Symantec has launched a free online app that allows parents to track their children's online activity.

According to Symantec, Norton Online Family, which is currently in beta, also allows parents to monitor the terms kids are searching for and who they're communicating with online.

However, Online Family will not allow parents to hide this monitoring from their kids. "As a security company, we consciously decided not to introduce anything that's spyware-like," Group Product Manager Jody Gibney told The Industry Standard.

This transparency crops up elsewhere. Like most child protection programs, Norton Online Family can be configured to block objectionable websites. But here, built-in messaging allows kids to immediately request an exception to the ban. In addition, parents can put together a set of 'house rules' which the children can access and read whenever they wish.

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"We recommend in setup that parents have a talk with children and review the house rules," Gibney said. This approach leads to haggling, she admitted, "but children more likely to abide by house rules that they agreed upon".

Symantec also said the software is designed to encourage an "open, ongoing dialogue" between parents and children.

Other features include time management (because how much time a child spends on the internet can be more of a problem than what he or she does there), custom alerts to warn parents when rules are being broken, and access to social networking information.

Symantec hasn't set a release date for the final version of Norton Online Family, but Gibney told us it wouldn't happen before late April. Pricing has yet to be set.

See also: Norton 360 v3.0 beta available for download