We originally wrote this article in 2013, when most of our advice centred around keeping your kids safe online when using Windows, PCs and laptops. These days, of course, kids tend to have access to many devices from parents' tablets and phones to their own dedicated kids tablets.
Updated July 2016: The HomeHalo is a modern solution to the problem of filtering what kids see online, and when they can use the internet. You can jump straight to the information on HomeHalo, but we recommend reading the whole article.
Older kids will probably have their own phones, and with them another internet source: 3G or 4G. All of this complicates the issue, but the basic principles still apply. We've updated the article for 2016 and made some new recommendations for buying hardware as well as the software you can install to monitor what your children are up to and / or block websites to stop them from accessing content you'd rather they didn't.
Much of the internet is a fabulous resource for kids, whether it's Wikipedia for helping with homework, online games, social networks, videos, music and more. However, there are an equal number of websites that you wouldn’t want them going anywhere near.
We’ll look at what the dangers are and the ways in which you can keep your kids safe from them. Much of our advice is common sense, but in addition there are applications and utilities such as parental control software which can help to act as a digital nanny and protect your children when you’re eyes aren't watching.
You’ve probably heard scare stories about identity theft, online bullying and illegal downloads. The threats are real and you can’t afford to simply hope that everything will be ok. We’ll show you what action is required.
Many people decide that they want to limit their children’s screen time, including TV, games consoles and using the internet. On a PC, phone and tablet you can install software and apps – typically called parental control software – which can determine when the internet can be used. Most kids tablets have these options built-in, and we're big fans of Amazon's Fire tablets for this reason. Even those which aren't 'Kids Edition' have the same Fire for Kids app which offers brilliant parental controls, including the superb-value Fire tablet.
How to keep kids safe online: Set some rules
Kids these days are digital natives. They've grown up with the internet and have no concept of what life was like without it. They’re completely at home with technology: using a mouse or touchscreen to navigate is as much a life skill as learning to read and write.
In fact, children tend to learn to use a touchscreen way before they can read or write, using colours, images and symbols instead of words to navigate around apps and websites in order to get to a video or game they like.
Whatever the age of your kids, it’s important to keep them safe when browsing websites, using social networking services such as Facebook, and chatting with friends using instant messaging programs.
Although your children may know more about using a laptop, tablet and the internet than you do, it’s your responsibility to ensure they're protected from the parts of the web that present a danger to them.
The dangers (see below) may sound bad, but the good news is that you can prevent most of them happening without too much time, effort or money.
Common sense plays a bigger part than you might think. For a start, we’d recommend not allowing children to use a device - laptop, tablet or phone - in their own room. Asking them to use it in a communal area should discourage most inappropriate activities as it will be obvious what they’re up to even if you only glance in their direction.
The most important thing to do is to talk to each child and explain (in a way appropriate to their age) the dangers that the internet could pose to them, and why they can’t use their devices in their room.
Also, encourage them to tell you whenever they see anything that makes them uncomfortable or upsets them, or simply isn’t what they expected. You can delete inappropriate websites from your browser's history, and add the site's address to a parental control filter list (we'll come to this in a minute).
Also encourage them to tell you if they receive any threatening or frightening messages or emails - you can add the sender's address to most email programs' blocked list.
You should also make it plain what is acceptable and what isn’t acceptable online. That’s something only you can decide, but you can’t expect your kids to know they’re doing something wrong if you haven’t set any boundaries.
You might, for example, tell your child that they're not allowed to download apps or files without your permission first, nor share a file with anyone without your consent. You could also set rules about which online chat services are allowed, tell them not to reply to unsolicited emails or sign up for free accounts without you first checking that it's ok.
How to keep kids safe online: The dangers
Websites: Even if you've not seen much evidence of it when you've browsed the web, it isn’t too hard to imagine the kinds of things that you wouldn’t want your kids to see. Pornography is the most obvious, and the web is jammed full of it.
Young kids might stumble upon a porn site by accident (usually by clicking on photos or links without understanding what they’re doing) while older teens might actively seek it out.
