Many of you have asked me for recommendations on a router (or mesh system) with “excellent Parental Controls.” It’s tricky because I personally don’t use this feature. (And I’m a dad — a pretty good one, mind you!)
That’s because if you know how things work, you’ll note that even the best home networking Parent Control is not as effective as you’d think. Also, some might even do more harm than good. I’ll explain all that briefly in this post.
Parental Control vs. online protection
While these two sounds like one, they are not. At least in what I mean within this post. So first, let’s get on the same page.
(By the way, the terminologies used here are mine. They are not universal. Among other things, you’ll note that many vendors lump Parental Control and online protection into one or putting one as the subset of the other.)
Router online protection: Keeping everyone safe
Online protection generally applies to what you want to keep everyone safe from. It’s obvious stuff like phishing, ransomware, malware, or even misinformation, and so on. But you can add more — like social media or pornography — to the list.
It’s the type of protection you want to apply to the entire home network. And that’s the key. It’s the protection or web-filtering mechanism for all. Once turned on, the content/parties in question are meant to be kept away from everyone within the network.
This type of catch-all protection is generally effective. The filtering and blocking are based on your WAN IP address — the portal of your home, so to speak. It can also be done locally at your Internet gatekeeper — namely, the router itself or a firewall device in front of it.
You should always use online protection if that’s available. Many routers come with this feature. A good example the Network Protection of Asus routers — it’s part of the free-for-life AiProtection suite.
Keep in mind, though, there’s no complete protection, and you will need to let the party that protects you look at your traffic — privacy risks implied. In the end, you’re always the last line of defense. But a router with built-in online protection sure helps.
But the point is, online protection is transparent, straight-forward, and democratic. All network members are in it together, and therefore all local network devices share the same treatment. It’s also effective since there’s no exception.
Router Parental Control: It relies on the MAC address — questionable effectiveness
On the other hand, Parental Control can be complicated.
That’s because, in this case, you want to let stuff in but keep it from select members of the family. It’s the type of do-what-I-say-but-not-what-I-do kind of enforcement.
Here’s the thing: Even if you can make that works technically and the moral high ground is well-justified, it can still be problematic.
For one, the system doesn’t know the difference between John and Jane as two individuals. It only knows the devices they use. So if you want to block John from something, Jane will also be affected if they share the same device.
Think about it, how often do you need to borrow your kids’ computer? That’s not to mention the hurt feelings.
But most importantly, it doesn’t always work.
That’s right. The only way for a system to identify a device for parental controlling purposes is via its MAC address, which is supposed to be unique — and it’s indeed unique.
However, the MAC address can be spoofed quite easily. In fact, many smartphones allow for randomizing their MAC address. Also, most Wi-Fi extenders automatically assign a virtual MAC address to a connected device.
Truth be told, pre-teen and older kids can probably figure out how to bypass web-filtering one way or another after a few Google searches. Younger kids, who don’t know how to use a search engine, likely won’t do anything crazy online anyway.
The privacy issues
If you wonder why MAC spoofing is so prevalent and even endorsed by mobile vendors, that’s because it has a lot to do with privacy. Giving somebody your device’s MAC address, and chances are they can spy on you.
Your router gets all the MAC addresses of all connected devices at home, and they generally stay there. However, when you turn on a third-party Parental Control feature — like Circle, which is an add-on software of many Netgear routers — all things break loose.
That’s because, for a third-party service to work, it will also have to handle your network’s DNS, which works as the directory of your Internet access. Effectively, you surrender your entire network’s online traffic to the vendor’s scrutiny.
Again, that’s the case of all online protection, web-filtering, firewall services — you can’t have a bodyguard without having somebody accompanying or looking at you. There’s no absolute privacy — it’s a matter of degrees.
After that, the software, again, uses the MAC address to apply the filtering. Consequently, while the mobile app might look fancy and intuitive, and privacy risk is a sure thing, the effectiveness is always a hit or miss. It’s not a very good trade.
There you go. Now you know why I’m not big on router-based Parental Control features. And I’ve worked with hundreds of networking devices.
Using an app-based umbrella Parental Control solution for the entire home network is generally not a great idea. That doesn’t mean you should give up on parenting — not that we ever can.
That said, strictly from the tech point of view, here are my recommendations:
- Set up Parental Controls at the device level. Each device, be it a computer, media streamer, a phone, etc., generally has this option. It’s a bit more work but a much more effective way.
- Use the online protection feature on your router, if available, and block stuff that’s bad for everyone. If the router has built-in Parental Controls, you can try that, too, but don’t count on it.
- Refrain from using an online service — one that uses a mobile app and a login account. Chances are you’ll pay a lot more for it than the monthly subscription. Most importantly, you can’t count on it, either.
- Set up a family time when no one uses any device.
- Keep devices off the bedrooms.
- Be a role model.
Online protection, parental controls, and parenting itself are about the nuances and degrees. You can use a mix of what you think most effective for your situation without going overboard. Your kid is another human you’re dealing with, not another device.
One thing is for sure: Don’t use Parental Controls as a criterion in picking a router. Chances are, you will end up with a Wi-Fi machine designed primarily to make money off of your privacy that only gives you the illusion of being in control or a good parent in return.
So, get a good router (or mesh system) with an excellent set of networking features and then, if need be, add a firewall device on top of it. I’d recommend Firewalla Gold or Blue Plus, neither of which requires a monthly subscription.