Can’t Get Your Child Off the Internet? These Gadgets Can Help – Wall Street Journal

My children can’t do anything online without my knowing. Whether they visit a website or fire up an Internet-connected app on their tablets or iPods, I see it in action. And when it’s bedtime—or just time for everybody to get their heads out of their devices—the Internet access magically cuts off.

I can do it because of a new kind of gadget. It’s easily installed on a home network to monitor the activity of connected devices, and even control what they can and can’t do online. The best thing about it is that you don’t have to install any software on the controlled devices, just a single app on your own smartphone.

However, the ability to snoop on your children (or anyone else in your home) is not something to take lightly. It can’t replace a frank discussion about Internet safety and how to treat others online.

I tested two network nannies, Circle and KoalaSafe, both $99, with my 7-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son. The gadgets do essentially the same job, with slightly different execution.

Both work by watching the traffic on your network as it ebbs from and flows to your tablets, phones and iPods. You, the parent, identify your children’s devices in the app, then apply filters for anything you don’t want them to receive. While both monitor any app, Circle’s app is only on iOS; KoalaSafe is on Android and iOS.

In addition to blocking the obvious sites that spell trouble—porn, dating, gambling, etc.—you can block or set limits on social media sites and apps, online games and others you want more control over. You can even enter specific sites by name.

Circle lets parents filter automatically by age group, but you can also allow or block sites manually.

The biggest difference is that Circle scans all the traffic on your home network, controlling traffic that’s going to and from the devices you’ve asked it to monitor. KoalaSafe creates its own children’s Wi-Fi network and only keeps watch over devices connected to that.

When your children go to their devices, nothing looks different, but certain things just won’t work. Circle tries a bit harder than KoalaSafe to remedy the situation, offering up content that is approved for children—mainly videos and other activities from its marketing partner, Disney.


(You also can block Disney, of course.)

Additionally, Circle’s monitoring happens locally, so the only time your traffic data leaves your home network is when it’s sent, encrypted, to your phone when you’re away from the house. Circle says it doesn’t store any of your traffic data in its servers.

KoalaSafe relies on cloud servers for monitoring and control. Steve Pack, KoalaSafe’s founder, says that the company uses anonymous versions of the data to show how Internet use in your household compares with others in your state, country or even the rest of the world. The company will offer the ability to opt out of data collection. But if you do, you’ll lose the ability to filter specific content; you’ll just be able to set basic Internet time limits.

When Circle blocks a website, it reports the filter, then directs the child to more appropriate content.

Setup was easy in both cases, though I had to do a little troubleshooting when identifying devices. Sometimes there would be a relatively clear “Wilsons-iPad,” other times a vague “android-d34b2fe4532.” If multiple devices show up with similar names, look in their network settings for their unique MAC address, which will help identify them.

You can peer in on what your children are up to from your own app. Both Circle and KoalaSafe generate real-time reports based on what’s happening. They can show you, by categories, all of the studying and goofing off that’s going on, and even which website attempts they blocked entirely.

Because there’s no software on the children’s devices, you can’t control everything they do. For instance, games and other apps that don’t constantly ping the Internet will continue to work, and won’t show up in tracking reports.

A good argument for a tool like this is that it keeps children not from juicy stuff they’re sneaking around looking for, but potentially traumatizing content that they accidentally stumble into.

“Kids trip over sites that scare them,” says Tovah Klein, director of Barnard College’s Center for Toddler Development, author of “How Toddlers Thrive” and a mother of three boys, ages 11 to 18. “What we really want to do is help them learn how to search the Internet, for school or for fun, and not somehow end up where they shouldn’t be, or don’t want to be.”

Ms. Klein didn’t know about these new products, but had mixed results in the past using older parental-control software. Nasty sites could still sneak through, and often it would block “perfectly legitimate” sites that her sons needed for schoolwork.

Circle and KoalaSafe are smarter than that. For one, they give parents more control over unblocking wrongly restricted sites when away from home. But there are still limits to what these can achieve.

While I can easily lock down my children’s iPad, iPod Touch and Amazon Fire tablet, my 5-year-old uses my wife’s computer for games, and my 7-year-old uses it to search for images to print. I don’t have any parental tracking on her machine at all.

KoalaSafe plugs into your home router, creating its own Wi-Fi network just for children’s devices.

Circle’s founder, Jelani Memory, says there are grown-ups who use Circle to monitor their own behavior. You could cut back on weekly Facebook


time by seeing just how much you spent on the social network. And since potentially malicious sites are blocked by default, there’s a bit of added security that comes with the system. (Mr. Pack says there’s no major reason to connect any adult’s device to the KoalaSafe network.)

The biggest hole in the design of both Circle and KoalaSafe is that they work on the home network, while many teens carry phones that run on 4G networks as well. They can Snapchat the night away if they just turn off Wi-Fi.

Both startups are working on fee-based “to-go” extensions, scheduled to arrive in the coming months. You have to physically set up the phone so that its Internet traffic gets routed through a monitoring server. The parental app doesn’t change—same monitoring, same control—but the data would include what’s happening while your children, and their smartphones, were away from home.

“You can limit children, and I recommend limits, but we really have to teach them how to live in this world,” Ms. Klein says.


Ninety-five percent of U.S. parents with teens ages 13 to 17 say they’ve talked to their teen about sharing appropriate content online, and 93% have discussed how to treat others online, according to a forthcoming report from the Pew Research Center. Over a third of those parents say they talk to their child about these issues “frequently.”

Parents of the younger teens in this age group are more vigilant, says Lee Rainie, Pew’s director of Internet, science and technology research, but generally speaking, “it’s a pretty urgent conversation in lots of families.”

My children are nearing the age where they can appreciate the conversation, but probably a little young to need the controls offered by Circle and KoalaSafe. Soon, the time will come when I know I’ll need more insight and assistance.

Tools like this may come in very handy—and I expect to see them built into more home routers soon. But so will the conversations that, hopefully, will grow less difficult as they grow more frequent.

Write to Wilson Rothman at or on Twitter @wjrothman


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