Staying safe online: parental control software

child internet use

PARENTAL control software promises to keep kids safe online, and it's available free from all the major UK broadband providers.

Whatever their feelings on the Government's war on adult content (more here), families want to look after their youngest members when they access the internet.

In this article, we take a look at the best ways to do that.

How do ISPs' free parental controls work and can they really stop children from coming across harmful material or protect them from bullying?

Help for parents:
skip ahead to find more

We'd love to hear about what works best in real homes, too, so let us know in the comments at the end.

Parental controls from BT, TalkTalk, Sky and Virgin Media

All of the UK's big broadband providers have offered parental control software, usually with Norton or another big security firm, free for their customers for some years.

However, following an agreement made with the Government in 2013, they now offer:

We've reviewed all of these ISP controls to see what that actually means.

TalkTalk: HomeSafe

TalkTalk are very proud of their HomeSafe software. Launched in May 2011, it was the first to offer blocks at router level. Theirs is the model that other ISPs have since followed.

HomeSafe's parental controls fall into two categories: Kids Safe and Homework Time.

Kids Safe is the part of the system that deals with general content blocking: it allows parents to select broad categories which will then be restricted.

There are nine categories including Suicide and Self Harm (the most used category, according to TalkTalk), Violence and Weapons, Filesharing, Games, and Social Networking.

Homework Time lets parents set a time to block access to social networking and game websites, either seven days a week or Monday to Friday.

In early 2013, TalkTalk said 1.2 million customers (about 25%) used Homesafe and 410,000 used Kids Safe; by June 2015 around 33% of new customers were opting in to Kids Safe - a figure they say is broadly in proportion to the number of households with children in their customer base.

BT: Parental Controls

BT launched their free network-level parental controls in late 2013.

We first reviewed them in early 2014 (read the full review here) and, in brief, found the filters simple fairly effective and easy to use.

It was fairly easy to bypass controls, and we found some problems with the filters blocking too many sites, or not blocking sites that should have been categorised as unsafe.

However, in general, the filters work well.

Since then, BT have improved various aspects of the controls. They now not only cover the household wi-fi, but any device accessing BT's UK-wide wi-fi network using the household account.

There's also the option to fine tune the days and times of day when the filters are active, and how strictly - for example, there's a homework setting that blocks both the sites caught by the standard filters and social networking, games, and school cheating sites.

Our review has more information about setting up BT Parental Controls; there's also a decent set of FAQs on MyBT - or users can watch this video:

BT also offer Family Protection software, which they say is ideal for homes with just one computer. Customers set up different password-protected accounts for each person using the computer, allowing suitable levels of access for each.

BT Family Protection has more advanced settings including:

How much?
  • BT Parental Controls: free
  • BT Family Protection software: free
  • BT Virus Protect for two computers: free
  • BT Virus Protect for up to 15 computers: Free with BT Infinity 2, or £4/month

As noted above, this is only really an option for households with one main computer, and these much more advanced settings require more monitoring.

Since April 2016, BT have also offered McAfee NetProtect Plus, known by the name BT Virus Protect, free to all customers.

This is a security suite that offers anti-virus protection, a firewall and, almost incidentally, some parental controls.

Every BT Broadband customer is automatically entitled to download and use it on up to two computers; Infinity 2 customers get protection for up to 15 computers.

Those with Standard broadband and Infinity 1 can upgrade to get this extra coverage for £4 a month.

Sky: Shield parental controls

Sky released their network level controls - called Sky Broadband Shield - in late 2013. They were the first to switch them on by default for all new customers, and for existing customers who didn't respond to prompts, in July 2016.

We reviewed the controls in depth in this article.

sky shield

In brief: we found that Shield offers simple control categories (PG, 13 and 18, as shown left), a watershed option, and some basic advance settings (custom category blocks and blocks/unblocks for individual sites) which work well, if a little slowly.

We found that when using any device other than the one used to set up the service, trying to access blocked sites gave us a time out error, rather than showing a "this site is blocked" message, which could be confusing.

But there's no option to limit time spent online, which is a shame.

Instead, Sky offer a free trial of McAfee Security Suite, which does include the option to limit usage as part of its own parental control settings.

Customers with Broadband Unlimited or any of Sky's Fibre packages can use McAfee Security Suite on up to three PCs (not Macs, please note) for 12 months free of charge; those with Sky Broadband 12GB will get three months free.

As well as the additional parental filters, there's virus, malware, and wi-fi protection. After the free trial period is up, to keep using the program will cost £3 a month.

Virgin Media: WebSafe

Virgin Media released their network level parental control option, WebSafe, in early 2014.

When it was first launched, it protected up to three computers - but every member of the family needed an identical user profile on each computer, and the controls had to be installed and set up on each machine as a result.

There were advantages to needing so much attention - it was customisable for each member of the family, for example, so older children had more freedom than younger kids, and adults could set up a profile with no restrictions.

But WebSafe is now a network-level form of protection, like that provided by the other three big ISPs - so every device connected to the household's broadband connection is automatically covered.

Again we can add or remove sites, and there's a timer option to allow WebSafe to be switched off for certain periods - a bit like the watershed setting on Sky Broadband Shield.

Like the other big ISPs, Virgin Media also offer a paid security and control software option called F-secure SAFE.

F-secure protects up to five devices, including smartphones and tablets. It allows users to:

F-secure SAFE is free for all Virgin Media broadband customers for the first year. After that renewals cost £25 per year - instead of £79.99 as paid by other users.

As above, the basic parental controls are totally free.

Other parental controls

As well as ISP controls, there are a number of operating system and software options parents can use.

Operating system controls: Windows and Mac OSX

Windows Vista and Windows 7 each had parental controls built into them; when Windows 8 was launched, these were bolstered by the introduction of what Microsoft call "Family Safety".

Parental Controls
  • For Windows Vista and 7 (from the Dummies site
  • Family Safety for Windows 8 and 10
  • Family Safety adds different levels of web filtering, a safe search option, and a daily usage limit to the controls available with Windows 7; it also provides weekly email reports of the activity of each user to which Family Safety is applied, including any Windows Store downloads.

    Mac first introduced parental controls in OS X 10.4 Tiger, and all OSX since have offered parental controls via System Preferences (here's how to set them up in Mavericks, Yosemite,El Capitan and macOS Sierra).

    The image below shows one way to use the Mac controls to set time limits on computer use, for example.

    Mac parental controls time limits

    The main advantage of operating system parental controls is their robustness and simplicity: this is basically what multi-user operating systems were designed to do.

    Simply set up a user account for each adult and child, adjust the settings for each user and there's less chance of older kids finding workarounds or discovering browser compatibility issues.

    Operating systems also have more control than software applications - they can limit access to other applications like games, for example, as well as web content.

    Control software: Norton

    All the big security companies offer parental control software. They're all fairly similar but let's look at Norton's in a bit more depth.

    With the free version of the Norton software, parents can block certain categories of sites (or give a warning about the site but allow access, which is a nice feature) and receive alerts if children give away information or go somewhere possibly dodgy.

    With the paid, Premium, version of the software parents can, among other things:

    Parents can track usage in a simple online account manager - allowing for remote access - with an activity summary which shows, for example, the child's most visited web sites, most popular friends on instant messaging services and recent searches.

    To set different limits for different children and give a restriction free option, each family member needs their own user account on the computer, and to track social networks parents need to enter the log-in information for the sites they want to view.

    Norton aim to be transparent with children about what they can and can't access, and what information is being recorded about what they do online.

    The company says this approach helps to teach children Internet safety by actively involving them in setting the rules.

    Find more information on the Norton site here.

    More information on controls

    In a bid to help promote the use of parental control software, The UK Safer Internet Centre (UKSIC) has been working with BT, Sky, TalkTalk and Virgin Media to launch online video guides to help parents set up the controls software and offers information on other controls too.

    The video guides are available on UKSIC's site here.

    How useful are parental controls?

    Government interest on the issue of online safety has put parental controls under the spotlight.

    There are three main strands to the debate which we'll look at briefly here.

    After that you can find more comment on cyberbullying and the Government's role in promoting internet safety at home.

    Controls vs parenting

    There's a very contentious debate on how useful this software actually is compared with "traditional parenting".

    On a Slashdot thread about just this, we noticed the following particularly odious response to a user who asked which software was best:

    "If you're looking for software to take care of your children for you, you've already failed as a parent."

    The sentiment is uncommonly offensive but commonplace.

    There are plenty of people out there waiting to tell parents that focus on software is wrong headed, instead suggesting educating children about online safety or standing at their shoulder every time they're at a computer.

    We think that, while both approaches can be useful, software can also be a vital part of parenting: the online equivalent of the stair gate.

    In addition, monitoring use of social networks and keywords could be particularly useful for children affected by bullying.

    Let us know what you think in the comments or get another perspective in this article written for us by Will Gardner, the CEO of Childnet International.

    Time and effort

    If there's one thing parents, and all of us, are short on, it's extra time.

    Most parental control software aims to work in the background requiring little maintenance, and the alerts they send can be useful but, even so, the programs do require some time to set up, particularly on multiple computers.

    With Microsoft Family Safety and Norton, for example, we need to create different user accounts to log into the computer: one for each child or family member. If people start using accounts that aren't their own, the software will get confused. In households with more than one computer, there's a good chance users will have to set up the programmes more than once.

    It's a bit of a slog.

    This makes the software provided by the ISPs much more attractive and user-friendly: their settings are simple and clear and, because they apply to everyone using the network, they're far quicker to set up in homes with multiple computers and devices.

    Blocking and tracking problems

    Another problem is that the "category blocking" all this software offers is far from a blanket block on the internet's bad bits.

    Companies have a black list of sites but some will inevitably go unblocked and some innocent sites will be blocked accidentally, as studies into the software show.

    According to a survey carried out for Ofcom in September 2015, 28% of teenagers said they'd seen something that concerned or upset them online, and further research carried out in May of that year suggested that 16% of children aged seven to 16 had encountered content online that had made them feel "uncomfortable".

