One of the greatest challenges facing parents these days is how to ensure that their children remain safe online. With so many kids now having tablets, smartphones, or PCs of their own, it’s increasingly difficult to know what content they access and who they’re meeting on the web.

See also: Best parental control software 2017

Frankly, at times, online safety can seem overwhelming, but these top tips can help you in the fight to protect your little ones (and not so little ones) as they browse the web and use internet-connected apps and games.

You might also like to read our guide to How much screen time is healthy for kids?

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 some settings you can make to limit the content and apps available on a phone, tablet or PC.

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 whether they can use any instant messaging services, 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

Online gaming risks

While much of the media focus tends to revolve around the problems children can encounter on social media sites such as Snapchat, Facebook, and Instagram (all of which require account holders to be at least thirteen years old) recent research from security experts Kaspersky labs has found that online gaming is now a real source of concern.

In a study of 11-16 yr olds, Kaspersky discovered that 38 percent of children had encountered people pretending to be someone else on gaming platforms, while 23 percent had been asked personal or suspicious personal questions while online.

Perhaps the most worrying statistic though was that 20 percent of the children interviewed said that they trusted the gaming platform so much that they would see no problem meeting contacts from it in real life. This is compounded by the fact that nearly a third of the children in the study said that their parents had no idea who they talked to when they played games online.

Setting boundaries

In the end, you are still the parent, and thus remain in charge. If you feel your child is ignoring warnings, or actively seeking out the wrong sites, then you can remove their internet privileges, or move them back into the centre of the house where you can observe their behaviour. While some software does allow you to monitor the internet activity of your children, we feel it would be best to tell them in advance that you are using these techniques. It could be quite damaging to the trust of a child to find out that you were secretly spying on their every conversation.

Again, and we really can’t stress this strongly enough, talk to your children rather than rely on a software solution. With all that being said, here are some ways in which you can use settings and applications to help you protect your young family.

How to make YouTube and Facebook safer for kids

Two of the most popular websites for kids are YouTube and Facebook. Facebook is something of a mixed bag when it comes to content. There are no obvious filters that can restrict explicit content, although the friends you follow obviously have a great effect on the kind of material that appears in your newsfeed. You can block individual users and apps in the settings options, but that’s about the extent of your controls. It’s worth remembering that the minimum age requirement of a Facebook account is thirteen years old, so it’s not really intended to be entirely child-friendly. Many of the family security software packages available now often include social media features, so if your child is a regular Facebook user then it would be worth investigating some of these.

YouTube is another huge draw for younger users, especially due to the huge amount of music videos on the site. Google does provide a safe mode option, and once applied it covers any instance of YouTube that logs in with the same account. On your PC all you need to do is navigate to the YouTube site, scroll to the bottom of the page, and click on the ‘Safety:’ box. Here you’ll see an explanation of how it works, and the restrictions it applies. To set the safe mode up on a tablet is slightly different.

On Android devices launch the YouTube app, then tap of the three dots in the top right hand corner. This opens the settings menu, where you’ll need to choose Search and then tap on the Safesearch option. If you have an iPad or iPhone launch the app and you’ll see the cog icon in the top left next to the account name. Tap on this and then select the Safesearch option.

It’s not foolproof of course, but it will at least limit the amount of unsuitable material that might otherwise get through.

Child using Kindle Fire tablet

Online safety: Microsoft Family Security in Windows 10

Back in Windows 8 Microsoft introduced family security settings. These allowed parents to create children’s accounts, restrict the type of content they could access, as well as set time limits for when the young ones could use the devices. These still exist in Windows 10 and offer a good starting point for securing your PC.

Creating a Child account in Windows

To set up a child account you’ll first need to open the Settings menu and select Accounts.

In the left-hand column of the next screen you’ll find the option for Family & other people. Select this and then click Add a family member.

best parental control software

The pop-up box that appears has two options - Add a child, and Add an adult - select the first option and then click on the blue link labelled ‘The person who I want to add doesn’t have an email address’.

best parental control software

You’ll now be asked to create an email address for your young charge, so enter the details into the relevant fields, click Next, then you’ll also need to add a phone number for security purposes.

The next screen is pretty bizarre, as it wants permission to serve targeted ads to your child. While this might be a wonderful idea for Microsoft, we recommend unticking both boxes before you click Next so the account doesn’t fill up with entreatments for Minecraft, Xboxes, and any other spamming ephemera.

With this done you’ll see that the account has now been created and that the security settings are set appropriate to the age of your child.

To view these settings go to account.microsoft.com/family, or simply return to the Settings>Accounts>Family & other users, where you should find the new account. The last part of the setup is to click on the account and then click the Allow button which appears. This will activate the account and mean that your child can log into Windows using the new ID.

Microsoft Family Security: Settings and features

Once the account is up and running you can begin refining access through the various options available. To find these click the Manage family settings online link that you’ll find just below the new account.

This takes you to the Microsoft webpage for your account and shows the current members of your family. To the right of each account is a list of options, these include Check recent activity, Purchases and spending, Screen time, and More. Clicking the latter will open up additional settings, including the Web browsing filter.

best parental control software

Add Money

The Add money feature is quite clever in that it allows parents to put credit into the child’s account that they can then spend in the Windows store on games, apps, music, TV, movies, or devices. Essentially it’s a gift voucher applied to the account, so there’s no way for the child to incur additional expenses on your credit card. 

