Concerned, I started looking around for solutions. I bought a new router that supposedly had parental controls, but they were rudimentary, difficult to set up, and glitchy. I explored OpenDNS, which admittedly looks fantastic and powerful but also complicated and confusing. Then I came across Circle with Disney, and after reading the ridiculously glowing online reviews, I ordered one - that was a little over a month ago.
Circle is amazing. It's a small, might as well be magic, $99 box that gives parents incredible control over their children's internet abilities across all of their devices. Set up was a breeze. Plug it in, connect your wireless router to it by following a few simple instructions and you're up and running.
Circle's controls are app based, and are available for both iOS and Android smartphones. With them you can set time limits for specific websites or platforms (eg. Facebook, Minecraft, Netflix, Games in general, YouTube, etc.), overall time limits and bed times, as well as filter content automatically (with filter levels set for Pre-K, Kid, Teen, Adult, or None).
Content filtering is terrific and it gives you nearly complete control allowing you to turn on and off such things as automated ad blocking, Google safe search, YouTube restricted mode, as well as whether or not they're allowed to shop online, use social media, chat, etc. Circle also will provide parents with site visit histories, a categorized pie chart of time spent online, and will allow you, with a click, to completely "pause" your child's entire net access (until she's done cleaning her room for instance).
Here's a brief video from Circle showing off some of these features:
What's especially amazing, is that their internet time and settings are shared by all of your child's devices, so if yours, like mine, use a laptop and an iTouch, they'll both fall under the same umbrella of Circle settings. And Circle even has a built in battery, so if your kid unplugs your Circle, it'll continue to work. And should the battery fully drain, Circle will send your phone a notification. Circle also reports that coming this year will be the ability to extend your child's Circle settings to their cellular data (if they have it) as well, which means that your kids' days of texting and snapchatting all night may be numbered.
When we bought Circle I had a chat with my 11 year old. She agreed that at times she found it hard to tear herself away from the net, and also that it was annoying when I or my wife pestered her to get off or questioned how long she'd been on. I explained to my daughter clearly what Circle did, and how using it might prevent us from getting into irritating arguments about net time and use. I then asked her what time limits and settings she felt were reasonable. She suggested an hour each per day for gaming and YouTube, an internet bedtime of 9:00pm, and no overall limits as she uses the net to do homework and write. We gave her full access to YouTube, but left Google safe search on. We also agreed that if down the road she felt the settings were unfair or unwieldy, that we could revisit and revise them if necessary.
So far, Circle has worked wonderfully and we're seeing my daughter's beautiful face a bit more often, and she's doing more than just playing online on weekends. My only two minor complaints are that as it stands, there's no way to create different settings for weekends vs. weekdays (Circle reports that this will be worked into future app updates), and that games that don't use the net aren't filtered or tracked.
I give Circle with Disney 5 stars. I can't recommend it highly enough.For a one-time cost of just $99 (there are no monthly subscriptions after purchase), I think this little box provides great value, and a huge sigh of relief for parents. If you're interested in one for your family, here's an Amazon Associates link.
[Fellow Canadians - clearly you can buy and use Circle in Canada, but it's a bit more complicated. For some reason the Circle app is not available on the Canadian iPhone app store. Consequently, if you want to use one, you need to set up an American app store account (instructions here) and download the app from there. You'll also have to ship the Circle to the US and arrange for pickup.]