    Ofcom have been reporting fairly regularly on the use and efficacy of parental controls; in 2013 they found that 90% of parents who had used them felt that they were effective.

    By the following year, possibly as a result of the increased visibility of parental control software at the ISP level, 93% of parents said they found network-level controls useful, and about three quarters felt they blocked the right amount of content.

    But it's also worth making sure that our connection is protected against malware and malicious viruses which can download or redirect links to unsuitable content.

    The four big ISPs listed above all offer some degree of protection against this sort of thing with their software, but to really make sure we're protected, our security guide has more information.

    Another big concern is the control of personal information.

    Although some of the software above offers alerts when information such as addresses or phone numbers are given out, catching other equally valuable information - a school or sports club name, or arrangements for meeting up with friends - is much harder to do.

    Educating children is the best course of action here: what sort of information is considered personal and that, once it's published online, anyone can share it.

    "Advise your children not to post any pictures, videos or information on their profiles, or in chat rooms, that they would not want a parent or carer to see," child safety body Think U Know advises.

    Can controls help? Cyberbullying and illegal downloading

    Protecting children from, or preventing them from participating in, cyberbullying is becoming a concern for many parents.

    Some of the software can help flag up possible problems by monitoring key words we know to be problematic or seeing whether certain people have been in touch.

    Again, however, monitoring and communication seem like the only real way to prevent it.

    However, note that broadband providers can also help with online harassment - we've covered that in more detail here.

    Finally, note that parents concerned that their children may be downloading content illegally can block peer-to-peer filesharing sites using the software above.

    Additionally, the UK High Court has begun ordering the implementation of ISP level blocks, against sites such as The Pirate Bay and Newsbin2.

    Some parents will be concerned with the effect such activities can have on their broadband deals, as much as their legality.

    It's one of the things to think about when considering whether a broadband deal should be unlimited or come with a data limit, alongside factors such as:

    Find out more about usage allowances on downloads in this article.

    Government involvement: what about 'opt out' and 'default on'?

    Beginning in late 2011, many sources reported that the "big four" ISPs - BT, TalkTalk, Sky and Virgin Media - would be made to start asking new customers to "opt in" to be able to view adult content when they took out a new broadband contract.

    While a little misleading, something of that sort has come to pass.

    It's much more accurate to say that the ISPs have agreed - albeit under some pressure from Government - to improve parental controls, make it easier for their customers to set them up, and prompt people - particularly new users - to do so.

    MPs had pressed for more, asking for automatically installed and on-by-default controls: in a 2013 speech, Prime Minister David Cameron said: "when someone sets up a new broadband account, the settings to install family friendly filters will be automatically selected; if you just click next or enter, then the filters are automatically on."

    However, this hasn't come to pass, with a compromise of sorts brought in instead.

    Even Sky, who decided to bring in "on by default" filtering as mentioned above, have opted for a default setting of a 13 rating during the day, then switching to the "18" setting after 9pm.

    In the meantime, the issue is still being fiercely debated in the media, and among the ISPs themselves. We cover it in more detail here.


    31 October 2015

    Quick heads-up about a new product just available on Amazon - WiFiShield is a plug &amp; play access point working with OpenDNS that PhilT mentions, except you don't need to mess about with device settings to get protection. <a href=";cuid=2412393" rel="nofollow noopener" title=""></a>

    22 July 2015
    Jonas Berg

    Thanks for the post!
    My elder son is clever enough to disable the built-in Windows control (he has admin rights), so I recommend everyone to chose some good parent-control program, e.g. KidsWatch or Time Boss.
    I, myself, love Time Boss Pro. It allows me not to just block, but also to reduce access to some sites.
    Additionally it allows me to connect to kids PC remotely.

    1 May 2015
    Isabelle Cox

    A pretty great post. Parents always want to keep their kids in safe. I think Micro Keylogger may helps them more. Its so easy to use.

    12 January 2014
    Steve Whitehouse

    Virgin have bundled their parental controls in with their security software which is free for 12 months but paid for after that. I thought this was all supposed to be free?

    13 January 2014

    Hi Steve -
    Virgin Media will be launching their totally free 'web safe' parental controls in the next few months. We'll update this article when that happens so watch this space.

    30 January 2013

    <a href=";cuid=2412393" rel="nofollow noopener" title=""></a> provide free tools / services that protect the whole of a home network including phones &amp; tablets.

    14 June 2015

    Very true, Phil. Here's an article about how to use it on your home network to restrict the sites that your kids can go to: <a href=";cuid=2412393" rel="nofollow noopener" title=""></a>

    20 September 2012
    Phillip Dixon

    It is essential that ISPs block obscene material such as adult content and if their customers wish to view such sites they must "opt-in". I'm not judging anyone or wanting the ISPs to be sensors but we all know that it is damaging for children to access this type of content.

    We should all personally make decisions on what ISP to use based on their approach to this issue and certainly Government and Local Authorities should support (with their business and contracts) those ISPs who comply. I dont need the ISPs to help me be a better parent but I don't expect large corporations to allow obscene material to be viewed by children, every measure that helps should be applied.

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