By Caroline Knorr, Common Sense Media Parenting Editor
Many parents subscribe to the "cross your fingers and hope for the best" philosophy of managing their kids' online access. But even if you've had the conversations around screen-time limits, responsible online behavior and safety precautions, it's still really tough to manage what kids do when you're not there (and even when you are). Parental controls -- the real, technical kind -- can support you in your efforts to keep your kids' Internet experiences safe, fun and productive. They work best when used openly and honestly in partnership with your kids.
Thankfully, a new crop of parental controls offers a lot more features and flexibility than previous versions that were overly restrictive and too easy to defeat and that preyed on parents' fears about online risks. These updated solutions also reflect a new, more progressive philosophy about parental controls: They're way more pro-Internet and less fear-mongering. Of course, nothing is entirely fail-safe -- and you'll still want to have conversations about making good choices.
Only you can determine the level of protection you need for your family. Here's a primer:
1. Operating systems: Both Microsoft's Windows and Apple's Mac OS come with built-in parental controls. When you create user accounts, you can select different protections for different users. To get the most benefits, you need to use the most updated version of the operating system. The Android operating system doesn't have built-in controls -- but there are many parental-control apps for Android.
- Good to know: Operating system parental controls work well because they apply globally to everything the computer accesses.
- Good for: All ages.
2. Web browsers: Browsers -- that software you use to go online -- offer different ways of filtering out websites you don't want your kids to visit. Safari, Chrome and Internet Explorer all allow you to type in specific websites and domains (which apply to whole categories of sites, such as porn) that you want to block. If you use Firefox, you need to download an add-on, because the basic browser does not offer content filters.
- Good to know: Browser-specific solutions don't carry over to other browsers. So if you have more than one browser on your machine, you need to enable filters on all of them.
- Good for: Younger kids. Older kids -- especially very determined ones -- can easily defeat browser restrictions either by figuring out your password or simply downloading a new browser.
3. Kids' browsers: Sometimes called "walled gardens," these are protected environments that fill up your entire screen (so kids can't click out of them). They're sort of a cross between an operating system and a browser designed specifically for kids with games, preapproved websites, email and various activities. Examples include Zoodles, Kido'z and Kidzui.
- Good to know: Kids' browsers are typically free for the basic version, but they cost money (usually a monthly subscription fee) for a premium upgrade. The ones that are entirely free usually offer content that the company has licensed from a kid-friendly provider -- and may display ads or promotional content.
- Good for: Younger kids. Walled gardens are too limiting for older kids who need (or are allowed) greater access to the wider web.
4. Computer-software controls: These are the classic, full-featured parental control programs that let you block websites, impose screen-time limits and monitor online activity (for example, which sites your kid visits). Many of these programs also offer added security against malware and viruses and will send you a summary of what your kid did online. Products in this category include NetNanny, Qustodio, Safe Eyes and BSecure.
- Good to know: Because they are so full-featured, computer-software-controls programs carry a high initial cost plus a monthly subscription fee.
- Good for: Kids of all ages -- and especially kids who need a lot of support in following your rules.
5. Mobile devices: Some mobile devices have rudimentary parental controls -- but the options vary a lot depending on what you have. At the very least, without downloading anything extra, you may be able to prevent unwanted purchases (including in-app purchases), restrict what kind of content can be downloaded (M-rated games, for example) and delete or hide apps and functions you don't want your kid to use (such as video chatting). Amazon's growing family of Kindle Fire tablets come preloaded with Kindle FreeTime parental controls.
- Good to know: To add content filters to your kids' mobile device, you'll need to disable its existing browser and download a kid-friendly browser or a content-filtering app such as Mobicip (Apple), AVG Family Safety (Windows) or Kid Mode: Kids Games and Videos (Android).
- Good for: Younger kids. Once kids get older, they will either resist any attempt to limit their access or simply figure out a way to defeat what you've restricted.
6. Home networking: Having trouble managing what kids access on their mobile devices? Are Internet-enabled devices mushrooming throughout your house? If so, you may want a more robust solution. Take a look at your Internet router -- that thing that brings the Internet into your house. You can get a software program such as OpenDNS, which works with your existing router to filter Internet content. Or consider a hardware/software solution such as Skydog, which lets you manage Internet access and usage for every networked device and every user. Skydog incorporates Common Sense Media's website reviews to make it easy for kids stay on age-appropriate sites.
- Good to know: These router-based solutions apply to an unlimited number of devices in the house connected by WiFi (including smartphones), and they prevent unwanted content from entering your home.
- Good for: All ages.
Tell us: Do you think parental controls provide a false sense of security?
About Common Sense Media
Common Sense Media is dedicated to improving the lives of kids and families by providing the trustworthy information, education, and independent voice they need to thrive in a world of media and technology. We exist because our kids are growing up in a culture that profoundly impacts their physical, social, and emotional well-being. We provide families with the advice and media reviews they need in order to make the best choices for their children. Through our education programs and policy efforts, Common Sense Media empowers parents, educators, and young people to become knowledgeable and responsible digital citizens. For more information, go to:www.commonsense.org.