Besides porn, there are a plethora of gambling sites, plus others which promote drugs, guns or things your kids probably shouldn't be looking at.
Even YouTube isn’t necessarily safe. Innocent searches could turn up unsuitable material, and some people make a habit of swapping the soundtracks of, say, children's cartoons with foul-mouthed music.
Social networks: Facebook and other sites are great places for sharing photos and chatting. They’re especially good for allowing children to keep in touch with friends and family who don’t live nearby. Most don't allow kids under 13 to open accounts, and the only way to get around this is to lie about their age.
Privacy is just on issue with social networks. It's all too easy to make the wrong settings or not make any at all, leaving messages in the open for others to see. You don't want your kids sharing any personal details such as their address or phone number, for example, or letting everyone know that you’re going on holiday for two weeks and that the house will be empty. Here's how to check your Facebook privacy settings.
Online games: Virtual online worlds are becoming more and more popular with kids from around 6 upwards. Sites such as www.moshimonsters.com, Disney's Club Penguin and Habbo Hotel (www.habbo.com) allow children to be a character in one of these games, joining for free and paying for certain in-game add-ons.
A core part of the games is being able to chat with friends and make new friends but, although every click is monitored and every word moderated, you never know for sure who they're talking to. While all three websites claim to be safe for kids, you should still supervise them as they play.
Instant messaging and email: As with Facebook, instant messaging clients and email make it possible for untold numbers of people to contact your child.
The innocent-sounding messages coming from an innocent-sounding name might in fact be a paedophile ‘grooming’ your child by establishing their trust. Such conversations have been known to lead to real-world meetings where anything could happen.
Information overload: There’s so many websites and so much information and activities on the internet that it’s all too easy to spend far too much time online. Sitting motionless at a computer desk could mean your kids aren’t getting enough fresh air and exercise, or it could be a case of too little sleep if they’re staying up late on Facebook or playing games. Staring at that screen for too long isn’t good for their eyes, either.
Bullying: The ease of communicating online has disadvantages as well as benefits. It’s easy for other kids to bully a child through social networks and instant messages – even email. Unflattering photos can be posted online and lead to insults, taunting and threats. Because there’s nothing physical, online bullying can go unnoticed by parents if kids don’t say what’s happening.
Illegal downloads and malware: There are plenty of places to download videos, music and games illegally on the web. This can be a big temptation for teenagers and can bring problems for the parent, since they pay for the internet connection and are responsible for anything that’s downloaded.
There’s also the risk of malware and viruses, which are far more common when you venture into the seedier parts of the internet. In fact, searching for any kind of pirated material also brings links and pop-up adverts for other unsavoury sites, including pornography.
How to keep kids safe online: Parental control software
Let's start with tablets and phones.
Windows isn't the only operating system that your kids are likely to use these days. With the proliferation of smartphones and tablets, children can access pretty much all the content you might have blocked on a desktop PC or laptop.
An easy way to restrict internet access and any other communication is to enable flight mode before you give the device to your child. Savvy kids will easily work out how to disable this, however.
Some devices - particularly Android - let you install apps which control usage limits, and most recent Android phones and tablets come with the ability to create user profiles and choose which apps a user can access.
With Apple devices, there's no way - yet - to create profiles, so even if you set restrictions, they'll apply to everyone using the device. If it's yours, it's simply impractical.
If you just want to block websites, install Mobicip Safe Browser with Parental Control, Maxthon Kid Safe Browser or another web browser. Obviously make sure you remove any other web browsers (we explain how below).
Mobicip is one option as it's an app that's available on lots of devices, including Windows, Mac, iOS, Android, Chromebooks and Amazon tablets. The free version is relatively limited, though, so to use the features such as time limits, monitoring, access requests and management, you'll have to get a Premium subscription which costs $39.99 per year (approx. £28).
