Parental control software may not seem like much of a productivity topic at first glance, but given the importance of technology in raising kids today, the ability to control access to computing resources is vital. While some people assert that kids shouldn’t be “controlled” this way, I’d bet that most of them aren’t parents and haven’t been so invested in helping a young person grow into a productive adult. Speaking for myself, I know with 100% certainty that if I’d been surrounded by so much awesome technology when I was a teenager (in addition to the things that teenage boys have been interested in for time immemorial), there’s no way that I would have controlled my time very wisely. It’s for kids like I once was that parental controls are an absolute must.
It’s therefore a bit frustrating to be faced with so many choices in parental control software, and with so many compromises. I’m not going to engage in an in-depth review of parental control software here–that’s been done to death, and I’ll list some resources at the end of this post. Rather, I’m going to briefly highlight how challenging it can be to select any technology solution. Simply put, it’s rare that one solution meets every need, and sometimes you need to invest in more than one solution to accomplish every objective.
In my case, I have a son who’s bright, witty, creative, and kind-hearted, and who can waste more time more quickly than anyone I’ve known (expect perhaps for myself). With him, I don’t worry about things like pornography and drugs. I worry about time spent on Facebook and Twitter and researching phenomenally unaffordable gaming systems, when he should be learning to think logically via math homework and to read and write effectively via literature and essays. He means well, in most cases, but he’s so easily distracted.
And so, I’ve searched for solid parental control software that will allow me to lock down the computer itself when I need to, and to limit where he can go on the Internet when he needs access to it. You’d think this would be easy to accomplish, but as I’ve discovered, that’s not nearly the case.
Microsoft Family Safety: Time Management
The first tool I’ve tried is Microsoft’s Family Safety, which is baked into Windows 8.1 (and earlier versions). It’s free, it’s relatively easy to configure, and it works with Windows accounts. That means I can dial in the various controls to a given account, and then log my son into whichever account makes sense at the time.
Family Safety supports one of the functions I need quite well, namely time management. I can set a curfew on when the account can be used, currently set as available between 7:00am and 9:00pm, and I can limit the amount of time allowed during a time period. Right now, I have a “Homework” Windows account that’s limited to zero hours, and I grant additional time in various increments by logging in as administrator (my own Microsoft account). I could grant time by default, but this approach gives me the most control.
Time management is a real Family Safety strength, and it’s fairly foolproof. It’s better than some other solutions that limit Internet access (such as Net Nanny, which I’ll discuss below) by limiting access to the computer itself. My son would spend hours and hours playing Minecraft locally if left to his own devices, to the detriment of everything else going on in the world.
However, Family Safety has one fatal flaw when it comes to my other requirement, that is, limiting the Web sites he can access. Again, I’m not worried as much about the typical filtering requirements like pornography and snuff films (because my son isn’t inclined to search them out), but rather I’d like to be able to limit access during certain times to innocent time sinks like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. In short, Family Safety works well as long as a given site has no encrypted counterpart (i.e., an https:// version of the site), which as it turns out are the defaults for the big three I’ve mentioned.
To reiterate: Family Safety cannot block HTTPS, which means it’s useless for my purposes.
Net Nanny: Blocking HTTPS
Enter Net Nanny ($39.99 annual subscription for one machine, 14-day trial). Probably one of the oldest and best-known pieces of parental control software, Net Nanny offers solid filtering that does block HTTPS, and time management that works well as long as you only care about controlling access to the Internet. Unfortunately, it does nothing to limit access to the computer itself. Net Nanny also utilizes its own accounts, not Windows accounts, adding another level of management if you’re already using Windows to segregate a computer for various uses–say, by installing games on only one account and leaving another account for homework, as I’m doing.
And so, I’m left with using two solutions, with all of the added complexity that this implies. When my son wants to use the computer for schoolwork, I log him onto the Homework account and then into his homework-oriented Net Nanny account. Family Safety manages the amount of time he’s allowed, and Net Nanny blocks those sites that would distract him. When he’s allowed to use the computer for whatever he wants (within normal browsing limits, of course), I log him into his main Windows account with unlimited time and a Net Nanny account that doesn’t block Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube but filters for inappropriate items that he might inadvertently run across.
So far, I’ve not run into any conflicts between the two solutions, but I’m not holding my breath. However, I’m not terribly happy about the added layer of complexity and the need to log him into the machine, then login again to grant him time, and then login yet again to access a given Net Nanny filtering level. It’s a pain, and defeats the purpose of enhancing my own productivity.
More Research Needed
I’ll therefore be doing more research at the sites below to see if I can find a solution that does it all, but I’m not optimistic. Like everything in technology, I might just require a few solutions to accomplish exactly what I need. Parental control software can do a good many things that I (hope) I don’t need, like keylogging and other activity recording. So far it seems like my son and I have a good enough relationship that I’m not worried about bullies or predators–he’ll tell me if he runs into either online. As a (hopefully) good parent, I therefore reserve judgment as to what solution I’ll end up using, which may change as my son continues to grow and mature (or regress, as teenagers sometimes do).
A Google or Bing search will result in numerous review of parental control software solutions. The following sites provide a good place to start, with most of the serious contenders listed and briefly reviewed. If I come across a solution that better meets my needs than the uncomfortable marriage of Microsoft Family Safety and Net Nanny, I’ll report back here.
Here’s a quick list of the heavy hitters: