When my kids were teens, my wife and I would occasionally walk into the room when they were on the Internet. We wouldn't stand there for long, but we would glance at the screen to make sure what they were doing was appropriate. The rule was that they had to use a computer in a public area of the house with the door open. We didn't spy on them, but we did check in now and then.
Now there's a software program that will let you do the same thing but from a different part of the house. ScreenRetriever ($9.99 a year after a 14-day free trial) works in two ways. You can record everything your child does or, if you have another computer at home, you can view what they're doing in real time from the other PC. The software currently works only on Windows but a Mac version is planned for later this year.
I installed a free trial version on both my desktop and laptop and the program works as advertised. The software was easy to install and equally easy to uninstall. You do need a password to make any changes or to view your child's screen from a remote PC.
As I'm writing this post on my desktop PC, I can see everything I'm typing and viewing from my laptop. It only works on a PC on the same network. There is no remote viewing via the Internet but if you want to review what your child does when you're not at home, you can opt to have the software record everything and view it later. The company plans to offer browser-based remote viewing in a future release
In a recorded interview (scroll down to listen), ScreenRetriever co-founder Victoria Kempf told me that she and her husband launched the product to protect their own two teenage daughters. After using it at home they "decided to bring it to market to help other parents to be able to parent online just as they do offline." She said that her older daughter was able to circumvent other parental-control products they tried. In my tests, I was able to circumvent ScreenRetriever on my desktop PC because it has two screens. I could view the main screen but not the second one. To be fair, most families don't have PCs with two screens so this isn't a likely problem.
One thing I like about the program is that it doesn't work in stealth mode. The person whose computer is being monitored can see the ScreenRetriever icon in the system tray at the bottom of their screen.
My biggest worry is that it could encourage helicopter parenting (as in hovering over your child) and that by monitoring everything a kid does, the parent will be overwhelmed with too much information.
Kempf said that the software is "meant to check in and be able to teach kids responsible and appropriate computer use." She likened it to a parent glancing out a window as the child plays in the yard. "Mom's not standing at the window for the entire time that the child's outside, but she takes a quick glance," and only intervenes if she sees something inappropriate.
Talk with your kids before using parental-control tools
If you decide to install this or any other software that monitors or limits what your child does online, I urge you to talk with your children first so that they understand your reasons for doing so. Also, be aware that software like this only works when the child is on their home PC. All bets are off if they're on a mobile device, using an Internet-connected game console, or at a friend's house. As I've said before, the best parental controls don't run on devices but in the CPU inside the child's head.
Click below to listen to my interview with ScreenRetriever co-founder Victoria Kempf