Parental Internet Controls and how our children can surf in safety has always been a big issue. But now the issue has got political with the UK Government discussing proposals that would see ISPs legally required to provide customers with automatic filtering or at the very least, present a filtering option during sign up.
Whether this is passed into law remains to be seen. All of the big UK ISPs (and many of the smaller ones) already offer filtering software that parents can utilise to ensure that this children can use the web without stumbling upon sites and things that they shouldn't see.
We’ve taken a look at what the six biggest ISPs in the UK currently offer to subscribers. When comparing the security packages of BT, TalkTalk, Virgin Media, Sky, Orange and O2 we noticed that they all offered many of the same features and functions.
Every parental security package offered by the UK’s main ISPs includes:
- Home network profiling: the ability for parents to create individual log ins for everyone in the family. This allows parents to do a number of things including:
- Filter certain categories of sites: parents can tailor-make a profile for each of their children, locking out certain things such as chat rooms, instant messaging programs (like Windows Live Messenger, Skype, AIM) social networks (Facebook, Myspace, Twitter) and other sites which may fall under content categories like ‘alcohol’, ‘dating’, ‘nudity’, or ‘swearing’ and so on.
- Fine tune filter lists: sometimes filters don’t always work or they’ve not been updated quickly enough, meaning things slip through. Thankfully parents can fine tune lists themselves to block anything not already covered. Similarly, if you’re finding that filters are blocking access to innocent or innocuous sites, then you’ll be able to unblock anything that’s been caught up in the dragnet too.
- Schedule online work times: through profile management, parents can specify when their kids can go online and what they can access as certain times. With time scheduling, parents can restrict access to social networks and ‘fun’ sites like YouTube until homework is done. Access to the internet can be shut off after lights out if need be.
- Password protect access: by setting up profiles, parents will have to password-protect access to the control panel to stop kids logging in and removing all of the content restrictions on their own profiles.
In most cases you’ll be required to install the same software on each computer you want protected and have one computer (usually the main home computer) as the main control centre.
Every ISP clearly explains how to do this on their sites - we’ve included How To videos (where available) from Virgin Media and O2 which should give you an idea of how to do this.
In some cases there’s no limit to the number of PCs you can have covered in your home, in some cases you’ll be limited to a set amount or you’ll have to pay for extra coverage.
Let’s take a look at the parental controls offered by each ISPs, how they differ and their pros and cons.
BT Broadband: BT Family Protection
BT offers BT Family Protection free with all of its broadband packages.
BT Family Protection is a comprehensive control panel which lets parents set up specific blocks on websites, filter YouTube videos and stop certain programs (such as Windows Live Messenger) from working.
Sites are grouped into a number of categories identified by keywords like ‘alcohol’, ‘chat’, ‘nudity’, ‘profanity’ and so on. You can choose to blanket-block every site under these categories if you wish.
With YouTube videos, you can choose to allow access to all of YouTube, block inappropriate videos or block access to all of YouTube entirely. iTunes songs marked as having explicit lyrics can also be blocked, as can access to peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing networks.
If you’re worried that your son or daughter is being bullied online then BT Family Protection lets you choose to follow who chats with who online, keeping an eye on what’s happening. Conversations in Windows Live Messenger, Yahoo!, AIM and ICQ can be saved or access to these programs can be blocked entirely.
BT Family Protection software is powered by McAfee, which also provides security software for Sky, Orange and O2.
BT Family Protection: The Good
- Filter songs with explicit lyrics from iTunes: set up filters for practically anything
- Monitor instant message conversations: keep an eye on what’s being said
- Free feature of BT Broadband: no extra purchase necessary
BT Family Protection - The Bad
- Not available for Mac OS or Linux - only Windows PCs are supported right now
- Exhaustive options could be daunting - wealth of settings could confuse at first
- Profiles limit who can use what and when - could be a problem if your kids share a PC
TalkTalk: TalkTalk HomeSafe
TalkTalk HomeSafe is a service which comes built in to TalkTalk broadband. HomeSafe is ready to go when you sign up for TalkTalk broadband and doesn’t need to be installed.
