NEW YORK -- The popular online hangout MySpace.com has been quietly developing software to give parents an idea what their kids are doing on the site.
The tool, which will alert parents of the username, age, and location a child lists on personal MySpace pages known as profiles, is designed to spark conversations about Internet safety.
But it is also meant to give kids enough room to maneuver lest they flee to rival social-networking sites such as Facebook or Xanga. Unlike third-party monitoring software available for sale, the free MySpace tool won't let parents see their kids' password-protected profiles or any communications they have with friends.
MySpace, which disclosed the initiative yesterday after The Wall Street Journal reported on its existence, expects the software now known as "Zephyr" will be available this summer.
Parents, school administrators, and law-enforcement authorities have been warning of online predators at sites like MySpace, whose youth-oriented visitors are encouraged to expand their circles of friends .
News Corp.'s MySpace has responded by expanding educational efforts and partnerships with law enforcement. It also adopted new restrictions on how adults may contact the site's younger users and has helped design tools for identifying profiles created by convicted sex offenders.
Hemanshu Nigam, MySpace's chief security officer, described the latest initiative as a way for parents to learn whether their child is using MySpace from a home computer -- as most who have MySpace profiles do -- and whether the listed age is truthful.
Under MySpace's current policies, children under 14 are banned and those 14 or 15 years old can display their full profiles -- containing hobbies, schools, and any other personal details -- only to people already on the teen's list of friends. Others see only the user name, gender, age, and location.
But MySpace relies on users to specify their age. With the software, parents could tell if a 14-year-old tries to get full profile access by pretending to be 18.
"Many of our safety features are built around age and it's important that people honestly reflect their accurate age while on our site," Nigam said in a statement.
The software also would be able to detect whether a teen has multiple profiles -- one to show parents, another for friends -- and once the teen accesses a profile from a home computer, parents would likely be notified if the teen tries to change it from a friend's house. Specific mechanisms still are being worked out.
But the tool won't work if a profile is accessed entirely away from home.
Parry Aftab, executive director of WiredSafety.org, praised MySpace for its plans to let kids know when such software is installed, saying it could help trigger dialogue with parents.
But she said the tools might drive kids elsewhere, even though the software won't reveal more than what's available on their public profiles.
"A lot of kids think that somehow MySpace is their private space," she said, "and when they find out their teacher, police, or parents are reading their profiles, they leave in droves."