Startup helps parents keep tabs on kids' social media activity, online lives

It was 2009 when then-gym teacher and lacrosse coach at Fallston Middle and High Schools Jonathan Dick was arrested and charged with a bevy of sexual solicitation and child pornography charges.

Maryland State Police said he used Facebook to reach out to his victims; one of them was Tim Woda's son.

"My oldest child at the time was in middle school and he accepted a friend request from a friend of a friend on a social network and it turned out that person wasn't another 14-year-old kid, it was a 42-year-old school teacher and middle school lax coach and child predator."

Woda, who already had an Internet security background, did a deep dive on the Internet to find who this man was and after a lot of digital snooping, he was able to find Jonathan Stewart Dick of Harford County.

Dick was eventually convicted and now has a permanent home on the sex offender registry, but his status is far from the only outcome of Woda's digital investigation.

"We essentially took all the things that we did to try and find out who this person was and much of that thought process we incorporated into the technology so that we can help parents sniff out problems before they became a crisis," Woda said.

The result is a start-up company called uknow.com

Currently housed in a business co-op of sorts in Arlington, Va., uknow.com is a website offering parents a service to not just monitor, but inform them on general trends of their children's online lives.

"We spent the first couple of years kind of figuring out what is it that parents really really, really want, and what parents want is tools to get engaged so that they can do their job,” said Tim's brother, CEO and President Steve Woda.

 He says it took a few years to perfect, but unknow.com has grown from about 500 members to almost 40,000.

Steve Woda says the service is an agreement between parent and child and acts as an online chaperone.          

The app simply generates a report so parents can see a life they currently cannot such as when they are online, who they are talking to, what they are posting and where and what is being said about them.

“When I was a kid there was a family phone in the kitchen, there was a front door and that was how I communicated with the outside world and for today's parents their kids are using digital devices and they are talking to people where they have no idea who they are, they don't know when they talk and they certainly don’t know what they talk about," Steve Woda said.        

One parent who is painfully aware of that trend is Christine McComas.

"I don't think parents and adults have any idea, not only how serious and ugly what is being said out there was, but how interconnected kids are today," she said.

McComas’ daughter Grace killed herself in 2012 after being relentlessly bullied on social media.

The state passed a law in her name making cyber bullying a crime, but she says it takes parents too who need to understand the life your child lives online is as real as the life they life off.

"It's a life or death thing now.  We don't have a choice anymore.  Just like you wouldn't take a 10-year-old and hand him car keys and take him to a crowded area and say go drive, we need to teach them early about empathy, about digital citizenship and we need to protect them," McComas said.

Certainly a different circumstance, but much the same lesson learned by Tim Woda; a lesson he hopes to teach other parents the easy way.

"We tend to talk to them about the things we can see," he said. "The friends that we know, the activities we saw. But in a world where kids spend one in four waking hours on line, a significant portion of their day is playing out in a place we can’t see with people we don’t know exist."

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