Parental control software promises to keep kids safe online.
But can it really stop your children from coming across harmful material or protect them from bullying?
We take an in-depth look in this guide.
All of the UK's big broadband providers offer parental control software free for their customers.
It's also available free from one of the biggest names in online security, Norton, as well as built-in to the latest versions of Windows and Mac OSX operating systems.
Click through below to find out more.
TalkTalk are very proud of their HomeSafe software, which is offered free with all their broadband packages (see prices and postcode check here).
TalkTalk are the only big broadband provider to offer blocks at server level, which means that sites will continue to be blocked whichever device is used to access the home connection.
As phones, games consoles and MP3 players go online that, we think, is its most invaluable feature: all the other protection software we discuss below is installed on a computer and its blocks will only apply on that computer.
HomeSafe's parental controls fall into two categories: Kid Safe and Homework Time.
Kid Safe is what you want to block content: it allows parents to select broad categories which will then be restricted.
There are nine categories including Suicide & Self Harm (the most used category, according to TalkTalk), Violence & Weapons, Filesharing and Social Networking.
The disadvantage, compared to the parental control packages below, is that these blocks affect all users so families have to find a balance when children of different ages are sharing a connection.
The exception is Homework Time which lets parents set a time to block access to social networking and game websites, either 7 days a week or Monday to Friday.
As of October 2011, more than 150,000 TalkTalk customers have downloaded HomeSafe and the provider has blocked a million websites.
It's by far the most proactive parental control option available from the big ISPs, though at least one small provider - Claranet - also offers network level blocks.
Mac first introduced parental controls in OS X 10.4 Tiger, and all OSX since have offered parental controls via System Preferences (Macworld.com article for more).
The main advantage of operating system parental controls is the robustness and simplicity that this is basically what multi-user operating systems were designed to do.
Simply set up a user account for each adult and child, adjust the settings for each user, and there's less chance of older kids finding workarounds or discovering browser compatibility issues.
Operating systems also have more control than software applications - they can limit access to other applications, for example games, as well as web content.
They call it different things - BT NetProtect Plus or Plusnet Protect, for example - but all of these providers are essentially offering the same software from McAfee.
Note that some of these providers do charge some customers for this software, see the boxed text - below right - for details.
Also, BT offer two programs: NetProtect Plus and Family Protection. The latter is a specific parental control program with more in-depth functionality such as content filtering and social media monitoring.
BT NetProtect Plus on the other hand, like the programs from Plusnet and O2, is a security suite that offers anti-virus protection and a firewall as well as parental controls to block web content and schedule allowed time online.
Sky also offer two programs: McAfee Parental Controls and McAfee Internet Security Suite. However, unlike BT, the Parental Controls program here is the same version as in the security suite just without the anti-virus and firewall.
In general, the child protection software works like this: customers put each user of their computer into a group by age, from 'under 5 years' to '16-18 year olds', to other (for adults).
The administrator can then set different levels of control for each group so the adults of the family can have a different level of control to the kids as follows:
Additional features are available with BT Family Protection, such as:
As we noted above, these applications need to be installed on every computer or device your child uses to get online to be effective.
Virgin Media Security's Parental Controls offer much the same protection as the above, except that it's provided by RadialPoint.
The controls allow users to:
Norton are offering a basic version of their parental control software completely free, though they do offer a premium paid version too.
Like the options above, parents can block certain categories of sites and receive alerts if children give away information or go somewhere possibly dodgy.
Parents can track usage in a simple online account manager - allowing for remote access - with an activity summary which shows, for example, the child's most visited web sites, most popular friends on instant messaging services and recent searches.
To set different limits for different children and give a restriction free option, each user will need their own user account on the computer.
One interesting approach Norton has taken is to be transparent with children about what they can and can't access, and what information is being recorded about what they do online.
Norton say this approach helps to teach children Internet safety by actively involving them in setting the rules.