You will, however, have to set it up as it’s turned off my default. HomeSafe is easy to enable and use - all you need to do to access it is simply log in to your TalkTalk MyAccount on TalkTalk’s site.
From there you’ll be presented with three options - Kids' Safe, Homework Time and Virus Alert.
Kids' Safe lets you filter your internet connection, letting you filter out specific websites and certain types of websites quickly and easily. You’re presented a list of category options to check off the list as well as tool to enter the addresses of any websites you want blocked.
Homework Time lets you block access to social networks and gaming sites at certain times of day, so your children can use the internet for research and homework without the potential for distractions that the internet offers. This even comes with a handy ‘Monday to Friday only’ option so you can restrict access to distracting sites until the weekend.
Virus Alert helps prevent viruses from being downloaded, by letting users know that they’ve visited a suspected site. Any and all of these services can be turned on and off as they’re needed.
As HomeSafe is a built in feature of TalkTalk, there are no extra fees and no software subscriptions to be renewed.
TalkTalk HomeSafe: The Good
- Built in feature of TalkTalk: nothing to install or set up
- Free feature of TalkTalk: no extra purchase necessary, free forever
- Easy to use interface: quick and easy to set up, configure and use
- Platform agnostic: TalkTalk HomeSafe works on Windows and Mac computers
TalkTalk HomeSafe: The Bad
- One-way fine tuning: while you can block certain sites, you can’t unblock others
- Filters can’t be user-specified: you can’t have one profile for adults and one for children
Virgin Media: Virgin Media Security Parental Controls
Virgin Media offers Virgin Media Security as a standard feature of its broadband packages.
Applicable to up to three different PCs at once, Virgin Media Security Parental Controls let parents create profiles for everyone in the home. Children need to log in with a username and password, and parents can assign specific website filters and controls to each username.
Older children can have a more relaxed profile suitable to their age group and as Virgin Media says: "You can set up a profile with no restrictions for the adults in the house, so you can still enjoy that Schwarzenegger flick once the kids have gone to bed."
As well as setting up blocks on adult sites restrictions can be applied to instant messaging sites (Windows Live, AIM), social networks (Facebook, Myspace and Twitter) and gambling sites too.
For busier households with more than three PCs, you can add extra security for an additional £2.50/month. Part of Security Identity+ (Virgin Media’s royal flush of additional security software), this lets you install the parental controls on up to seven machines, increasing the range of protection you have.
Virgin Media’s Security Parental Controls are provided by Trend Micro. Check out Virgin Media's hands-on video below:
Virgin Media Security Parental Controls: The Good
- Profile-based filters: set up profiles for everyone in the home
- Schedule access for homework time and bedtime: regulate what can be accessed when
- Free feature of Virgin Media: no extra purchase necessary
- Option to add more protection for £2.50/month: add-on for homes with more gadgets
Virgin Media Security Parental Controls: The Bad
- Not available for Mac OS or Linux: so far only only Windows PCs are supported
- Only three PCs supported by default: not so good for gadget-heavy households
- Costs extra for additional coverage: perhaps not great for families on a budget
Sky Broadband Parental Controls
Sky Broadband Parental Controls is a free feature of all of Sky’s broadband products. Up to three Windows PCs can be covered by Sky’s Parental Controls, which lets parents designate what their children can and can’t see and at what times.
Parents can choose from a set of rating-based profiles (‘Under 5 years’, ‘6-8 years’, ‘16-18 years’ and so on) or customise their own.
As well as this, Sky Broadband’s Parental Controls automatically turn on Safe Search on popular search engines to make sure that kids don’t bring up inappropriate search results when using Google.
There’s currently no option to pay for more control if you’ve got more than three machines with Sky. So if you’re living in a busy household then you might want to consider getting software like NetNanny or PureSight.
