The real-world guide to keeping kids safe online

BT, for example, offers McAfee Family Protection and a 22-page primer on making the most of it; Sky supplies McAfee Parental Controls; while Virgin relies on its Virgin Media Security software for protection. There’s even an element of control within Windows, in the form of Windows Live Family Safety, which blocks sites depending on category.

“The controls enable parents to select when their children can use the internet, eliminating the dangers of browsing without parental supervision,” says Microsoft’s UK chief security advisor Stuart Aston. “This means that parents can have complete faith in their children using computers safely. They don’t have to be worried into constantly checking over their children’s shoulder, and can even run reports on the how the children spend their time.”

TalkTalk filter

Simpler by far is the free K9 Web Protection software provided, which is a standalone blocker, filter and monitor for each computer. Like most filtering software, K9 comes with a wide selection of categories, from adult content through to social networks, abortion, hate sites and P2P, and the majority are turned on by default. When hand-wringing commentators complain that setting up a parental control filter is too difficult, this is the sort of software that makes them look foolish – it’s pretty much click and ignore.

The software also has a simple, timed “supervisor mode”, with one parent telling us that it means if their son says he wants to look at YouTube to watch Annoying Orange, he can set the “supervisor mode” for 15 minutes or half an hour to allow YouTube access, in theory with the parent watching or hovering. After half an hour, the gates come back down automatically, without fiddly resets of control categories.

Yet, as Davey Winder discovered when he unleashed teenagers on a variety of parental control software for PC Pro in 2009, such filters are often easily bypassed by savvy children. Some of the software tested – including Windows Live Family Safety – was bypassed using unsophisticated measures such as proxy servers or Google Images. The software may well have improved in the intervening three years, but no filter is infallible.

Parental control programs have safe search features that work across Google, Bing, YouTube and Yahoo, and enforce the strictest settings on those search engines, which can be useful for younger children, but might be unbearably frustrating for teenagers and parents. A search on “sex education”, for example, did return results, but the contents were all blocked, highlighting just how difficult it is to strike a happy medium.

Home network filtering

The alternative to software that runs on each computer is a network-based system such as OpenDNS’s FamilyShield, which is similar to that of TalkTalk but implemented at the local router level, so that all web-enabled devices are covered in one place. This involves little more than registering for an account, delving into the router settings and pointing the router towards an alternative set of DNS servers.

FamilyShield lets parents, rather than an ISP, set the rules via central controls

FamilyShield is like a DIY version of TalkTalk’s system, where parents rather than an ISP set the rules via central controls for everything from computers, to games consoles and some phones. Fifty-six different categories can be blocked separately or in tranches, but its main attraction is the over-arching blocking, which “includes phones and computers that your kids’ friends bring into the house, giving parents peace of mind that their kids are protected regardless of how they’re accessing the internet”.

However, OpenDNS has its own drawbacks. Certain ISP-supplied routers, such as the Orange Livebox, don’t allow you to alter your DNS settings. This means you’ll need to install a configurable router between the gateway and the rest of the network to take advantage of it. Parents should also bear in mind that 3G connections won’t be protected by FamilyShield (or any ISP’s network-level filter), although phone networks offer their own – often rudimentary – filtering tools.

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