It’s easy to watch our kids pursuing their social lives in the blue glow of their cell phone screens and think everything has changed from when we were kids. To think social media has somehow made growing up completely different.

But it hasn't. Talking to many families has convinced me that once you strip away all the obvious and jarring differences, things are pretty much the same. Our kids want to branch out from their family life to find friends and a place among their peers. Maybe find a boyfriend or girlfriend. Avoid doing something bone-headed that will make everyone laugh at them. Steer clear of the mean people.

Now, they just do this partially—or sometimes largely—using social media.

Sometimes it's hard to be a parent in a world filled with technology.

This means protecting and guiding your kids comes down to the same old thing: parenting. There’s still no substitute for listening to our kids, talking them through hard situations, and—if the situation warrants it—stepping in and taking direct action. Kids being bullied in the hallways between classes isn’t going to be solved by installing surveillance cameras every few feet. It’s solved by kids learning to handle bullies with the help of adults who notice what’s going on. Regardless of whether the adults notice the bullying through technology or good, old-fashioned talking.

Teaching and guiding kids to be sensible on social media is no different: it’s parenting that makes the difference. But there’s a problem. When social media apps are on kids’ phones, it’s almost impossible for parents to get any insight into what’s going on.

When kids are socializing in the physical world there are opportunities to catch a glimpse of what’s happening: meeting your kids’ friends during pick-ups and drop-offs, getting a sense of the conversation from the next room, checking in with teachers, or interrogating boyfriends under blinding spotlights after threatening them with a shotgun. It’s easy to check-in without being intrusive.

But social media makes checking-in much harder. Your kid might physically be next to you on the couch, but socially you have no idea where they are. They could be having a harmless conversation with their BFF, or unknowingly being groomed by a sexual predator (a possibility that seemed like media-hype until I talked to many parents whose kids had actually experienced it).

RAKKOON is what we built to solve this problem. To let parents get the insight they need without resorting to spying.

RAKKOON—enabling parenting on social media

RAKKOON is an app that goes on your kid’s phone and your phone. On your kid’s phone it captures what happens on their social media apps—what they share and what they see—and scans it for things that might concern you as a parent. If it finds something, it alerts you and your kid at the same time (I’ll tell you more about what it can find a little later).

After that it’s up to you. With the information RAKKOON provides, you can parent the way that makes sense to you—based on your particular situation and your specific kid. We aren’t trying to replace you as a parent. We don’t block or enforce anything. We just give you enough information to know what’s going on.

We think alerting kids, in addition to parents, is also really important. It lets them know you aren’t spying. It helps them take more responsibility for what happens on their social media accounts. It encourages them to take a step back and see what’s going on through your eyes. It even lets them initiate the conversation with you. This actually happens! Sometimes it's because kids themselves recognize there’s a problem, other times they want to provide context, so something that seems completely inappropriate can be explained as just an ill-considered joke.

In addition to the alerts, there’s an option to see all your child’s interactions. Because we know that sometimes you need to get a feel for what's going on, to see what’s being talked about and—often more importantly—with whom.

What RAKKOON can find

The alerts are a big part of what makes RAKKOON work. They make it so that you can, if it’s the right thing, give your kids some space by only looking at the alerts and not see all of the social media activity. They can also save you a huge amount of time. Let’s face it–kids can see and post a lot on social media. Way more than most parents have time to look through. RAKKOON can sift through all of that for you and pull out only the things that need your attention.

RAKKOON can find things you might expect from using other parental controls: profanity, sexual language, and images and videos that contain nudity. It can also find things that require a little more subtlety: bullying, racism, drug and alcohol references, indications of self-harm, and evidence of sexual predators.

RAKKOON can find this concerning content—including the subtle things—because it has learned over time by seeing a huge number of real social media posts. We’ve built sophisticated software that allows RAKKOON to learn from examples and, more importantly, we’ve gathered thousands upon thousands of real concerning posts and fed them into the software.

This learning-by-example is what makes RAKKOON alerts powerful. Bullying, for instance, is actually quite difficult to detect. It takes too many forms to be recognized by key words and phrases alone; it takes real examples.

This also means RAKKOON can pick up on the way kids actually communicate: Mis-spellings, looooooooots of exaggeration, c001 spelling, slang, #hashtags, and emoji 😰🔫 . The examples we’ve collected contain all of this—and now RAKKOON recognizes it.

RAKKOON finds this concerning content in text and in images–even in text within images. The visual-first nature of many social apps makes finding concerning content particularly important.

RAKKOON can detect that the "herbs" in this photo spell out WEED and flag that content. The visual first nature of many social apps makes this particularly important.

