Review: Circle with Disney Parental Control and Internet Filtering System
Internet-enabled iPhones, iPads, and iPod touch devices have made households more connected than ever, and a lot of families have moved away from the "one shared family computer" of days gone by into a situation where young kids may have their own iPods or shared iPads, and pre-teens and teens likely even have their own iPhones, all with the ability to independently access the Internet. While Apple does a pretty good job of offering parental restrictions, these have to be configured on each device specifically, and of course only apply to Apple's own devices; throw a few PCs or other non-Apple devices into the mix, and you're left trying to reconcile a confusing set of parental control options that will differ on every platform. This is where Circle Media's Circle with Disney ($99) comes into play — it's a simple box that connects to your Wi-Fi network to monitor and supervise your family's Internet activity, both in terms of where each member of your household can go, and how much time they're allowed to spend online.
There’s really not much to Circle’s hardware, and that’s kind of the point; in the box you get the Circle unit itself — a relatively unobtrusive white cube that you can leave anywhere within a reasonable range of your Wi-Fi network — along with a power adapter and an Ethernet cable for those users who prefer to use a wired connection. Circle isn’t intended to replace your Wi-Fi router, but instead becomes another device on your network, essentially intercepting any traffic bound for the Internet so it can apply it’s own filtering rules (if you’re curious about the technical details, Circle uses a technique known as ARP Spoofing to accomplish its magic).
As a result, Circle can monitor and intercept traffic from any device on your home network, regardless of whether it’s on a Wi-Fi or wired Ethernet connection, and regardless of which Wi-Fi band it uses; the only exception is that in some cases it won’t work with “guest” networks that can be set up on some routers, but we don’t really consider this to be a problem as it’s designed to monitor and manage your own family’s Internet access; in these cases you’ll just need to disable or lock down your guest network if you don’t want to make it too easy for your kids to bypass Circle’s filtering capabilities. It’s also worth mentioning that since the filtering works at the network communications level, no additional software needs to be installed on any of your devices.
Setting up Circle is simply a matter of plugging it in and loading up the companion iOS app, which will guide you through the process of pairing it to your Wi-Fi network, applying any necessary firmware updates, and creating a a Circle account with your phone number for authentication purposes — the final stage involves texting a four-digit access code to you via SMS to connect to the Circle; you can later give other family members access to manage Circle’s settings by having them install the app and providing them with the access code that gets sent to your phone. The initial hardware set up was very straightforward, although we were a bit disappointed that Circle required us to manually flip over to the iOS Settings app a couple of times, rather than using the more modern in-app Wi-Fi setup APIs, however while worth mentioning, it really wasn’t that big of a problem.
Once Circle has joined your Wi-FI network and you’ve set up your account, Circle will then take you through the process of setting up at least one initial family member. For each user, you’ll be prompted to add a name and photo to identity the family member (while the photo is optional, the Circle app is very graphical, so it’s a good idea to use one), assign one of five different pre-defined filter levels, set a bedtime, and then assign devices to that user. Four filter levels are provided to correspond to age groups — Pre-K, Kid, Teen, and Adult — with appropriate default content filters for each, while a fifth option — None — allows you to exempt that user’s devices entirely from any filtering or monitoring. Once you’re done adding family members, the Circle app will prompt you to select any devices that you want to be completely unmanaged by Circle, such as smart home devices, and will even attempt to identify these devices and pre-select them for you. Lastly, a “Home” profile is set up so you can apply general filters for devices that are used by the whole family; all new devices that join your network in the future will automatically be associated with this “Home” profile by default until you assign them elsewhere.
While each of the filter levels offers pre-defined controls appropriate for each age group, you can customize them individually for each family member to allow or block certain services and sites. A list of pre-defined “Platforms” such as Amazon, Disney, FaceTime, Hulu, Netflix, YouTube, etc., is included to allow you to easily turn those services on or off without having to know all of the various URLs that are used behind the scenes, followed by a list of predefined content categories that can be switched on and off, and a “Privacy and Safety” section allowing you to block ads and force Safe Search in Google and Restricted mode in YouTube. The younger filter levels also mandatorily block certain content categories — for example, the “Pre-K” level automatically blocks everything except for the “Kids” category, with Safe Search and ad-blocking enabled by default, while the “Kid” level automatically filters out social media sites. However, custom filters can be added at any level to either block or permit access to specific sites by URL.
In addition to filtering content, Circle also supports several features to control screen time. Each user can have a “BedTime” specified, which will cut off all Internet access from their devices at the specified time each day and an “OffTime” setting that allows you to block access to the Internet during specific time frames, on specific days of the week. Daily time limits can also be set up for each family member, controlling not only how much time they can spend online overall each day, but how much time they can spend performing specific online activities; the same filter platforms and categories appear here, so you could for example limit a child to only being on YouTube for 30 minutes and Netflix for 60 minutes each day, while not restricting their time using FaceTime or educational web sites at all. A “Pause” button in each user profile also allows you to manually suspend and resume that member’s Internet access at any time.
An “Insights” section shows a breakdown of how much time that family member has spent on each platform or in each category, summarized by day, week, or month, along with a breakdown of which web sites they’ve visited in each category. A detailed “History” view is also available to provide a list of which sites have been visited and which have been filtered. Note that for users with filters set to “None,” traffic can still be paused entirely, and bedtime and time-of-day restrictions can be applied, but platform/category time limits cannot be used and insights will not be available.
