Parental Control Software FAQ
Frequently Asked Questions about Parental Control Software
- What is parental control software?
- Doesn't Windows have parental controls built in?
- What about the parental controls that came with my Internet security software?
- Why is parental control software billed yearly?
- How does parental control software stop kids from looking at harmful content?
- Do the filters ever filter too much?
- What do you mean by circumvention and the "kid-proof rating"?
- Are there other ways to get around the software?
- What prevents my kid from making changes to the software?
- How does the software protect my child from online predators?
- What about peer-to-peer file sharing and bit torrents?
- Is there any one product that monitors everything?
- Is Net Nanny really the only parental control software you recommend?
- How did NextAdvisor test parental control software?
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Parental control software covers a range of products designed to help provide a level of monitoring and control over a child's online activities. How this is done depends a lot on the software. Common features include blocking harmful web sites, monitoring online activity, disallowing certain programs, keeping time limits for online activity, and alerting parents to risky behavior. Also, while we find the words "parent" and "child" useful in describing the user roles, we recognize that there are other potential users of these services.
Windows Vista and Windows 7 have parental controls built-in. And they're ok, if somewhat limited. The best parental control software products offer more robust and more frequently updated blocklists and more robust kid-proofing, as well as the ability for parents to set time limits on Internet usage. Parental control software may also provide instant alerts, social-network monitoring, and application control.
We've tested a few parental control modules that come with Internet security software products, but they're not as full-featured. They feel closer to the lower-performing products we reviewed.
Much like Internet security software, parental control software requires constant, invisible updates in order to keep up with emerging trends. As new terms, new sites, and new programs are introduced, the software needs to be kept up-to-date. Part of your subscription fee goes to paying for these pulse updates. Like all subscription-based software, you will be eligible for new software versions as they're released.
Broadly speaking, parental control software blocks certain websites based on pre-defined categories such as pornography, violence, hate, intimate apparel, drugs, and others. Most programs offer a wide-degree of configurability; parents can turn on or off certain categories. Some also allow for content to be blocked by the age-level of the user. Mostly they use a list of disallowed words, as well as a list of disallowed sites. Often they incorporate a white-list of "good sites" as well.
Some programs use advanced filtering to determine query intent, such as allowing searches for "Sex Linked Differences" while blocking other, explicit "Sex" queries. Most programs err on the side of too many false positives, i.e. blocking perfectly innocent search terms because they appear to contain prohibited content. Most of these programs include a mechanism for the child to ask the parent or other administrator for access to a certain site.
When we tested the software we paid a lot of attention to how easy it was to get around the software using some standard work-arounds. Most of the time, kids will use something called a "proxy server" to avoid detection. A proxy server is a kind of web-browsing "middleman" accessed via the web browser and it allows anonymous web browsing that can evade parental control monitoring and blocking.
Particularly savvy kids may be able to boot up their PC from a separate disc that uses an alternative operating system, effectively preventing Windows and the parental control software from loading. We suggest that parents may want to learn how to disable booting from external media, unless a password is used. This is done in the BIOS which loads before Windows. Read the documentation that came with your PC to find out how to configure your BIOS, or ask a computer-savvy friend. Not all computers allow you to prohibit launching from external media. It may sound a bit involved, but it's the only way to prevent that level of tampering. That being said, we think it takes a pretty smart and determined kid to do this.
You do. Parents should set up separate "Standard user" accounts for their kids, and password-protected "Administrator" accounts for themselves; that enables the parental control software to impose strict limits on a child's account and keeps them from turning off the software or downloading programs without permission. Make sure the parental control software covers any accounts your kids have access to, including the guest account (even if it's not active).
This also means choosing good passwords and security questions. It's always important to keep your computer protected with a good password known only to you, but it's particularly important if you want to keep your parental control software running effectively. Make sure you choose a good one for both your administrator's account and your parental control software. Also, you may be asked to choose a security question in case you forget your password. Make sure it's something your child does not know. Heck, you can even make up the answer, just make sure to remember it. If your child suddenly starts asking you what your first car was, or the name of your favorite pet, he or she may be trying to gain access to your account.
Parental control software helps by informing you when your kid is engaged in risky behavior. Generally this is done by monitoring instant messaging programs and/or social networking sites. Some record all the activities while others just look for suspicious words and phrases. Each does it a little differently, and some are more effective than others.
In general, we did not test the parental control software's ability to filter content on file-sharing services for two reasons: it's difficult to run a controlled test, and we think it's a bad idea for anyone to have peer-to-peer software on their computers. It leaves computers open to viruses and even legal action for copyright violations. If kids want to download music or movies, we suggest giving them an iTunes allowance and making sure peer-to-peer programs are disabled (many parental control software products allow this).
No. And there probably never will be. Just as parents can't know what their children do all the time, parental control software can only cover so many bases. Parental control software is designed to set some limits and provide parents with a window into their kids' online activities. However, no technology can replace trust and honest communication between a parent and child.
Usually when we review software and services we find a couple that are top contenders. With parental control software we only found one that we really trust to do what it says, and that's Net Nanny. That being said, we think it's a good idea for parents to install the software and test it out to make sure it does what they want it to do. We tested it with some programs, but not all. You should be sure it works with the versions of web browsers and instant messengers you have, and you should know how it works from both sides.
We installed each program on our Toshiba laptop running Windows Vista. We adjusted settings as we saw fit to get all the programs on roughly the same level of control and filtering. Then we attempted to use the computer as if we were kids. We ran web browsers (Microsoft Internet Explorer, Firefox, and in some cases Google's Chrome), trying to access prohibited and non-prohibited content. We used Yahoo! Messenger and Yahoo!'s web mail. Finally, we tried different ways to circumvent the software; this gave us our "kid-proof rating." We tried two different proxy circumvention sites on each piece of software. If any piece of software succeeded in blocking those proxies, we tried others.
We only included parental control software that we believe offer a good value proposition. If there is a provider you know of that is not here, you can be fairly certain we did not rate that provider highly enough to include in our comparison. If you think we are missing a quality parental control software provider or have any other suggestions or comments, please visit our contact us page.
Disclosure: NextAdvisor.com is a consumer information site that offers free, independent reviews and ratings of online services. We receive advertising revenue from most of the services we review. Our editors thoroughly research and whenever possible test each service we review and offer their honest opinions about each one. We are independently owned and operated and all opinions expressed on this site are our own.