. The software he installed on his computer tracks the websites his son visits, instant messaging between him and his buddies, and the updates he posts on social networks. His phone will get instant alerts if his son uses offensive language in his posts or visits an unsavoury website. Wong says rising online perils make electronic surveillance of his 15-year-old son necessary.
'He spends a lot of time online every day. As I am working most of the time, I don't know what he is doing on the computer.'
Wong's worries are shared by a rising number of parents who feel helpless in the digital age when online scams, data theft and breaches of personal privacy happen every day.
Internet security companies say they have seen an increase in parents buying filtering software and electronic surveillance tools to ensure better online protection for their children.
The plethora of online risks was exposed in a survey conducted by Microsoft and the Hong Kong Council of Social Service last year. A total of 825 people aged 12 to 23 were polled. It found that an average user spent 20.3 hours online per week, with 32 per cent of them saying they suffered from invasion of privacy where their private correspondence and pictures were made public. Eleven per cent said they are victims of cyberbullying and 70 per cent said pornography was easily accessible on the web.
Internet security firm Symantec's consumer business head for Taiwan and Hong Kong, Isabel Hsu Shu-ching, says parents have an important role to play in ensuring children's online safety.
'Parental online monitoring should start early as older children are likely to resist control and restraint,' she says. 'Some parents just give their children a smartphone and take relief in the fact that their kids won't bother them any more. This is dangerous. Our Norton Online Family Report 2011, which interviewed 2,956 parents and 4,553 children aged eight to 17 globally, showed that 24 per cent of children shop online for music and video games with parents' credit cards without their knowledge. Nearly 20 per cent of 200 Hong Kong children polled say they have experienced a negative situation on their mobiles, including bullying and the receipt of unsavoury SMSs.'
Given the situation, Symantec launched Norton Online Family, a free software that allows parents to track the online activities of children, worldwide last year.
A paper trail of all online activities by children can be revealed with the software. Parents can get detailed reports on the time and frequency of children logging on to social networks, full content of instant message conversations they have with friends, and the words they input into search engines and the sites they lead to.
A mobile application of the software has recently been launched for iPhones and Android mobile phones.
Sam Lee Lik-hang, greater China director of F-Secure, says his internet security firm launched an updated software package called Mobile Security 7.5 last month, aimed at parents who want to ensure a safe web experience for their children. The latest version, costing HK$299, offers filtering, apps control and a location feature that can show the whereabouts of users. Lee says the software is useful for tablets and smartphones that do not have embedded parent-control features like in Apple or Microsoft-powered computers.
'We have seen a fourfold increase in parent clientele since the software was launched,' he says. 'Young people can get a tablet and smartphone easily now. An abundance of dubious apps like those for gambling and smutty novels are free for downloading by Android users. Those apps greatly alarm parents.'
In addition to installing monitoring software, Hsu says parents should discuss with children the establishment of house rules on computer use.
'The rules can be about how much time children can spend online each day and what sites are off-limits to them. I have a mutual agreement with my seven-year-old twins on what sites they can visit. They understand that I will get alerts on my office computer if they break the rules.'
Yu Kwok-kin, the training director of Spiritual Stepping-Stone, which provides communication courses, is a father of three children aged eight to 13. He says he has set a list of house rules with the agreement of his children.
'We agreed that the computer is placed in the drawing room where public exposure can minimise inappropriate activities and excessive computer use,' he says.
'They can use the computer for entertainment for only 30 minutes a day. A timer is placed next to it. The children will stop using it of their own accord once the time is up. Violent games are forbidden. All three of my children have Facebook accounts. I know their passwords. They don't have any problems with me accessing their accounts. The rules have been observed since they were very young and they have grown accustomed to them.'
While parental electronic surveillance can reduce the risks children are exposed to on the web, youth workers and educators promoting parental digital literacy say excessive surveillance can provoke hostility from youngsters and worsen parent-child relationships.
Elaine Cheng Hiu-ling, director of community development at DotAsia Organisation, which provides computer literacy programmes for parents through its NetMission arm, says more parents want to boost their understanding of the internet and social media platforms so they know what their children are doing online.
'Some parents come to do our course after being mocked by their children for their paltry digital knowledge,' she says. 'A parent told me her child seldom talks to her now that she has progressed to Primary One. She refused to heed her warnings about excessive internet use, saying her mother knows nothing about the web.'
The course teaches parents about the online risks children face, how to navigate social media platforms and how to use the web to better communicate with children. Once they get the hang of social media features, Cheng says, parents go to excessive lengths to monitor their children's online activities.
