It's so important to keep your kids safe when they're on the internet. But they rack up so many hours a day online that it's impossible to monitor everything they do. A little helping hand is always welcome, and making use of the free parental control software offered by broadband providers is one of the best places to start.
Research shows that nine out of 10 parents think that these tools are useful, and even 65% of 11-16 year olds are in favour. So who offers these parental controls, how do you use them, and do they actually work? Let's take a look.
Who offers them?
All broadband providers have some form of parental controls, and you can take into account what each one offers when you're comparing broadband deals. Here's a quick summary of what you'll get from the big players:
- Sky Broadband - Broadband Shield is free for all users. You can restrict content via three age range settings, or for specific categories or websites. There's also the option to pay extra for the Sky Broadband Boost service, which gives you access to the Broadband Buddy app and the ability to fine-tune your settings.
- Virgin Media - All broadband users get access to the Web Safe service which includes Child Safe, a tool that automatically blocks eight categories of web content when activated, along with more that you can add optionally.
- BT Broadband - BT Parental Controls lets you set strict, moderate or light filtering levels, and configure them to allow or restrict access to specific sites. You can also control the hours during which the filters work. On top of that, there's the Homework Time feature to limit access to the web at certain times of the day.
- Plusnet - Plusnet SafeGuard lets you block websites based on category, as well as up to 30 individual sites of your choosing.
- TalkTalk - HomeSafe is free for all users. It blocks websites in 11 optional categories as well as access to sites known to be infected with malware, although it is not a replacement for anti-virus software.
How to set up parental controls
Most parental control systems are centrally managed. As the account holder it's your job to set them up, and they'll apply to every device connected to your broadband network. In a few cases the provider will offer you a security suite instead. That combines things like content filtering and anti-virus, but needs to be set up on all your devices, assuming they're compatible.
When you first sign up to a new broadband deal you'll be prompted to set up your parental controls, which you can do via your provider's website. They're usually pretty simple - it's just a case of picking what content you want to restrict, as well as any other options you're given. The online safety organisation InternetMatters.org has instructions for many leading broadband providers. It may take a couple of hours for your settings to start working, and you can change them again later if you need to.
You mostly restrict content by category, and the available categories vary from one provider to another. Some offer large numbers of categories, ranging from obvious areas like adult content or violence, to more benign subjects such as fashion or gaming. Others can be much more vague - blocking things like 'inappropriate content', whatever that means.
Providers use large, continually updated lists of websites in each category and block access to those blacklisted sites. By default, they can't differentiate between users, so if you block your kids from seeing gambling sites you won't be able to see them either. Broadband suppliers normally strike a balance between security and privacy: you won't be alerted if someone tries to access a blocked page.
Parental controls can offer other features, too, including being able to limit access to the internet at certain times of the day. These work best when the provider also offers a mobile app that lets you customise the limits for specific family members.
Do parental controls work?
Having parental controls in place can give you peace of mind, especially as it isn't possible to supervise your kids' internet use constantly. But there are still some nagging questions: how good are they, and could your kids bypass them if they wanted to?
So do they work? There are few things to consider:
- Parental controls will block every site on their blacklist in each of your chosen categories. But that doesn't mean they will block every single site that exists in that category, or that they won't block perfectly acceptable sites by mistake. There's often a lack of transparency about what exactly is being blocked - you might not know until you chance upon one of the taboo sites.
- In most cases the controls affect all devices connected to your network. Set them too strict and you'll end up blocking sites that you want to look at yourself.
- Some providers let you tailor your controls for specific users. Sky, for example, offer the Broadband Buddy app that enables you to set different filter levels for different family members, and also limit their internet time. However, these controls are device specific, and only available on phones and tablets.
- Your broadband provider's parental controls only work on your broadband network. When your children take their tablets or phones to friend's house, or even connect via a mobile network, the safeguards will no longer be in place.
- While most providers will let you restrict access to social networks there's a good chance you won't want to do this - you might use them yourself. So even though you can block access to certain categories of website it won't stop your kids from seeing similar content on services like Snapchat, Reddit or Twitter.
Can your kids bypass parental controls?
Any tech-savvy child - or one with a tech-savvy friend - will know that there are a few ways they can easily bypass content filters.
They can use proxy sites that divert their traffic and hide it from the broadband provider so that it cannot be blocked. Some of these sites can actually be pretty dodgy themselves, serving up assorted malware to infect PCs or hijack web browsers.
They can also install a VPN app. A VPN encrypts the connection between a device and the broadband provider's servers, so that the provider doesn't know what pages are being accessed and is unable to block them. There are loads of free VPNs in the iOS and Android app stores and they don't need any know-how to set up.
Failing that, a quick web search will show up plenty of results with suggestions for bypassing the parental controls of specific broadband providers.
Parental controls should really be seen as making up one part of your toolkit for keeping your kids safe online, not as a complete solution on their own. They'll help to prevent your children from stumbling upon content that they wouldn't want to see, but they aren't perfect and they aren't foolproof. It isn't a replacement for supervising internet use as far as you can, or for teaching your children about online safety, including the importance of not sharing personal information.
Content filters are only one part of a PC security system. For more, see our guide on how to stay safe online.