Filtering and monitoring: A primer for parents

If your kids are old enough to be online, you have to have some safeguards in place on your internet connection.

But which ones? And how many? And where do you start?

When you start looking at options, it can be overwhelming and a little confusing.

What’s the difference between filtering and monitoring

Let’s start with the fundamentals of what these tools do.

Filtering software or services act just like any other filter: they remove the stuff you don’t want to get into the system. Oil filters and air filters keep junk out of your car’s engine. Internet filters keep the junk out of your home.

The type of junk that gets filtered differs with each program. Some will filter spam from getting into your inbox, or pop-ups and malware (malicious software of all kinds) from damaging your computer’s systems or files.

Some filters will also filter content, preventing sites that offer pornography, gambling, hateful and racist language, or even gaming. These filters are often customizable (at least the premium versions) to allow certain things in and keeping others out.

While most of these filters have a cost (either one-time or a monthly fee), OpenDNS is a good, free option, though it does require a bit of tech setup.

Monitoring software and services keep track of activity. This might include websites visited, social media activity, device “on” time or location, or any number of other things that can be tracked.

Monitoring systems often have an accountability feature that sends reports to the people of your choosing. x3watch is one example of a straightforward accountability app, allowing a user to install the monitoring software on a device, then assign an “accountability partner” to receive a regular email with any suspicious activity. This could just as easily be installed on a child’s device, and the parent would be emailed.

While I’m listing these two (or three) activities as separate, I should note that most of the big names in reputable online safety actually do both filtering and monitoring. CovenantEyes, Qustodio, SafeEyes, NetNanny, K9ProtectionNorton Family, and many others offer packages (usually the premium ones) that will keep out the bad stuff and record and report activity.

What am I looking for?

Here are just a few considerations:

Accuracy

How well do the filters actually catch the bad stuff without blocking all the good stuff? This can vary widely among programs, so you’ll want to do your homework. With the ones listed above, NetNanny and Qustodio seem to rank the highest in this category, according to a number of review sites.

Cost

Would you rather pay a one-time cost or a monthly fee? Before you answer that quickly, you’ll need to consider the total cost (one-time purchase fees are getting pretty steep), and what you get in terms of updates. Monthly service fees are usually for a web-based system, and may update often and without you having to lift a finger.

Single use or a package

Some programs offer licenses for each device, while others offer bundles or a “total home” license for use on any device in your family. Consider the number of devices you need to protect and the features you need to protect them.

Operating systems

Most programs can be installed on both PC and Mac. Some will work for Android (through an app you install on the device). Fewer will work on iOS. None can be installed on a Chromebook or a gaming system. Look carefully at the features and compatibility of each program, keeping in mind the types of devices in your family.

Ease of use

Take into consideration not only the setup of the program, but the maintenance and use as well. Will you need to download and install something on each device, or is this something you set up on your router? Are there lots of tutorials provided by the company for setting up and using the software? How difficult is it to manage and monitor each device?

I like free stuff, because I’m a cheapskate. I’m also a geek. So, installing the free OpenDNS for filtering and the free version of x3watch for monitoring and accountability doesn’t scare me too much. But you have to assess your own tech comfort level, too, when deciding on a filter/monitor.

Where do I install it?

Something we’ve been assuming so far is that you will purchase, download, and install this software on each device in your home. There are some disadvantages to this.

It takes time to do all that setup and you need access to each device. Installed programs are easier to tamper with and bypass–if you are a resourceful kid. You need to make sure that software is updated on all machines (or at least the package takes care of automatically updating each device’s installation.) And any new devices that come into the house will need the same treatment. (Merry Christmas to you!)

Another family of internet filters actually filters at the router level. In other words, the blocking and monitoring happens before everything hits each device in the first place. These tools can still monitor and control individual devices (i.e. limiting internet access to the kids’ devices after a certain time), but they often require only one setup.

These tools are almost always a monthly fee (although OpenDNS is either free or a one-time, low annual fee). One of the considerations, too, is that the setup is sometimes more technical, requiring the user to mess around with some router settings. Some routers come with pretty robust filters and parental controls, too. You might already have these on your existing router.

A huge advantage, however, is that filters at the router level filter and monitor everything. We have three Chromebooks in our house, so a router-based filter would protect those devices where software can not be installed. This would include gaming systems, too, as well as any other device that someone brings into our house and accesses our wifi.

(Router Limits seems to be a promising service in this router-based arena. Watch the blog for a review in the near future.)

Your Turn

Fortunately, the tools exist to help us protect our kids when they are online. Unfortunately, the options can get pretty complicated.

Do your homework. Check out review sites and comparison charts. Sign up for a one-month free trial (many of them do this.) Talk to others about their experiences.

Start here. What filtering/monitoring software are you using, and what has your experience been? Share with the ParentingDigital community in the comments below.

 

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