RAKKOON is still just computer software, though, and can’t know all the context and nuances of real communication. Just like that annoying great aunt, RAKKOON still misses “advanced” conversational techniques such as sarcasm. That means when your kid’s best friend says “I’m going to f*cking kill you” it'll get flagged. But that’s where your judgment comes in (and why your kid will have to explain why it’s not as bad as it sounds!).

When and how much social media matters too

Parents have also told us their struggles helping their kids find a healthy balance between social media usage and, well, everything else in life. To help with this RAKKOON tracks when and how much time is spent on social media. That way you can know if your kids are sending Snaps in the middle of the night or watching YouTube in 6-hour stretches.

Just like with content alerts, RAKKOON focuses on enabling you to parent rather than blocking apps after a time limit. We heard from many parents that they'd rather have the freedom to easily let their kids have a little extra time if that's appropriate rather than having to fiddle with time limits in a parental control app.

Both kids and parents see when and how much social media is being used, allowing kids to take control of their own usage.

Collaborative, but not easy to get around

While most kids have found RAKKOON acceptable—maybe not their favorite thing, but something they can live with—sometimes kids give into the temptation to test the limits. If that happens, RAKKOON will alert you and your child that it has detected tampering (such as an attempt to disable the app). In many cases, RAKKOON can automatically correct the problem and re-enable itself.

RAKKOON really works

Parents have told us what a relief it is to know what’s going on with their kids. They also like that it doesn’t feel like they’re spying. The initial introduction of RAKKOON might cause some teenage complaints, but most kids come around after they give it a try.

This collaborative approach is also really effective. The kids like knowing what their parents can see and being able to provide context. We’ve had many families see their kids make positive changes on their own. Kids have voluntarily stopped following particular celebrities or even acquaintances after their posts were flagged repeatedly.

And finally, kids have told us they feel safer when they know their parents are already aware of what’s going on. It also makes asking for help easier.

Of course, this isn’t surprising to us. We spent a lot of time with parents, kids, and mental health professionals during the design of RAKKOON. But more than that, there’s a growing body of academic research that supports this approach. For example, Pamela Wisniewski (and collaborators) conducted an interesting study about the effect of parenting on kids' social media behavior. The authors found that sheltering your kids might prevent them from being exposed to online risk—but it robs of them of a chance to learn from their experiences. Having the opportunity to learn from their actions increases their coping skills and encourages better judgment in the future. In the end, these researchers suggest balancing prevention with exactly the kind of collaborative intervention RAKKOON provides.

Why we think RAKKOON is the best option

There are other ways to check up on your kids social media feeds—but they all have drawbacks.

A lot of parents friend or follow their kids on social media. While this is definitely a good idea, you’ll only see the posts they send publicly. Unless you also follow all their friends, you’ll miss much of the social traffic. You’ll also miss direct messages, which are becoming a larger part of social media (especially as kids embrace chat-style apps like Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, and Kik). RAKKOON can see everything your kids post and what they see, including direct messages.

Some parents sit down with their kids and flip through their social media feeds together (we always imagine this as sitting on the couch together). This approach is great in a lot of ways. It gives the kids a chance to share what’s going on and provide glimpses into who their friends are. Some kids even enjoy this together-time. But for those kids who view this more like having their prison cell searched, at least they know when it’s happening and it allows them to provide some context.

But—and it’s a big “but”—this approach requires serious dedication. You have to find regular (and random!) times to sit down with your child. You also have to know enough about what apps are popular and how they work to make a thorough check. It doesn’t work at all with apps, like Snapchat, that have disappearing messages or when kids delete their history regularly (a not uncommon practice).

We designed RAKKOON to preserve many of the best parts of sitting on the couch together. But RAKKOON makes monitoring much easier. We keep an eye on things for you, letting you check up when it’s convenient. We can also do a much more thorough review—checking apps you might not think to look for and scanning for disappearing messages.

There are also some other software options for monitoring your kids’ social media. We took a hard look at all of them before we built RAKKOON. Some are too invasive, often offering ways to monitor your kids without their knowledge. Many require that you sit down with a laptop and dig through everything your kid does online. Others are just, well, clunky. They're well-intentioned but not convenient or easy to use.

Ultimately, we didn’t think any of the other apps were designed to help parents teach their kids to grow and be more responsible.

We wanted something different—software to give you the insight you need to parent your kids, without trying to replace you or turn you into an overbearing government agency.

Working ourselves out of a job

In the end, we want to help parents and kids grow out of RAKKOON. We want to be a part of the process of teaching kids how to socialize online safely and responsibly. So when kids are old enough, parents can trust them to find their own way in the online world and RAKKOON gets turned off.

Then you can go back to worrying about other things—like whether your son has a tattoo you don't know about.