Family members trying to access blocked content through a web browser will be taken to a custom “dashboard” page telling them that they’ve been blocked and providing them with a snapshot of their daily usage, bedtimes, time limits, and so forth, followed by a collection of “safe” links that they can visit — all from Disney, of course. However, that’s the best-case scenario when accessing a typical site in a web browser. If you try to hit a blocked site that normally uses an HTTPS connection, your browser will more or less complain that your session is being hijacked (since it technically is), and of course trying to access blocked Internet services with specific apps will generally result in “No Connection” errors or possibly even more inscrutable messages, depending on the app involved. Of course, this is mostly just a question of aesthetics, and there’s little Circle can do here as it’s controlling the traffic and not the app; regardless of the error messages that the user sees, the desired end result is being achieved here in making sure they can’t access those particular parts of the Internet. A “My Circle” iOS app is available that can optionally be installed on your family’s iPads, iPhones, and iPod touch devices to provide a dashboard along with some notifications for things like time limits, but it won’t really help with error messages.
One important limitation to keep in mind here as well is that Circle filters per-device not per-user. The users in the Circle system are associated with specific hardware devices, and filters are applied to those devices regardless of who is using them. So if you have a family-shared iPad, or family-shared computer, you’ll either have to keep a fairly permissive set of filters configured for it or be content to toggle the filter settings depending on who is using it. Obviously this will be less of an issue if a shared device like an iPad is only used by family members in the same age group, although you’ll still run into issues if you’re planning to try and set time limits or monitor who went where.
About the only big feature we felt was missing here was the ability to vary filters based on time of day, rather than just setting outright time limits for each type of content. Currently, Circle’s time limits are an “all or nothing” feature, but it would be nice if there were a way to provide more restrictive filters for certain times of the day to allow kids to access the Internet to do homework while still otherwise limiting their opportunities for distraction from non-work-related sites and apps. That said, Circle is primarily a software platform tied into a hardware device, and the company has shown an impressive willingness to add interesting new features, so we wouldn’t rule it out entirely.
In fact, one such feature that Circle has recently announced is its expanded “Rewards” integrations. Circle offers a “Rewards” button whereby you can manually reward a family member by exempting them from time limits, OffTimes, or extend their bedtime, a recent update has laid the groundwork for a whole set of tie-ins with third-party apps to automatically unlock rewards and other possibilities. Kids can earn screen time by completing chores tracked using apps such as ChoreMonster, Mothershp, and Landra, and by meeting activity goals tracked with Misfit trackers, effectively turning screen time into a form of digital currency for kids. Other integrations include IFTTT support that will allow a wide variety of smart home apps and other things to be tied into Circle in both directions, turning lights on or off at a child’s bedtime, using a physical device as a “Pause” button, and even rewarding a child when something is checked off a to-do list. Circle is also adding Amazon Alexa integration so parents and kids can ask questions about usage time, time limits, and bedtimes, integration with Automatic to encourage safe driving by teens by filtering out specific distracting apps when the vehicle is running, and RAKKOON social network monitoring to alert parents and kids when questionable activity is happening on social networks, and auto-filter those apps when too much content is flagged.
For our more technical readers, it’s also worth adding that while Circle does impact network performance a bit for those devices that are being filtered, it’s surprisingly not that bad. You’ll definitely notice a difference if you’re running an 802.11ac router with a 200mbps+ Internet connection simply due to the fact that Circle only supports 802.11n Wi-Fi, but for the most part it’s not something that most families should need to be concerned about. Circle also provides an Ethernet cable in the box if you’d prefer to hardwire the device, but we found no need to do so, even on our relatively congested Wi-Fi network. In our speed tests, throughput over 802.11ac from our MacBook Pro and iPhone 7 Plus was cut in half due to being forced down to 802.11n speeds, but we couldn’t find any measurable performance drop from any of our 802.11n devices.
The good news, however, is that Circle only ARP spoofs devices where filtering is required. Those devices that have been completely exempted, and even those that are assigned to a user with filtering set to “None” will still send traffic directly to your router, unless that user’s traffic is manually paused or in a “BedTime” or “OffTime” window. We confirmed this by manually checking the ARP caches on several client devices in our testing — the original MAC address of our router appeared when filtering was set to “None” for that user, and updated to the MAC address of the Circle when any filters were applied to that user, or even simply when their Internet activity was manually paused. So in other words, if you’re concerned about Circle causing a performance hit there’s no need to worry at all — it’s essentially a passive device on your network for anything that’s not being specifically filtered, and chances are that most users won’t be applying filters to those devices where maximum throughput is desired.
Circle does a great job delivering on what it promises to do, as long as you go into it understanding that no system is foolproof, and Circle shouldn’t ever be considered a substitute for responsible parenting. While Circle has been designed to handle most obvious attempts to bypass it — for example, an internal battery will keep it running for several hours even if a clever kid thinks they can just unplug it — there’s still nothing here that a determined tech-savvy teenager won’t figure out how to work around, and that’s coming from someone who was a very determined tech-savvy teenager in his own day. Further, if your kids have devices such as iPhones and iPads that provide cellular capabilities, or your neighbours have open Wi-Fi networks, all bets are pretty much off on being able to completely lock them down. Circle offers its companion “Circle Go” VPN-based service for those situations, but unlike the one-time purchase of the Circle hardware device, you’ll pay $10/month for Circle Go, although that one monthly fee covers up to ten devices.
However, our take is that it’s best to see Circle in light of the old maxim that “locks are for honest people.” If you’re looking to “lock down” a rebellious or wayward teenager, this device is not going to solve your problems (although it still might be a useful tool in your arsenal). On the flip side, however, it may be exactly what you’re looking for if you just want to keep moderately curious young kids from stumbling into the darker corners of the Internet — something that can happen frighteningly easily these days if you simply give them unfettered access to a web browser and YouTube. Circle is a well-implemented solution that can definitely go a long way to helping you monitor and control your family’s Internet use, especially if you’re got younger kids with Wi-Fi-only devices, which, especially in light of the Disney branding, is who we really feel this device is targeted at anyway.