UK-based HomeHalo has arguably come up with a better solution. For £4,95 per month you get a service that is not only flexible but - probably - does exactly what you want it to. Rather than get you to install an app on each phone and tablet, you get a second router which attaches to your main one. This is included in the subscription fee, but you can pay £199 for the router and lifetime use of the service with no ongoing subscription.
You connect each child's tablet to the Home Halo router's Wi-Fi and this does all the filtering and time limiting. Using the Home Halo app on your own phone or tablet you then assign each connected phone and tablet to a particular child. And you can set up each child's profile differently. Older kids will be able to access more websites, younger kids won't. You have control over the blacklist, though, so if you think a blocked site is fine, you can change it.
Since the adults' devices connect to the internet through your main router, their internet access is unrestricted. But if you do want to lend an iPad to a child, you can switch Wi-Fi networks to the HomeHalo and immediately get filtered internet.
The app also lets you grant time extensions if a child needs extra time to research for some homework, and there's also a homework mode that prevents them from accessing YouTube, Facebook and other entertainment so they remain focused on the task in hand.
However, it's worth noting that Home Halo does not restrict screen time, as it has no control over the devices themselves. Kids may not be able to carry on watching YouTube, but they can still fire up a game. That's where the Amazon Fire's parental controls come into their own, and a £49 Amazon Fire paired with a Home Halo is one of the best setups we can think of to keep kids safe online. (Read our full Amazon Fire review.)
See also: How to choose parental control software
iPhone / iPad
Apple has put some parental controls in iOS, but they affect the whole OS so any restrictions apply to anyone who uses the iPhone, iPad or iPod touch - not just kids.
To set up an iPhone, iPod touch or iPad for your kids to use, tap on Settings, then General and then Restrictions. You'll have to enter a PIN to enable Restrictions in order that a child can't simply re-enable the apps or other settings.
You can disable certain built-in apps such as Safari, and you can restrict the content shown other in apps only by their age rating (or disallow access entirely). Similarly you can restrict films by age, TV shows by those rated Caution and music / podcasts with explicit content.
You will also probably want to disable location services for Facebook, Twitter and any other social networking apps. There are lots of other privacy settings which prevent apps accessing your photos, contacts, calendars and more, and the ability to disable multiplayer games and adding new friends in Game Center.
Safari itself has no parental controls, but you can disable it and install another, such as AVG's Family Safety. This is a free app which blocks inappropriate websites and keeps you safe from phishing websites, and those containing malware.
It's also sensible to disable in-app purchases, as well as the ability to install apps.
Introduced in iOS 6 was Guided Access (shown above, left). This effectively disables all hardware buttons once within an app preventing kids from accessing anything else. You'll find the setting in General > Accessibility.
Once enabled, triple-press the Home button after launching an app to enable Guided Access. You can then draw on the screen to disable certain areas. Tap the Options button to disable touch altogether.
Google's Android OS doesn't have much in the way of parental controls, and really requires you to download a parental control app. However, from Android 5.0 onwards, Google added user profiles. These are extremely valuable not only if you share a tablet, but also because you can choose which apps are available to a specific user, such as a child. Here's how to set up profiles in Android.
Android also has is built-in content filtering for the Google Play store so you can restrict which apps can be downloaded. To do this, launch the Play store app and press your device's menu button and choose Settings from the menu.
Scroll down to Content filtering, tap it and choose to allow apps rated for low, medium or high maturity.
This goes some way to preventing kids from downloading inappropriate apps, but you can still install apps such as the safe browsers we've mentioned, to limit what kids see when browsing online.
Windows Phone 8
Mobile operating systems vary in their support for parental controls, with the Windows Phone 8 being one of the best thanks to its Kid's Corner. This is a separate, sandboxed area where your kids can access apps, games, music and videos that you select for them.
Configuring Kid's Corner is simple, and your child can access it by swiping left instead of up on the lock screen. If they do swipe up, they'll see the usual PIN entry screen, so can't access the main phone features. It's ideal if you want to share your own phone with a child.To enable Kid's Corner, go to Settings, then Kid's Corner. You can tap each app, game, video and music track you're happy for your kids to play.
