Norton Family's free parental controls are easy to use and have an array of features, like setting computer time restrictions as well as monitoring social media networks, instant messaging and cell phones. While the program is limited, cash-strapped parents will appreciate the peace of mind that Norton Family (formerly called Norton Online Family) offers.
Tailored restrictions, permissions and profiles. While Net Nanny (Est. $40) draws the most respect in reviews, critics say Norton Family (previously Norton Online Family) is a solid choice for parents looking for free parental control software. This web-based program protects Macintosh computers and Android devices in addition to Windows PCs. You'll also have to install a small software client on each protected device, but experts say setup is easy overall.
Norton Family can be added to an unlimited number of devices via your free, web-based Norton account. You'll be able to set up password-protected profiles for each child; Norton encourages parents to discuss these restrictions with their children. Norton Family suggests a set of rules and restrictions based on the users' ages, but they are entirely customizable. You can also set other restrictions, like blocking or restricting access to sites based on dozens of categories (everything from porn to military) and setting time limits for computer usage immediately after installation or any time thereafter.
Monitors searches, IMs, social networks. Norton Family sets time limits for users and filters inappropriate content (based on the child's age) while they browse the web and social networking sites on PCs, Macs and Android devices. You can block access to sites from nearly 50 categories. The web-based activity report for each user only keeps online data logs for a week, but Norton Family sends email alerts when questionable behavior arises, like if your kid manages to visit a blocked website. A free app (available for Android and iOS) lets you track your kid's activities on your Norton account via your mobile device. Springing for Norton Family Premier (Est. $50) extends the data logs to three months and opens a host of other protection options -- for example, blocking text messages on Android phones and weekly or monthly in-depth reports delivered to your email.
A comprehensive FAQ section and help forums are available at the Norton Family website, but receiving live help from Norton technical support requires paying somewhat hefty fees for NortonLive Services. Rather than simply monitor or block access to sites -- or outright spy on children -- Norton Family creates "house rules" that encourage parents to talk to their kids about the restrictions the program will place on their activities and how to browse and communicate safely. This communications-centered approach, Wired.com asserts, is "the most important piece of the puzzle. No software will instill the ideals and behavior you want your children to have online."
Decent filters and controls, but with limitations. Norton Family filters web content effectively and blocks sites when children try to enter personal information -- such as phone numbers -- into search fields. Norton also monitors, but does not filter, instant messaging software, email and social media applications. (The same goes for Android text messages in the free version of Norton Family; they can be blocked with the paid product.) Instant messages can't be monitored on Macs. Safari users will only have access to web filtering and blocking.
One major drawback is Norton's ineffectiveness against circumvention technology. The software doesn't include real-time dynamic content analysis and can be bypassed by HTTPS encryption and the use of proxy software, according to an older review by PCMag.com. Google Play users give the Android app a paltry 2.9 out of 5 rating, claiming that it won't block or filter content, though many praise the desktop version. Norton Family hasn't generated many professional test-based reviews, however.
Neil Rubenking technically covers the premium version of Norton Online Family software (since renamed Norton Family), but the bulk of the review covers features available in the free version as well. While he's disappointed that the software can't protect against proxies and HTTPS encryption, he calls the parental controls "full-featured" and impressive overall. He gives the program a 4-star rating out of a possible 5.
Review: Norton Online Family Premier, Neil J. Rubenking, Nov. 9, 2010
This review isn't as extensive as PCMag.com's coverage, but it's full of hands-on insight nonetheless. Giancaspro appreciates the $0 price tag and the fact that Norton Family offers much more than just time-limit and web-filtering support. "Overall I felt the product was easy to set up and did its job well," he writes.
Review: Norton Online Family Review, Dave Giancaspro, May 24, 2010
3. Google Play
Over 400 reviewers give Norton Family's Android app an overall rating of 2.9 out of 5 stars. Many users complain that the Android app doesn't filter as well as the desktop version -- or at all.
Review: Norton Family Parental Control, Contributors to Google Play, As of April 2013
Norton Family is number one in this roundup of free software and deemed "a powerful parental control system with plenty of very useful features." Editors don't conduct in-depth tests, though.
Review: Best Free Parental Control Software: 9 Programs to Keep Your Kids Safe, Mike Williams, March 25, 2013
Honkiat.com is a site geared toward web designers and developers. Norton Family is included in this roundup of Mac-friendly parental control software. Editors praise Norton Family for making it "easy for you to block, monitor and receive alerts on your child's online activities."
Review: 10 Parental Control Apps for Mac, Editors of Honkiat.com, Undated
6. PC Advisor
The reviews in this article are very brief and are not based on formal tests nor are products rated. Norton Online Family is at the top of the list.
Review: The Five Best Free Parental Control Programs, Carrie-Ann Skinner, June 15, 2011