I’ve spent the last year or so experimenting with Circle with Disney, a parental control device used to manage internet activity on all devices in your home. Yes, all devices. Well, I should say all internet-connected devices. Which is a lot of them – computers, laptops, phones, tablets, gaming systems – if it connects to the internet, Circle can help you manage it.
I found Circle to be simple to install, easy to use, and would recommend it to any family seeking a bit of sanity in a multi-device multi-user household. Sure, there are some things that Circle can’t do, and I’ll talk about that. But there is so much that Circle CAN do.
First off, know that Circle is only supported if:
- You as a parent own and use a smartphone. You’ll manage Circle settings using an app on your iOS device running iOS 9 or later or Android device running Jelly Bean or later.
- You use a Wi-Fi connection in your home that is password protected. If you don’t have a password-protected network, you really should!
Otherwise, read on.
Setting up Circle parental controls for your family
If you’re not too tech savvy, don’t worry; Circle was insanely easy to set up and start using. While it is called Circle, it is actually square in shape. Just take it out of the box, plug it in, download the app, and follow the prompts. You don’t need to install Circle on each individual device you want to manage.
During the set up process, your Circle device will start “talking to” your Wi-Fi connection. It is all pretty seamless and the process did not disrupt my internet connection. I didn’t experience any issues, but if you need help there is a support site and user manual available online.
Once Circle is in place, you’ll create profiles for each family member and assign your computers, phones, tablets, laptops, Roku players, and gaming systems to the appropriate family member.
Speaking of devices, at first some of the device names might seem a bit cryptic. Some are easy to figure out such as “Jean’s iPhone” but others were hard to decipher. I had to look up MAC addresses (kind of like your device’s true identity) to figure out which was which. But Circle’s support page does have instructions on this, including how to give the devices friendlier names. And, the day after initial setup, most of these device names updated on their own anyway.
And here’s a tip from Kathy at The Tech Teacher page who left this in the comment section. Set the filtering for all unknown devices to the highest level of filtering. Then as you figure out who the device belongs to, add it to the appropriate person’s device list.
Here’s what you can do with Circle parental controls:
Set time limits on internet-connected activity
- Set a daily overall time limit
- Set a daily time limit for a particular app, website or category of content.
- Set a bedtime, including different bedtimes for the weekends.
- Set OffTimes, or scheduled times of day when internet access is not allowed.
This works across all devices for that family member. For example, you can set up 14-year-old Chloe with a profile. You can allow Chloe 3 hours of online activity a day, but only 30 minutes of that can be YouTube. And no activity after 9pm. Chloe can’t use up her ½ hour of YouTube on her iPod Touch and then switch to YouTube on her laptop.
Content Filtering and insights
You can use pre-set content levels for each family member, from Pre-K, Kid, Teen, Adult or None. From there, you can customize to meet your needs. For example, with the “Kid” level, Club Penguin, Disney, Minecraft, and Musical.ly are allowed, but if you prefer to disable Musical.ly, you can do so with the flick of a switch.
At teen level you can choose to filter Snapchat! I know a lot of parents will be thrilled to see this addition. Hulu and Facetime can now be filtered as well.
The reporting under “Usage” shows you how long each family member spent online each day, week, and month, going back one month. Under the “History”, you can see which sites were visited, and which sites were blocked by the content filters. From there, you can easily unblock a site.
This is all done using a very simple app and you can change settings at any time.
You can also customize the filtering for each member of the family, from allowing (or disallowing) certain web sites or categories of web sites.
The one confusing part here, is that you may find a lot of “extra” site addresses visited throughout the day; maybe even in the middle of the night. It looked like my daughter was checking apple.com and google.com throughout the night, when I’m pretty sure she was sleeping. I confirmed with the Circle team that this is due to background activity as the phone or various apps refresh data or check for updates. They are currently working on some ways to clean up that view. That would certainly help for better accuracy.
On an iPhone, I noticed that restricting an app, such as the YouTube app, did not remove the icon from the phone. I could still open the app but couldn’t view video thumbnails or play a video. This is to be expected. Circle is blocking the app from communicating with your Wi-Fi – the app still exists, but Circle is essentially rendering it useless. You’ll notice that some of these changes are not immediate. I blocked Instagram and could still see images in my Instagram feed for a while, due to caching – meaning, I had seen those images already earlier in the day. When I jumped back on to Instagram later on, I could not see any new images.
