Ask LH: What Software Should I Use To Monitor My Kids’ Internet Use?

Ask LH: What Software Should I Use To Monitor My Kids’ Internet Use?

Dear Lifehacker, So my kids are now aged 5 and 4 and are rapidly familiarising themselves with computers and the internet. I never thought I’d have to bother about it, but. . . parental controls and filters. What are your recommendations? Thanks, Concerned Parent

Dear CP,

Send ’em outside with a football and a cricket bat. Within five minutes, somebody will have been hit in the head with the bat, and you’ll have to deal with the problem anyway.

No, wait, that’s the kind of advice that I would have been told thirty years ago when all I wanted to do as a kid myself was watch TV. It’s not terribly practical or useful advice, either, because it ignores the increasingly central role that the internet plays in all of our lives, a role that’s only going to increase for our offspring.

The problem with facing this kind of question is that it’s rather like talking about “best” parenting techniques. There is no “best” technique, because everyone’s approach — and in the case of controls and filters, everyone’s tolerances — differ. You may be incredibly conservative, wishing to block everything but Play School, or incredibly liberal in your attitudes. Guns may be good, boobs may be bad, or it could be the other way around. I’m not going to say either approach is “wrong” — but I can relate my own experiences.

It’s been a while since I’ve reviewed any filtering software at the consumer level, but back when I did, I was never terribly impressed. Dodgy detection mechanisms, easy methodologies for bypassing and often suspect filtering lists left a bad taste in my mouth, which is why to date I’ve not personally installed a strict filtering software approach for my own family.

It turns out that my conclusions about filtering probably aren’t that far off. Enex Test Labs do exactly this sort of testing, and in a post relating to filtering software, Matt Tett of Enex Test labs — writes that:

“The bottom line is to remember that while a filter installed on a family computer goes some ways to ensuring that children will not be exposed to the worst of the worst, it still is not an excuse for failure to monitor and educate the family about the reasons for it being installed in the first place. Treat it as a line drawn in the sand, a family rule. I am sure a child or juvenile found to have breached the trust once will find a cyber-grounding – through the removal of their access privileges to the Internet – will have a similar effect to physical grounding and restricting privileges to go out with friends. No matter what the circumstance, parents will still need to be aware of and monitor their children’s online activities and implement appropriate discipline the same as they would in the real world.”

So what to do? Both Windows and Mac OS have simple filtering controls built in — the ones around usage times may be particularly useful — and likewise it’s really rather sensible to implement the safe search functionality built into both Google and Bing. Lifehacker has covered how to set these up previously, and they’re strongly advised.

Otherwise, though, I do side with Matt’s conclusion; when my kids are online, I’m ensuring that they’re doing so in a way that’s safe. Part of that involves placing the net-connected devices in a public area where I can keep a watchful eye on what they’re doing, and part of that involves communication.

Having a set policy, and explaining what’s safe (or not safe) online can go a long way. I managed several years ago to tie my talk with them about online safety (especially as it relates to personal information) to the stranger danger lessons my daughter was getting at school. Because they relate to the same kinds of things, it was easy to get her to take those lessons on board — and so far, so good.


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  • I use OpenDNS. Whilst it can be easily bypassed (dns server changes) I figure that if my kids are smart enough to learn how to bypass then that was a valuable learning experience for them (working out that it can be bypassed that way, finding alternate DNS servers, changing them).

    • If you use a router which has iptables on it (DDWRT, Tomato etc). then you can use it to re-route all your network’s DNS lookups (TCP/UDP port 53 packets) regardless of what DNS server a client has specified. It’s as simple as having this command run on your router on startup:

      iptables -t nat -A PREROUTING -i br0 -p udp –dport 53 -j DNAT –to nvram get lan_ipaddr
      iptables -t nat -A PREROUTING -i br0 -p tcp –dport 53 -j DNAT –to nvram get lan_ipaddr

      This just says “no matter where you think you’re sending your DNS lookups, just give to to me here at this router’s IP address”. Providing that your router is set to resolve names at OpenDNS, then ALL DNS queries on your network will be resolved by them even if your kids change their local DNS servers.

      If the kids get past THAT then, yeah, they get to be rewarded. Although keep an eye on the little hackers that you’ve bred!!!

    • +1 for K9. Suggest you silently monitor by category first up, giving you a breakdown of how time gets spent (so you can get some info before you start placing restrictions).

    • +1. When you want to monitor and control people, look to what corporations do.
      Upside: Proxy servers are fairly easy to set up, require few resources (any old computer with 2 network cards in it is great), and require little maintenance.
      Downside: To do it thoroughly you need an extra piece of hardware have a separate modem and router. It’ll also require some learning. Mobile devices are much harder to control.

      (Option B: install teamviewer on all computers under the admin account. Let them know that you can hit a button and see what’s currently on the screen at any time , wherever you are. Doesn’t actually block anything, but scaring them into line will probably get the results you want)

  • I have them sitting at the computer at an angle that I can see the screen.
    I catch them doing anything they shouldn’t and the computer privileges are revoked.
    Competent adult supervision is the only solution.

