Staying safe online: parental control software
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?
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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:
- Router-level controls: meaning that all devices connected to the home wi-fi network will be automatically subject to any blocks set up, as opposed to software which must be installed on each computer.
- Simplified settings: categories of content that will be blocked. Sky have PG, 13 and 18 age ratings while BT have "light" to "strict" settings, for example.
- More information: on how to use controls and other advice on keeping safe online through Internet Matters.
- "Active choice": new customers aren't able to completely set up their broadband connection until they've engaged with the parental control settings; existing customers will occasionally be targeted by a series of dialogue windows asking them if they'd like to set up filters.
We've reviewed all of these ISP controls to see what that actually means.
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:
- Social media monitoring: control the use of social networking sites such as Facebook, and set up alerts if personal information is posted.
- Content filtering: such as YouTube videos and iTunes, as well as restricting access to media players.
- Usage reports: keep track of what's being accessed and when.
- Email alerts: to let you know if anyone has gone over their time limits, posted personal information such as phone numbers, addresses or used explicit words online.
- 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.
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:
- Screen out offensive material by preset age categories and using individual site blocks.
- Set up different controls for each profile on the computer (as long as everyone uses a password to log in to the shared computer).
- Set time limits.
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".
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.
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:
- Monitor the videos children are viewing.
- Keep track of smartphone apps.
- Remotely view text messages.
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.
- Is using controls good parenting? Setting rules for children might be better than keeping track of them and/or restricting their internet use.
- Are controls a good use of time? They can take time to set up and monitor that might be better spent elsewhere.
- Do technical problems make controls useless? All controls have their blind spots or block too much; does it matter?
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.
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:
- The number of people in the house using the internet at once
- How the internet is used - for browsing or downloading
- The times when it'll be in use most - it's busier and slower in the evenings
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.