Kids search for the darndest things online.
In recent months, they've been looking for everything from Facebook and YouTube to Michael Jackson, Miley Cyrus, and someone named Fred. Oh, yes, they're also looking for pictures their parents probably don't want them to see.
That's the upshot of a new report from Symantec, based on use of its OnlineFamily.Norton service, which lets parents monitor and manage their kids' online activities, including Web searches. The service can track and report on a child's Internet whereabouts in real time, allowing parents to quickly learn of any content they feel their kids should not be accessing.
Here are the top 10 search terms among kids for the period from February through July:
8. Michael Jackson
Other terms that made the top 100 included Eminem (49), the Jonas Brothers (47), iTunes (89), Playboy (also at 89), boobs (28), Wikipedia (14), Webkinz (16), games (17), and swine flu (93). Fred? He's a fictional character whose YouTube channel has become a hit among kids, Symantec says.
In an interview with CNET News, Symantec Internet safety advocate Marian Merritt discussed OnlineFamily.Norton, the latest search results, and how parents can help their kids surf more safely.
In her role, Merritt spends a lot of time talking to kids and parents. She said she was less surprised by the results than some of her co-workers.
"I think seeing how dominant the terms 'sex' and 'porn' are, that they come up well within the top 10, doesn't surprise us," said Merritt. "You go down farther in the list, you see words of anatomy like 'boobs,' it almost makes you laugh because we remember what it was like to be a preteen or teen. Parents don't often have context around this sort of thing."
In search of YouTube
By speaking with children as part of her job, Merritt says she understands why kids are searching for the terms found in the list.
"Whenever I talk to children, all the way down to the kindergarten level, YouTube is one of the top three or four sites they go to," she explained. "And children even report they use YouTube as a research starting point. There's a topic they're interested in. They go to YouTube because they want to visually learn about something. The reason that's important for parents to understand is that there are challenges around making YouTube a safe environment for your children. It's not really designed for that."
Merritt feels this type of study can help parents to better grasp their own kids' Internet activity, "to understand what's normal, what's not normal, what's typical."
"If your children were searching for something like this Fred character (from YouTube), and you didn't know what it was, it might confuse you," she said. "But I think the study sets some expectations from parents that 'my child is looking to be entertained.' On the other hand, if you saw that your child is looking up porn, and you became very upset, this might show you that actually it's a very common thing for kids to be doing. And you should be reassured that there's nothing really wrong with your child. Rather, this should be an opportunity for a teachable moment."
OnlineFamily.Norton lets parents see what pages their kids are viewing and what links they're clicking after entering search terms, like the ones on the top 100 list. So parents can see what their children intended do to as well as where they ended up.
The service is geared toward kids from ages 8 to 13, which Merritt believes is a critical age range for children on the Internet. "A lot of parents think the most dangerous things their kids are going to encounter are when they're in high school, which is dead wrong," she noted. "If you can get your kids on a path of good Internet behavior when they're in elementary school before the critical middle school time, you'll have much greater success with your children and their expectations around their Internet lives."
Merritt also sees the service as triggering more of a partnership between kids and parents. She says that parents can establish house rules over what sites their kids can or cannot access. "It's very open. Kids always know that the product is monitoring them. A little icon will pop up that says this breaks the house rules, identifies which rule, and it allows the child to send a message to the parent to explain, or the kid can back out of it, not realizing that this was a bad Web site."
The OnlineFamily.Norton Web site offers further tips for parents on how to use the service with their children.
To compile the list, Symantec tracked 3.5 million searches run by registered users of OnlineFamily.Norton from February 2009 (when the service was first released as a beta) through July 2009. Each term had to be submitted at least 50 times to make the list.