Windows 7 ,8, 10
In order for parental controls to work, you'll need to give each child their own user account on the computer. Having individual accounts means you can apply certain rules to each child, according to their age.
Go to the Control Panel from Windows' Start menu, click on User Accounts and then Manage another account. You can then click 'Create a new account' and select Standard user rather than Administrator. This will prevent them from installing new programs and making other changes to the computer. Make sure each account has a password.
Windows 7 has built-in parental controls, which are useful to some extent, but they can’t restrict internet access to certain times of the day.
What you can do is restrict how many hours your child can use the computer, which games they can or can’t play (according to age rating or game name) and which programs they can or can’t run.
In Windows 8 and 10, parental control features were been beefed up and renamed Family Safety. When you create a standard user account in Windows 8 or 10, you're given the option to enable or disable this feature.
Family Safety is considerably better than what you get in Windows 7. For a start, you can control both the number of hours the child can use the computer as well as full control over when they can use it - you can select different times for individual days of the week. You can also remotely monitor the child's activity, as well as remotely changing settings via the Family Safety website.
The good news for Windows 7 users is that you can download Family Safety as part of the Windows Live package. It allows you to block or allow certain websites, manage who your child can contact via Windows Live apps and view activity reports.
How to keep kids safe online: Parental controls in popular apps
Some web browsers, media players and other programs also have built-in age or content restrictions:
Internet Explorer : Uses Windows 7 and Vista’s built-in parental controls and also provides content filtering. Click the cog icon at the top-right corner, then Internet Options. Now click on the Content tab, and then Enable… in the Content Advisor section. For each type of content in the list, you can select how severe the restriction is, and you can set a password for turning filtering on and off.
Google Chrome: Chrome, disappointingly, has no parental controls, but if Google is the default search engine, you can enable SafeSearch if you’re signed in to your Google account. Go to www.google.co.uk and click the cog icon to the right of the screen. Click Search settings and you’ll see a slider which you can adjust and then click the ‘Lock SafeSearch’ link.
Mozilla Firefox: Like Chrome, Firefox doesn’t have parental controls, but you can install the FoxFilter add-on from tinyurl.com/6s7977g. This does a similar job to the content filter in Internet Explorer.
YouTube: YouTube has a safety mode, although it's pretty hidden. To enable it, scroll to the very bottom of a YouTube page and you'll find a Safety: Off message. Click the arrow to the right, check the On radio button, and click Save.
iTunes: You can restrict content that can be downloaded from the iTunes store by age rating. To access the parental settings in iTunes 10, go to Edit, Preferences.. then click on the Parental tab. There you can disable access to podcasts, radio and the iTunes store entirely or restrict films, TV shows and music.
Bear in mind that no content filter is perfect, and there are no guarantees that objectionable content will be blocked 100% of the time. This is why it's a good idea to keep computers in communal areas and keep a physical eye on what your children are up to.
How to keep kids safe online: Filter websites for free with OpenDNS
A great way to enable website filtering for all devices connecting to the internet through your broadband router is to use OpenDNS.
Instead of using the DNS servers provided by your ISP (the servers which convert a website's friendly name such as google.co.uk into the internet address 126.96.36.199), you use OpenDNS's servers.
Essentially, you need simply make one small change to your router's settings and any device connecting to the internet via your home network will be routed through OpenDNS's system, which filters websites. There's no charge for the service, and it's configurable for low- or high-level blocking as well as more fine-grained control over which categories of site to block, including any phishing sites.
To use OpenDNS, you need to sign up for a free account here. Clearly, any settings you make will apply to everyone in the house, so you can't block some sites for your kids, yet access them yourself through the same router. Plus, don't forget that if your kids have phones (or even tablets) with a SIM card and mobile data plan for internet access, the OpenDNS setup won't apply to that - it's just for home broadband.
There are also lots of other parental control apps to choose between, including those from Kaspersky, Norton and the popular Funamo.