How effective is parental control software?

child internet use

Kids love using the internet: the age of smartphone ownership continually tumbles downwards and the range of internet-enabled devices in the home has grown exponentially in the past few years.

will gardner
By Will Gardner

The opportunities to create, connect and discover, anytime and anywhere, are incredible.

We all want to keep children safe online and the UK's online safety debate has been much concerned with applying technology which can protect them.

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However, it is important to recognise that these are tools which are able to help: they do not provide a solution to keeping children safe online in themselves.

In fact, content is just one of the potential risks facing children online.

Will Gardner is the CEO of Childnet International. He is an Executive Board member of the UK Council for Child Internet Safety and also sits on Facebook's Safety Advisory Board.

At Childnet we call these risks the 'four Cs' - Content, Contact, Conduct and Commercialism, and the strength of filtering tools lie predominantly in the Content area rather than the other 3 Cs.

The other potential risks include:

Parental support is paramount

When it comes to internet safety, research tells us the best outcomes for children come from parental engagement and support.

LSE research into this topic concluded that, "Cynicism that what parents do is not valued, or that children will always evade parental guidance, is ungrounded."

In fact, the researchers found, parents being parents online as well as offline and making sure their children know how to stay safe, be responsible and to respect others online made a big impact on behaviour.

The best steps taken by parents appeared to be talking to their children about staying safe online and making sure they knew that they could ask for help if they needed it.

In fact, the researchers found that technical mediation (i.e. filtering) alone has no significant impact on children between 9 and 14 years old and was associated with more harm for 15 and 16 year olds.

The message is that parental controls work in addition to parental engagement, and not instead of it.

Harmful content

Having said that, potentially harmful online content is a potential risk children and young people online have to face.

In a recent survey we carried out with 24,000 children and young people for Safer Internet Day, 22% of 7-11s and 21% of 11-19s told us that seeing unpleasant or hurtful things stops them from enjoying their time on the internet.

Other forms of media attempt to protect children from being exposed to age-inappropriate images and material, with measures such as film classification, the top shelf for magazines, and watershed on TV.

Games are rated based on their content and features and carry age classifications. Call of Duty for example, is a game for over 18s. If your child is an avid gamer, it is important to be aware of the types of games they are playing and there is guidance available on what is and is not age-appropriate.

So what about the Internet?

At the moment, there isn't an online equivalent of the 'top shelf' but filtering technology and parental controls can help reduce the chances of children coming across age-inappropriate content.

Filtering the internet

Mobile phones have parental controls. All the mobile operators in the UK provide parental controls for free to their users, and most have these set up by default. This can help prevent the phone being able to access age-inappropriate content on the internet.

Parents that aren't sure where they stand can contact their mobile operator or visit the safety pages on their website.

The 4 big domestic Internet Service Providers in the UK, BT, Sky, TalkTalk and Virgin Media all provide parental controls for free to their customers.

However, you will need to set these up - they are not on automatically. We have worked with these ISPs to help them create videos which are very short and very clear in explaining where you can go to get these parental controls and how you can set them up. You can find these here and get more information on the differences between the services available on this site here.

Even purely in terms of content, improvements have been made over the years but the challenges of overblocking and underblocking still remain.

It looks like all the big ISPs are moving towards providing a network level filter, with the advantage of then having one setting for all devices in the home (this was pioneered by TalkTalk) accessing the wireless. There is the disadvantage of not being able to set profiles for individual users, so no possibility of differentiating settings for teenage or very young children.

However, there is the clear advantage of ease of use, setting the filter up once rather than installing something on every device, and there is flexibility to add or allow particular sites to and from the blocked list.

There are discussions about automatic default for public wi-fi access, and progress is being made in this area.

Filtering gadgets

There are also parental controls available on devices.

This is true for games consoles for example, and tablets and smart phones. We have some information on some of these in our Parents Guide to Technology - but also remember to make parental controls a part of your conversation in store when you purchase technology for your children.

There are also settings available on some online services, such as Google Safesearch or YouTube Safety Mode.

The limits of filtering

So, to sum up, there are tools available, often for free, for parents to help keep their children safe online.

However, they often require parents to set them up or to check their status and they work best with parental engagement and support.

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