The internet is a wonderful resource, but there are areas of it that are unsuitable for children as they could pose a threat to their safety. Since it’s too difficult to police what your child does every time they’re online, a safer way to protect them from inappropriate content involves setting up parental controls through your internet service provider (ISP). In this article, we explain what parental controls are, how to set them up through some of the UK’s leading ISPs (and on many leading devices), and what to be wary of.
At their simplest, parental controls apply certain restrictions to what someone can do and see online. They might prevent adult content from loading and displaying, or ensure such content only loads in the evenings.
Although parental controls can sometimes be set through your broadband router, it’s also possible to put content restrictions on mobile devices like smartphones and tablets. Some apps also support parental controls, such as dedicated child profiles on streaming and social media platforms. As an example, the YouTube Kids app will host different curated content and access restrictions than the standard YouTube app.
Given the amount of adult-orientated online content, it’s probably safer to ensure parental controls are applied across the board until your children are in their late teens. You might wish to apply restrictions to a specific device like an iPad, or ensure every web-enabled device in the house is covered by the same policy.
At the same time, children require different levels of supervision as they get older. With the help of Internet Matters, we’ve summarised some of the key stages below.
We recommend children this age only have access to child-focused apps, ideally under direct supervision. Without a parent to intervene, even supposedly safe platforms like YouTube Kids can start displaying content you may feel is unsuitable.
As well as ensuring children don’t have unrestricted access to computers or tablets, it’s highly advisable to impose parental controls across your Wi-Fi connection. This protects them even while viewing someone else’s device in your home, or if they find a PC that’s been left unattended.
Despite increasing battles for independence (especially when children are old enough to have their own social media profiles), it’s still recommended that unsuitable apps are blocked. Talk to your children about inappropriate online content so they recognise it if they see it elsewhere, but ensure they’re not able to find it in your own home.
When it comes to parental controls, each provider has its own interface, but the settings are broadly similar.
You can install parental controls by accessing My BT > Manage Your Extras > Choose what your kids are able to see online > Manage BT Parental Controls. There are three categories of restrictions – light, moderate and strict – while parents can also customise settings to suit specific scenarios.
Locate the Sky Broadband Shield page where the company’s Broadband Buddy is located. This has PG, 13 and 18 ratings for Sky broadband parental controls, while adults can manually block or allow specific sites. There’s also a Custom option which segregates content by category – online dating, online gaming, and so on.
Virgin Media parental controls are accessed by signing into your Virgin Media account. Go to My Apps > Web Safe > Overview, before activating Child Safe Protection. As with BT and Sky, this can be further customised to identify specific sites, prevent content categories from displaying or set timers.
Vodafone Content Control is typically set up when a new broadband account is registered. A sliding scale of parental controls can be activated, including Safe (blocks malware and phishing scams), Super Safe (blocks adult content plus related services like online dating) and Ultra Safe (which blocks even social networks and online gaming).
The latter severely restricts internet access, but settings may be changed from the Content Control section of the Vodafone Home broadband portal.
If you don’t want to apply blanket restrictions across every device in your house, it’s often possible to restrict internet access by device, or by platform. This will take considerably more time than applying a filter to your broadband service, but these are some of the main options in terms of restricting internet access via hardware, software, services or apps…
You shouldn’t allow kids to conduct in-game purchases, which is often a key method of making progress in ‘freemium’ titles. Don’t set up contactless payments on a device regularly used by children, try to disable in-game chat which might be open to abuse, and turn off in-game upgrade options on consoles. You can also do this on gaming platforms, or app-by-app on mobile devices.
Search engines remember the last settings applied, so it’s easy to filter out results with explicit content. However, only parental controls on either a device or a domestic Wi-Fi connection will prevent children accessing websites via Bing or Google. YouTube (the world’s second-largest search engine) has a Restricted mode which can be activated if children are likely to be viewing and using it.
Many children have their own smartphones, even from a young age. Fortunately, both the Android and iOS operating systems support screen time limits and restrictions on how long a particular app may be used. Android 11 permits remote supervision through the Family Link app, while it’s possible to impose restrictions on services like app installation or Google Play content filters.
Although it’s tempting to let kids have their own social media profiles, you should adhere to the minimum age restrictions imposed by each platform. Officially, someone has to be 13 to register a Twitter, YouTube, Facebook or Instagram account. Allowing a child to create an account before this age could expose them to unsuitable content which can’t be monitored once they’re able to log on by themselves.
Each streaming media platform has its own set of parental controls, often involving dedicated children’s profiles. Netflix allows you to set age limits for content according to the traditional cinema levels – U, PG, 12 and 15. It may be necessary to password-protect adult accounts or set a PIN, to prevent children logging on as someone else.
Many smart devices have parental controls baked into their interfaces, including Google Chromecasts or Amazon’s Fire TV Stick. On the latter, you’d go to Settings > Preferences > Parental Controls and activate them with a PIN code. Parental controls shouldn’t be buried in obscure sub-menus, but if you’re struggling to find a particular setting or menu, search online.