Children today are growing up in a connected world where every computer, from a PC or laptop to a smartphone or tablet, can access the internet. That’s an amazing privilege, but not every website is suitable for kids.
And it isn’t simply the ‘darker’ side of the web that you might want to keep your kids away from: watching endless YouTube videos or checking what their friends have been up to on Facebook is probably distracting them from doing their homework.
There are many different ways to block websites, and we can’t cover them all in depth here, so instead we’ll provide more general guidance so you can be sure you’re one step ahead of your tech-savvy offspring.
See also: How to keep your kids safe online
1 – Blocking sites within a web browser
Depending on the web browser and the exact version, it may or may not be possible to block websites by changing settings. Internet Explorer 7, for example, allows you to block or allow certain sites, but later versions, such as IE10, do not. (If you have IE7, click Tools, Internet Options, then the Content tab, then Content Advisor. Click Enable and then use the Approved sites tab to choose which sites to block.)
However, this method is useful only if the PC has no other web browsers installed and the user account is a ‘Standard’ rather than ‘Administrator’ account so that your child can’t install another browser, which would – by default – let them access any website. It also assumes that the child has no access to other devices that allow them unfettered access to the internet! If they do, you’ll need to set up the same restrictions on those as well.
Many people let their kids use their own account on a laptop or PC, which is fine if you’re supervising them. It’s best, though, to create separate user accounts for each child: don’t be tempted to give them administrator accounts to make your life easier.
Blocking sites using a so-called ‘black list’ within either a web browser or in Parental Control software (see below) can be tricky. It requires you to block not only www.facebook.com, but also any other addresses that can be used to access the site, such as m.facebook.com – the mobile version of the site. If you miss any, chances are your child or teenager might be able to get around your restrictions.
2 – Parental control software
As with the method we’ve just talked about, parental control software needs to be installed on any computer or device that you child has access to. Such software typically performs web filtering, which should include a regularly maintained list of inappropriate websites that are blocked. Usually, you can choose which categories from the list to block or allow, but the software manufacturer should keep the list up to date. You should also be able to allow or block specific sites in addition to this main list.
Parental control software typically has other functions as well, including limiting the amount of time a child can spend on various activities such as web browsing, playing games and other things. You can also set the times at which these activities (or general computer access) are allowed.
You can find out more, including information on Microsoft’s free Family Safety in our guide to choosing parental control software.
3 – OpenDNS – free website blocking software
Rather than installing and configuring software on each computer and in each user account it’s far easier to block sites by changing a couple of settings in your router. Your router will use your ISP’s web filtering (which may be disabled by default) but you can choose to use OpenDNS instead.
This is a free service which filters out inappropriate sites: all you have to do is change one or two settings in your router’s web interface. This is easier than it sounds, and you will find out all you need to know in our guide to using OpenDNS FamilyShield.
The one disadvantage of this is that sites will be blocked for all devices which connect to the internet through the router – including tablets and smartphones. That means if you block Facebook and YouTube, you won’t be able to access them either. Of course, savvy kids (and adults) can switch off Wi-Fi on a smartphone or 3G-equipped tablet and browse the web freely by bypassing the router altogether.
4 – Tablets and smartphones
While we’ve talked about blocking websites on PCs and laptops – and ‘global’ blocking using OpenDNS – it’s possible to block websites on a tablet or smartphone as well.
Most kids’ tablets have reasonably good software which filters out inappropriate websites, and can block internet access entirely. You can read our kids’ tablet reviews to find out more.
If you own a smartphone running Windows Phone 8, then you can use the Kid’s Corner feature to restrict access to the web this way, as well as preventing children from accessing your email and messing up other settings.