Last year, Northern Virginia entrepreneur Steve Woda experienced an incident that seems all too common in the Internet Age: A young member of his extended family was contacted online by a suspicious adult. While the family member was not harmed, it forced Woda and his family to think about ways to prevent the new technologies their kids use—such as social networking and text messages—from opening doors to sexual predators. But he didn't just think about what his own family could do. He and his brother Tim started a business to help parents monitor their children's use of the Internet, text messages, and cellphones.
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, Diane Sawyer declared that sexting has reached "epidemic proportions."
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 Associated Press and MTV released December 3, 30 percent of 14-to-24-year-olds have sent or received nude photos through cellphones or the Internet. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Democratic congresswoman from Florida, introduced an antisexting bill to the House in March that claimed, "One in 5 teenagers…used their cell phones to send explicit photos of themselves to a peer."
The outrage over sexting has created controversy over whether the laws meant to protect minors have gone too far. The district attorney in Wyoming County, Pa., threatened to bring child pornography charges against three teenage girls who took seminude photos of themselves—but did not send the photos—on cellphones that were later confiscated. In March, the ACLU came to the defense of the three girls, suing the prosecutor for allegedly violating their right to freedom of expression. Earlier this year, Vermont legislators relaxed antisexting laws concerning minors after the state's chief prosecutor argued that teenagers shouldn't be pinned as sex offenders. "It's become a bit of a panic," says Woda. He's not taking sides on exactly what the right legal response to the problem should be. "I don't know if tightening the laws is the right thing. As a parent, you don't want to rely on that."
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 Facebook and if he or is she is receiving suspicious messages there.