Screen Time

Another useful setting is Screen Time. As the name suggests, this is simply a way to control how long your child can use the PC on any given day. Once you’ve turned on the Set limits for when my child can use devices option you’ll be able to click on the grid below to set certain times each day that the account will allow access. The granular method means you can adjust it so that they have more, or less, time on the weekends, and what hour of the evening they have to stop in the week. How much screen time is healthy for kids?

best parental control software

Web Browsing

This setting is a content filter that once enabled will protect your child from inappropriate sites and media. It also allows you to add a further level of control by choosing the Only websites on the allowed list option, where you can then enter which sites they are allowed to visit, and ones that are forbidden.  

Apps, Games & Media

Just like the web browsing setting, this one filters the content that the child can access in the Windows store. The general setting blocks adult content, while the Child can buy, then download or stream apps, games and media appropriate for: option allows you to set the specific age of content from a drop down menu. This means for example that a thirteen year old will be able to watch a PG-13 whereas a twelve year old won’t. 

Online safety: Parents who share too much

It’s all well and good changing the settings on devices, installing security software, and battening down the hatches on routers, but it can all be for nought if you then go and plaster pictures of your child all over Facebook.

In a recent study conducted by Nominet, the UK’s internet infrastructure specialists, is was revealed that, on average, parents share nearly 1500 pictures of their child by the time the little one reaches its fifth birthday.

This becomes more of an issue when it was also discovered that 85% of parents hadn’t checked their privacy settings in over a year, while only 10% were even confident of knowing how to do so.

When pictures are shared online it’s possible that they are not private, and even if they are there is of course the real chance that they could be reposted and shared by friends whose privacy settings might not be as rigid as your own. 

Once an image is online there is little chance that it ever truly disappears, so bear in mind that your child’s image becomes essentially public the moment you post it to social media. It might not seem a big issue now, but it’s worth remembering before you press Send.

Online safety: Ways to make the internet safe

While there exists many tweaks and features within browsers and software that can make your internet access more secure, one almost fool proof step you can take is to actually go to the source itself – the router. That little box with all the flashing lights is your gateway to the web, and it’s actually possible to use special apps such as Familyshield by OpenDNS to directly filter all the content that emanates from its glowing heart.

We have a guide showing you how to install Familyshield, but before you rush over there it’s worth noting that this is a unilateral setting – meaning there is very little in the way of granular adjustments. You choose from either High, Moderate, or Low filters, but this applies to everybody on the network, not just your children. There are ways around this, as seen in the guide, but they can be somewhat complicated. It’s not just Familyshield that suffers from this broad-brush approach. Many Internet Service Providers, such as Sky, BT, and Virgin, offer family security filters, but once again these are blanket apps across all content, reducing the internet to a children’s version for everyone.

We have seen improvement recently though, with offerings such as Sky’s Broadband Shield allowing you to set time limits, so access is opened up after a watershed time when the kids are in bed. Obviously the advantage of this approach is that all devices connecting to your home Wi-Fi will have the same restrictions, so you don’t need to go around setting up each tablet or PC. Remember though, this doesn’t apply to 3G or 4G signals on mobile phones, or any other Wi-Fi connections that are in range and don’t have passwords.  

Best parental control software: User settings

If the nuclear approach of router-based solutions feels too restrictive or cumbersome, then you can work on an individual device level. Depending on the operating system you’re running, the approaches are slightly different. On both of Google’s platforms – Chrome and Android – you are able to set up different User Profiles so that a number of people can share the same device, but not the security levels. If your children have their own Google accounts, then these profiles are independent from one another and therefore harder to control, as the settings are always available to the user.

For younger children, the answer is to create Supervised User accounts on the Chrome browser. These are linked to your full Google account, but allow you to set limits for the websites they can visit, as well as keeping a log of their online habits. If you share an Android tablet then a similar feature is Restricted User accounts.

These are easy to set up via the Settings>User menu options, and give the administrator (you) the ability to select which apps the account can access, plus blocking any purchases or even the app store itself. It isn’t a completely satisfactory solution though, as content settings are still available within YouTube and Chrome, so explicit material could still sneak through. In many ways it’s more a feature to stop your children running up bills through in-app purchases, or installing random apps on your device.

Best free parental control software

With Android 5.0 (Lollipop) Google has created the option to create separate profiles on an Android phone. While this can be useful in short bursts, as you can disable phone calls and SMS messaging, it’s not really suitable for children as such, due to the fact that you can’t limit the things they can access online.

See our step-by-step guide to enabling restricted user profiles on Android Lollipop

Parental controls on an iPhone and iPad

To access this feature go to Settings on your iPhone or iPad and scroll down until you find Restrictions (which should currently be Off).

How to set up parental controls in iOS 8

After selecting this you will see a menu of the available options. At the top is Enable Restrictions, tap this to access these settings.

How to set up parental controls in iOS 8

You’ll be prompted to create a passcode for the Restrictions. This will ensure that your children don’t simply go to Settings and disable your choices.

How to set up parental controls in iOS 8

Now you can select the options that you feel are appropriate to your child, remembering to look at the section covering Allowed Content, as here you can limit explicit songs and TV shows from iTunes.

How to set up parental controls in iOS 8

Online safety: Conclusion

The job of a parent has been made a little more challenging by the internet, of that there is no doubt. While we’ve gathered together as much helpful information as possible in this feature, and there are some fine tools available, in truth none of them are a guarantee that your child will be safe online. That’s not to say that they won’t help, but as we stated at the beginning, they must only be used in conjunction with your own presence and on going engagement with your children to be fully effective.

Combining many of the features together though, will at least limit the potential of unsavoury material appearing before their young eyes. Ensure that the various Safe Modes are enabled on search engines, add restricted profiles if possible, and if you’re happy to pay the money then invest in one of the safety suites we mentioned above. This will get you a good way along the road to security. But remember to take time out to talk with your young ones about how they use the web, what they like, and what their friends are into. It could just be the very best way to protect them.