As a parent of three children who have been exposed to technology since they were born (we called our second child “iBaby 2.0”), the issue of filtering and parental controls has been on my mind for several years. I’m not particularly advocating that every parent filter content or use “nanny software” to become a babysitter for Internet content. On the other hand, I’ve seen a LOT of examples where kids have been exposed to things on the Internet that they probably shouldn’t be exposed to. Call me wishy-washy, but I’m going to play this one right down the middle – my approach is a combination of talking to my kids about the dangers of the Internet, mixed in with parental controls and filters. It also helps that I can always say to them, "I work in the tech industry, I know all of the different things you can do and how to try to get around them."
Parental control features have been existent on home Wi-Fi routers for years, but they are often hidden in router administration settings that most parents usually don’t ever see or want to navigate. Newer wireless systems that utilize mesh technologies (see our series here) use smartphone and tablet-based apps to make those features more visible and add features like “Pause the Internet”, which puts a temporary hold on Internet access for a particular end user or device.
The Circle with Disney device ($99) basically combines those elements. A piece of hardware connects to a home router (either wirelessly or via Ethernet port), which then can monitor every wireless device trying to access the greater Internet. All of this is enabled and managed through an app (iOS and Android supported) that gives parents a variety of different filtering options.
Setup was straight-forward – I downloaded the Circle app (iOS and Android supported, I used iOS), then plugged in the device and connected my smartphone to the Circle’s internal Wi-Fi SSID. After a quick and automatic firmware update (nice touch!), I was able to tell the Circle to connect to my existing Wi-Fi network (SSID and password exchange) and then return to my original network.
The app then lets you set up profiles for individuals within your home – parents and kids. Each person gets their own settings, including a filter level – Pre-K, Kid, Teen, Adult or None. Within each of those filter levels, different applications or platforms can be enabled or disabled. This includes things like FaceTime, Amazon, Hulu, Netflix, and YouTube, among other sites. You can also filter via Category, allowing or disabling access to sites like “Education”, “Sports”, “Travel” or “Video”. By default, the Kid filter denies access to social media, explicit content, mature content, gambling, dating and malicious content sites. In giving myself the “Adult” filter level (as opposed to None), I could enable/disable these types of sites if I wanted to. The site also provides ad blocking, Google Safe Search and YouTube Restricted toggles under its “Privacy & Safety” areas.
In addition to blocking content, a user can set time limits for each user. This time limit can be a daily time limit (for example, allow Internet access for two hours), or you can get even more granular – and say limit Netflix access to 30 minutes per day. Time limits can also be implemented on categories, just like filtering.
Finally, a “BedTime” option lets you set times when the device will disable all access so your kids will go to bed, and then set an “awake” time for when it’s enabled again. You can do this for each day of the week, or set a general one and then switch up the time for weekends.
Once the filters have been applied for a family member, the app gives you a list of existing devices that it has found on the network (usually ones that it can see, so if a device is dormant you can’t see it). The system does warn that it takes a few days for it to recognize the name of a device, so you may have to do some digging to match a person’s device with their profile. For example, I wanted to give my work notebook access to my account, but the app could only see “Apple Device” (it saw about three of them). I had to go through and find the notebook’s MAC address in order to assign the notebook to my profile. Luckily, I could then rename that “Apple Device” to something like “Keith’s work notebook”.
Any device not assigned to an individual user gets lumped into the “Home” profile, which has no filters. New devices connecting to the network are assigned the “Home” profile as well. You can also tell Circle to ignore other devices on the network – so things like the printer, storage drive and wireless network adapters don’t get monitored.
There’s a bit of a loophole for devices that don’t get assigned to a profile (or if you attach them to a ‘no filter’ adult profile). For example, if there’s a streaming TV box (like AppleTV or Roku) connected to your TV, you would likely give that a “No filter” profile so you wouldn’t have to keep changing back and forth if both parents and kids wanted to watch Netflix, Amazon Prime, or Hulu. This gives kids the chance to access content on those devices, leaving you to rely on individual services for filtering. Netflix, for example, has profiles that you can set up that limits kids’ content, but it's less powerful than being able to shut down access.
But back to the Circle device. When you attempt to access a site that’s been filtered, Circle kicks in and redirects your browser to the MyCircle Dashboard page, with a small message that says “Looks like you’ve been filtered”. The dashboard page contains data about how long you’ve been online, and the types of sites you’ve been visiting, along with a whole bunch of Disney-related items from their various social media accounts. This is amusing – in my tests I tried to go to a known “adult” site, and then was redirected to the Disney-approved site, as if the system was saying to me, “I know you want to look at naked pictures, but instead here’s a recipe for a Mickey Mouse-themed cupcake.” Busted!
After assigning a bunch of devices to the kids’ profiles, I discovered that the device would block Pinterest when my son was doing a Google Image Search via SafeSearch, which showed him the picture. But when we tried to view the image or view the site, the blocker would kick in. There’s a custom filter available via the app where you can whitelist specific sites, but after I whitelisted Pinterest it still wouldn’t work. I suspect this was because URLs for many of the images that users place on Pinterest have different domains than the base site that I whitelisted. It was odd that I still couldn’t go to the Pinterest.com site after whitelisting the main site. Another time, my daughter reported that she was trying to do a Google search about “how to make a basketball hoop” (for a craft project), and was also filtered. Searching Google or the general web seems to be the weak point in filtering, with the “let’s block everything unless we’re sure it’s good” approach taking place here.
The level of filtering and controls seem to be enough for parents to make decisions about how much to filter, as well as putting time limits on access. This won’t immediately make kids get rid of their devices – once my kids hit their daily time limit, they would usually just switch to their non-Internet apps, watch TV or play a video game. There’s still plenty of parenting left for us to do in that realm.
Grade: 4 stars (out of five)
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