    • Not a practical solution either. Particularly in the future. Unless you intend to watch everything they do on a phone, tablet, at friends’ etc. Any of the software based solutions installed on a local PC tend to be next to useless. Only real way is to setup a proxy which isn’t practical for many. As mentioned though, with mobile networks, that isn’t foolproof either. I suspect in the future, carriers will start providing filtered services for a fee – and if you bundle mobile etc through them, then you can centrally secure all their sources. Ultimately though, if they want to bypass it that badly they will, and the ultimate sign would be seeing if it has an impact elsewhere in their life.

      • It’s not a 100% solution, but if you do so at an early age — where you’ve got better control over their choices and/or Internet access time — along with talking to them about appropriate behaviour — you’re going to do a lot better than relying on oft-failing software. Will they access inappropriate material at some point? Probably — but if they know your guidelines it’s less likely they’ll do so in a way that’s ultimately damaging to them (whether or not that’s at an oversharing/privacy level, or infringing on whatever your personal boundaries on subjects such as sexuality/firearms/gambling etc might happen to be.

  • 4 and 5 is far too young to have unsupervised internet access, so sit and use the internet with them. It’ll be a good bonding experience and will set up some trust between you three for later on.

    When they are older, ask them straight out what sites they use, why they use them and perhaps even join the site yourself to know what’s going on. Tell them that you won’t get mad if they’re flat-out honest about what they’re doing on a computer, because I used to withdraw even more if my folks got frustrated with what I was doing on a computer.

    Another good tip would be to get them thinking about security straight away. You don’t wait until they’re 12 to speak about stranger danger, so perhaps ask them in a non-“everyone is out to get you” manner what info they should give out when online, why it’s a bad idea to give out too much info and other questions like that.

    And just because I do it myself — get them to never reveal their passwords to anyone, friend or otherwise. Sure “Fraping” is funny when you”find out” your best friend is “gay”, but it’s not so “funny” when “their account” is “compromised” and credit “card” details are “stolen”

  • Set up a linux server between their PCs and the internet. Stick monitoring software on it, and disallow encryption. (Or set it up to decrypt and reencrypt SSL connections…) I’m sure that’s all possible, although I haven’t done it myself…

  • In this day and age the locking down and/or monitoring needs to be done at the router/gateway and not on individual PCs due to the sheer number of web-enabled devices around the average home – games consoles, phones, tablets, laptops, even some e-readers have a browesr built in.

    If you run a decent router (like one sporting DDWRT) then you can set access rules based on time of day to restrict access to certain sites, or sites based on keywords etc.

    Alternatively (or additionally) use OpenDNS to restrict access (they even do a pre-configured parent-friendly version called FamilyShield I think). Both services provide both filtering and logging and are free.

      • Although not ideal OpenDNS could kind of cope with this. It’ll log all domains looked up so you can at least see what sites have been accessed. It’s not ideal as obviously all your name resolutions get lumped into the reporting but it’d give you a heads up on what sites are being visited without the kids knowing you’re monitoring them.

        to use this feature you need either a static IP or to install a client to update your IP at OpenDNS (it needs to know which is your IP so it knows what DNS lookups it’s done for ‘you’). I recommend using their sister product, DNS-O-Matic to do the IP addresss updating.

  • Supervision in the key, ie No screen s in rooms, only in the public family area.If you are a parent, type “boobs ” into Google or Bing search and click the first few links – You would not let you child wander through a rough neighbourhood at night – same applies to the internet.

    My experience is that single enpoint solutions like Netnanny and OS filtering quickly become unworkable. Particularly when trying to protect smartphone wifi and tablet wifi, Windows, Linux or a friends laptop. I also tend to use common logins at home and it becomes a pain to switch over to another user when something gets blocked. The average 11 year old can be pretty determined to circumvent this software.

    The solution I landed on after much trial and error is to use dedicated content filtering firewall that does transparent filtering and logging of all internet traffic (Endian, Dansguardian and Squid, Astaro). This way it does not matter who or what is plugged into the network everything is controlled .

    For several years I have been using Astaro UTM (now called Sophos UTM 9) and I found this works really well for me. It even has filters to prevent Bing, Yahoo and Google ‘Safe search’ from being disabled by the end user.

  • Open DNS worked well as a filter but with the disadvantage of slowing download speeds to a crawl by making servers think the computer was in the US. So slow that I had to stop using it. Also, difficult to set up on a Bigpond router.

  • ScreenRetriever ( is an easy way to monitor all of your child’s online activity, either Live or Recorded and kids know it’s being used so trust is not sacrificed. They have a 14 day free trial.

  • A nice way to keep an eye on them is to connect their laptop to the HDTV via a HDMI cable. I find it invaluable to see exactly what the children are doing, whilst I can continue doing other things and don’t appear to be interfering too much.

  • I prefer to use Qustodio, a free parental control app. It has served me well over the past 5 odd months. Unwarranted sites are blocked automatically and I can view their browsing history and track their downloads every hour. Even though it’s free, it does almost everything that paid apps do.

  • Maybe you can try to use Anykeylogger to manage and control your children’s computer use. It can record almost all computer activities and allows you to block apps, sites and limit Internet use time.

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