'They open a Twitter and Facebook account, and force their children to add them. Once they see children post dubious Facebook comments or pictures, they give them a heckling. Perusing children's Facebook posts has become the modern equivalent to stealing a peek at children's diaries and opening their letters without permission. We always advise parents not to be prudish and take offence at the minor misdemeanours that are the hallmarks of youth. They were young once. It's normal for young people to hate homework or talk about silly things with friends.'
Facebook has become a tool of choice for parents to spy on their children's social circle and activities. Research conducted in 2010 by Nielsen and AOL, which interviewed 1,024 parents and 500 youngsters aged between 13 and 17, found that 75 per cent of parents were friends with their children on Facebook. Thirty per cent of the teen respondents said that if they had the choice, they would 'unfriend' their parents from their profiles. They said that parents would let them keep their accounts only if they 'friended' them and their profiles were often spied on by parents.
Cecilia Ng Kam-kuen, a social worker and unit-in-charge of NetWise Support Centre for Families of The Hong Kong Federation of Youth Groups, says parents' heavy-handed policing of Facebook can lead to serious conflict with their children.
'Some youngsters tell us they are disgusted by the parental surveillance,' she says. 'Upon seeing intimate pictures of her son with his girlfriend, a mother wants him to stop seeing the girl. Ignorant of how young people think, some parents embarrass their children on Facebook by making uncool postings on their walls. For those who are 'unfriended' by their children, they create another account using a false identity in order to carry on their surveillance.'
Ng says such parents waste a valuable opportunity to improve their relationship with their children. 'Online communication can actually draw parents and children closer together. Some youngsters might be reluctant to talk about their problems face to face, but will open up in online chats with parents.'
Sales manager Wong says his sons' postings on Facebook make him aware when they are upset.
'I don't do any monitoring of my older son, who is 19 and would be repulsed by parental interference. But we are friends on Facebook. I will say something comforting if I see his gloomy posts. For most other stuff, like pictures with his girlfriend or friends in social gatherings, I don't pay much attention to that.'
Sex educator and family therapist Atty Ching Tsui-wan has been friends with her 12-year-old daughter Athena Lai Ching-hei on Facebook for two years. Instead of regarding the social networking site as a surveillance tool, she says the site boosts her communication with her daughter.
'We share links to interesting articles or pictures on it,' she says. 'I compliment her on the pretty pictures she posts there. I see all kinds of weird acronyms she uses with her friends and ask her what they mean. Athena's dad is an IT specialist, so she has been well versed in everything digital since she was in kindergarten. She has an iPad, iPod and MacBook. She has more than 1,000 Facebook friends. Every young generation has their subculture. There's no way we can catch up with the young regarding digital technologies. The key is to teach them to protect themselves and exercise critical thinking in their online conduct.'
Ching says she is confident that her daughter is internet-savvy.
'I tell her whenever I see news stories about young online victims. Young women are duped into having sex with online strangers. Students are subject to malicious gossip because of cyberbullying.
'I teach her to stay alert and only add people she knows on Facebook. As a parent, it's difficult to draw the line between protecting them online and infringing on their personal privacy. But I always try to be tolerant as all pictures or sayings posted by young people are strange in the eyes of parents.'
Athena is well aware of the online risks she is exposed to as a young female web user. 'The school account of a classmate of mine got hacked and the hacker used her account to send sleazy pictures to everybody in the class. I know we should be cautious with all of our online data. Although I don't know everybody on my list of Facebook friends, I only add those who are friends of my friends.'
Athena says she does not mind being virtual friends with her parents. 'Even at home, we will talk through Skype and MSN. I watch reality shows on YouTube with my dad on my iPad all the time. It's so much fun.'
A host of tools are available for online protection of children. Here are some of them:
Blocks pornographic and violent sites, questionable chat rooms and other dangers of the internet.
Users can configure to allow only sites with appropriate parental ratings.
GoGoStat Parental Guidance
Allows parents to monitor children's activities on Facebook.
Parents will be notified when their children post new status messages containing vulgarities, drug references or other unsavoury terms. It also charts the age and location of your children's friends.
Windows Live Essential for Windows Vista/7
Limits your children's e-mail and instant messaging access to only approved contacts on Windows Live Hotmail and Windows Live Messenger.
Norton Online Family
Tracks the websites visited, instant online conversation with friends and postings on social networks.
F-Secure Mobile Security 7.5
Has filtering, apps control and a location feature that can show a child's whereabouts.
(A free version is available on the F-Secure Hong Kong & Macau account on Facebook)