(Pocket-lint) - No matter how responsible or communicative your children are, ensuring their online activity is safe and healthy is no easy matter.
For parents, this is a challenge on many levels. What content are children accessing? Which devices are they using to go online? What time of day are they connecting and how long are they spending at different activities?
While modern devices come with their own parental controls, these systems don’t speak to each other. Setting limits on access YouTube on a console can mean that children simply migrate to a different screen once this has been used up.
That's where Circle comes in. It is a one-stop shop to control a family's internet usage at source, and it is available through a dedicated device or partnering routers and services. So here's everything you need to know about Circle and how it works.
What is Circle?
Circle is a parental controls platform that comes with several devices and services - including some third-party routers that offer it as a bonus for users.
You can also purchase a separate physical box from Circle directly, or other online retailers, which provides access to the platform for those who already have an internet router and do not want to switch provider.
It wirelessly connects to your home network and provides the same monitoring, parental controls and ability to report on internet activity that is hard-baked on some of the other Circle-enabled devices.
The system is clever because it does this for all the devices you have in the house individually. It can assign each device to different user-specific limits, for example. And, like the Nintendo Switch’s parental controls, you control Circle from an app on your smartphone and get messages directly when limits are exceeded.
It can, therefore, enable control over specific devices in the home, such as those used predominantly by your children, without impacting on the internet abilities of parents' devices.
How much does Circle cost and what devices are available?
As well as any device fee, Circle is a paid subscription service, although there is a free membership plan too, with a reduced feature set.
The Basic (free) version of the service includes filters, history reports and the ability to pause the internet for all members of your familys.
For $9.99 per month, you get Premium membership that adds the ability to adjust different settings for each member of the family individually, plus safe searching functionality, time limits, bedtime, offtime, rewards (extra internet use for completing homework, etc), and overall usage reports.
When you first sign up for Circle, you get one-month of Premium for free. However, some devices can extend that free usage period.
For example, that includes the company's own Circle Home Plus box. The second generation model of its own device comes with one-year of Circle Premium for free.
Other devices that are compatible with the platform include the Circle with Disney box that the Home Plus succeeded. It can still be found available from some retailers, so you could be tempted (as it costs less). However, one word of warning: it is only compatible with older Circle software, so cheaper doesn't necessarily mean better.
Several Netgear routers and its Orbi WiFi mesh network systems come with Circle built in, so you just need to sign up for the service itself and do not need a separate box in your home.
And, Sky in the UK offers a version of Circle in the form of its Sky Broadband Buddy optional feature for its internet subscribers. It is customised specifically for Sky Broadband customers but is powered by Circle.
Sky Broadband Buddy is part of the Sky Broadband Boost add-on, which costs £5 per month on top of a regular broadband plan and comes with other extras, including guaranteed Wi-Fi in every room of your home.
How does Circle work?
Using Circle, either with the dedicated box or through a partnering service, is an eye-opening experience. Once set up and running, it only takes a matter of days for you to clearly see how long each family member is spending at different online activities no matter which devices they are using.
This information then enables you to set up time limits for particular activities using the dedicated Circle Parental Controls app for iOS or Android. You can restrict YouTube, Xbox or Twitter use, for example - or block particular sites and services that are not appropriate.
Some games can also be specifically limited - such as Roblox. Once the time is up for a particular user they get the message on their devices and need to ask parents for an extension.
Along with time limits on apps and websites, Circle can also specify bedtimes and off-times for each user. This is very useful for ensuring your kids don’t stay up too late, or get delayed checking Instagram in the morning.
Each family member gets a profile, so with a Circle Premium subscription, you can switch on and off each individual's internet access accordingly.
You can also reward children with extra internet time at the tap of a button, such as when they have completed their homework or chores.
Do we recommend it?
Circle is unlike any other internet control service we’ve used. While it is possible to achieve similar functionality if you know how to dig into your router settings or customise complex user profiles, Circle offers all this in a simple and well thought out interface that anyone can set up.
Being available across Netgear routers and the Orbi mesh system is great, as is its use as part of the Sky Broadband Buddy add-on.
You do need to subscribe to get the most from Circle, so that could put off some. But, we think larger households with several children will get great value for money as its extensive features will put their parents' minds at rest.