In 2013, Sky will be launching tighter network-level filtering which promises parents levels of control similar to that which is currently offered by TalkTalk HomeSafe.
Sky Broadband Parental Controls: The Good
- Filter and block specific sites: fine tune which sites can and can’t be seen
- Block access to social networks and chat rooms: keep an eye on who your kids talk to
- Sky Broadband Parental Controls are free: no extra purchase necessary
Sky Broadband Parental Controls: The Bad
- Only three PCs supported by default: not so good for busy homes
- No option to buy more coverage: you can’t directly pay for more
- No support for non-Windows PCs: only computers running Windows are supported
Orange Home Broadband: McAfee AntiVirus Plus 2012
Orange Home Broadband customers can benefit from a free 12-month subscription to McAfee AntiVirus Plus 2012 (normally £49.99), which comes with parental controls.
After the second year it’s up to you if you renew your subscription with McAfee, but should you do you’ll be able to order it at roughly half price for £24.99.
So unlike some ISPs where you’ll get free parental controls for the duration of the time that you remain a subscriber with them, you’ll have to pay after the first year with Orange, one way or another.
The upshot of this is that you get a full security software package along with your parental controls - other ISPs might offer free parental control software but will charge extra for a full security package.
Orange Home Broadband McAfee AntiVirus Plus 2012: The Good
- Monitor your children’s web use: keep an eye on what they’re searching for
- Apply time limits: make sure your kids are getting homework done in time
- Full security suite included: a comprehensive security package comes included
- One year of free use: get McAfee AntiVirus Plus 2012 for free for a year
Orange Home Broadband McAfee AntiVirus Plus 2012: The Bad
- Only three PCs supported by default: not ideal for busy households
- Not free forever: you’ll have to pay eventually
- No support for non-Windows PCs: Macs and other machines not supported
O2 Broadband: McAfee Security for O2 Home Broadband
O2 Home Broadband comes bundled with McAfee Security as standard, which is free for a year. This is a full security suite which encompasses parental controls as one of its main features.
As is the case with the security control features offered by many of the ISPs here, you’ll be able to install the McAfee software on up to three computers.
Parents can create profiles for everyone in the family, restricting access to certain types of sites and content by picking from categories, adding keywords and allowing/disallowing specific websites as they see fit.
Scheduled access to certain sites and web services like social networks and chat/IM programs can be blocked per profile until a certain time of the evening, or shut down altogether whenever you like.
McAfee Security for O2 Home Broadband also features Image Analysis, software which can scan websites for inappropriate images as well as search for related keywords to content you’d rather your children not see.
Watch O2's own 'O2 Gurus' explain how to set up McAfee Security on O2 Home Broadband:
O2 Broadband McAfee Security: The Good
- Image analysis: block inappropriate images from search results automatically
- Scheduled access: specify what can/can't be seen and when
- One year of free use: get McAfee AntiVirus Plus 2012 for free for a year
O2 Broadband McAfee Security: The Bad
Only three PCs supported by default: not ideal for busy households
Not free forever: you’ll have to pay after a year
No support for non-Windows PCs and laptops: Macs and other machines not supported
What else can parents do?
As well as being aware of what your ISP offers, parents can do a number of things to keep an eye on their children’s web use. Keep your main home computer in the main communal room of the house, somewhere where everyone can use it and where you can see what your kids are looking at.
If you’ve got more than one computer and your children have computers in their bedrooms, set some house ground rules so your children know how you expect them to use the internet, what to do and what not to do online.
Encourage them to never give out any details of their address, where they go to school or their phone number. Take an interest in their online life and what they’re doing. Remind them that when they get older restrictions on their web use can change and be lifted.
Which other ISPs offer parental internet controls?
Claranet Soho’s Childsafe software offers parents greater filtering controls over their internet connections. This is a free service that’s part of Claranet Soho and doesn’t cost any extra.
We’ll be covering details of new and emerging parental control platforms as well as looking at what other UK ISPs offer customers.