In a bid to help promote the use of parental control software, The UK Safer Internet Centre (UKSIC) has been working with BT, Sky, TalkTalk and Virgin Media to launch online video guides to help parents set up the software.
The video guides, available on UKSIC's site here , offer slick step by step instructions from downloading the software, to installing, setting up and how to use it.
BT offers the shortest film, which you can see here:
There's a very contentious debate on how useful this software actually is compared with 'traditional parenting'.
On a recent Slashdot thread we noticed the following particularly odious response to a user who asked which software was best:
If you're looking for software to take care of your children for you, you've already failed as a parent.
The sentiment is uncommonly offensive but the sentiment is commonplace.
There are plenty of people out there waiting to tell parents that focus on software is wrong headed and suggesting either educating children about online safety or standing at their shoulder every time they're at a computer.
We think that, while both approaches can be useful, software can also be a vital part of parenting: the online equivalent of the stair gate.
In addition, monitoring use of social networks and keywords could be particularly useful for children affected by bullying.
Let us know what you think in the comments, for the rest of this article we'll focus on more practical problems with parental control software.
If there's one thing parents, and all of us, are short on its extra time.
Most parental control software aims to work in the background requiring little maintenance and alerts can be useful but, even so, it does require some time to set up, particularly on multiple computers.
With the Norton software, for example, you have to create different user accounts to log into the computer: one for each child. If people start using accounts which are not their own, the system will get confused. If you've got more than three computers you'll have to do it three times.
All in all, it's a bit of a slog.
Another problem is that the 'category blocking' all this software offers is far from a blanket block on the internet's bad bits.
Companies have a black list of sites but some will inevitably fall through as happened very publicly with HomeSafe in 2012.
Parents concerned that children could be accessing violent or sexual content could try keeping the home computer in a public space and explaining to kids the dangers of clicking on unknown links and banner ads.
According to one study released in 2011, 14% of children aged 6-10 have encountered adult content online.
It can also be worth making sure that your connection is protected against malware and malicious viruses which can download or redirect links to unsuitable content: our step by step security guide has more information.
Another big concern is the control of personal information.
Although some of the software above offers alerts when address information is given out, more insidious personal information sharing - a school or sports club name or arrangements for meeting up with friends - are much harder to catch.
Educating children about what sort of information is considered personal and that, once information is published online, anyone can share it could be a good step here.
"Advise your children not to post any pictures, videos or information on their profiles, or in chat rooms, that they would not want a parent or carer to see," child safety body Think U Know advises.
Protecting children from, or preventing them from participating in, cyberbullying is becoming a concern for many parents.
Some of the software can help flag up possible problems by monitoring key words you know to be problematic or seeing whether certain people have been in touch.
Again, however, monitoring and communication seem like the only real way to prevent it.
However, note that broadband providers can also help with online harassment - we've covered that in more detail here.
Finally, note that parents concerned that their children may be downloading content illegally can block peer-to-peer filesharing sites using the software above.
Additionally, ISP level blocks, against sites such as The Pirate Bay and Newsbin2, have recently started being implemented.
Some parents will be concerned with the effect such activities can have on their broadband deals as much as their legality.
It's one of the things to think about when considering the download allowance your broadband deal needs to have, alongside factors such as:
Find out more about usage allowances on downloads in our article here.
In late 2011, many sources reported that the 'big four' ISPs - BT, TalkTalk, Sky and Virgin Media - had promised that new users would have to 'opt-in' to be able to view adult content when they took out a new broadband contract.
That's not quite what the ISPs said.
It's much more accurate that they agreed with Government to make it easier for their customers, particularly new ones, to set up parental control software.
In 2012, MPs were continuing to press for a wholesale blocking system that will mean broadband users have to 'opt-in' for adult content.
But ISPs are still opposed, what they're offering is still some variation on what they're offering now.
The issue is still being fiercely debated, as we cover here in more detail.
This article was first published 7 August 2009, it was last updated 31 January 2013.
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