Pause the Internet
Yep, that’s right. You can pause the internet for everyone, or for a certain family member, or for a certain family member’s device. So if Jimmy has been asked to come set the table for dinner, and keeps replying, “Just one more minute on Netflix, mom” about 20 times, pause that internet for Jimmy.
And don’t worry parents, you can leave yourself out of Circle completely by leaving your own devices in the “Unmanaged Devices” area, or use a filter level of “None”.
Safe Search and Ad Blocking
In the Content Filter settings, you can turn on Google safe search, YouTube restricted mode, and Ad blocking. I noticed that some ads were blocked, and some weren’t. For example, while listening to Spotify on my computer, I did not see the visual ads (yay!) but I did hear the audio ads (oh well). You may need to experiment with the Ad Blocking options, as some Circle users have reported that some websites didn’t function correctly with this setting.
Add-on functionality using Connections
Connections is a method for connecting Circle to other apps and services. Right now you can reward screen time for chores by connecting Circle to a few different chores apps. Connect with Google’s Alexa assistant (US only) and use voice prompts to ask questions about your Circle. Upcoming connections include Social and Driving, which sound like very useful additions for those with teenagers.
Here’s what you can’t do with Circle parental controls:
Control activity on the device that doesn’t rely on an Internet connection
The time limits and filtering only apply to activities that use an internet connection. So, for example, if you set a 2 hour per day time limit, your child could still use the device beyond 2 hours for any activity that doesn’t rely on Wi-Fi. This might include listening to music that is downloaded to their iPod; watching a movie that was already downloaded to their iPad; reading a book on their Kindle.
Control activity on the device when NOT connected to your home Wi-Fi
The Circle device parental controls work with your home Wi-Fi network. When the kids are at home, Circle can do its job. This is fine for those devices such as iPads that only have Wi-Fi, especially for the younger kids. But for iPhones, Android phones or other devices that can switch from Wi-Fi to 3G, just be aware that the savvy kids could figure this out and bypass Circle by using the 3G connection instead. If you don’t have unlimited data, this could be a problem, so best to discuss it up front!
[Update] The good news is that Circle has launched “Circle Go”, a subscription which extends your Circle settings to mobile devices that are out of your home Wi-Fi range. Circle Go works on iOS devices running iOS9 or later and Android devices running Jelly Bean (4.1) or later. After a free one month trial, the subscription costs $4.99/month for up to 10 devices. The service works along with the Circle device so you need that first before signing up for Circle Go.
Circle Go takes the same functionality from the home device – time limits, bed times, and content filters, and enforces it when connected on 3G/4G or even another WiFi network (sleepovers; coffee shops; grandma’s house). Circle does not manage any phone calls using your Phone app, or SMS text messages (the ones that show up “green” in iMessage rather than “blue”).
Apply multiple user profiles to one device
Right now, it’s slightly challenging if you have multiple family members using the same computer, perhaps with different logon accounts, or have all family members watching Roku or Netflix on the family TV. I asked the Circle team about this. They are working on a solution that will allow Circle to handle multiple users on the same device without parental intervention. Currently, the way to handle this scenario is for an adult with the Circle Home app to assign the device to the proper person, then to another when it’s their turn. It’s a bit cumbersome, but works for now.
Manage the details of phone calls, texts, and social media activity
While you’ll be able to see which web sites and social media apps are used, you won’t see the content shared, such as messages or photos. With real concerns such as sexting and cyber-bullying, many parents are looking for ways to keep tabs on their teens’ social media and texting activity. Circle doesn’t track these specifics, so in that case you may want to look into services such VISR, TeenSafe, uKnowKids or other services that offer that kind of insight.
Does this sound good to you?
Circle is also available at major retailers like Walmart, Best Buy and Target. When Circle first came out, there was up to a 2-3 backlog on orders. I think this is a testament to the need for a simple way for families to manage their internet lives at home. Circle delivers this with the ability to set different time limits and content filters for each family member, make adjustments on the fly, all with a few taps of an app and one little white square plugged into the wall.
[Circle with Disney did not provide me a unit for review. I purchased on my own for use in my home and for testing it out for Be Web Smart readers. I am now part of their affiliate program. I only become an affiliate for products/services that I believe deliver a good value and offer a unique service. This page includes affiliate links. By purchasing through these links, Be Web Smart earns a small commission. Thanks for your support! Read my policy and disclosure page for details.]