There’s no shortage of hand-wringing over the amount of time kids (these days!) spend on their phones. Indeed, in my household, the youngest tech reviewer practically has her phone fused to her hand. She regularly stays up late chatting with friends, and she’s always got one eye on the screen. If her phone dies, she immediately leaps for a power cord.
There’s also no shortage of proposed tech solutions for parents desperate to pry their kids’ attention from TikTok or protect them from unsavory corners of the web. Parental controls on both Apple and Android phones are standard now, and they work fine at a basic level, but they’re not difficult for smart kids to evade. Also, if your child has multiple devices, they each have to be set up individually. That’s a pain, and many kids are simply unwilling to allow parental control over their devices.
The solution to the last point is beyond the scope of this review, but if you can hurdle that challenge, Circle Home Plus offers a parental control solution that can block entire categories of websites, filter content based on age level and set time limits for an unlimited number of devices, including Mac and Windows computers and both iOS and Android devices. The downside is that it’s expensive and doesn’t seem to offer a truly compelling benefit over things like Apple’s Screen Time and Google’s Family Link options.
The Circle Home Plus ($129) is a combined hardware/software solution, and setup is a bit involved. First, you have to download the Circle Plus app on your own device, select the Parent App option, create your account and select the Circle Plus Home option. Then you need to set up the Home Plus device (the included white cube), which connects to your router via ethernet to manage every internet-connected device on your home network. Then you need to install the app on your kids’ devices and follow the directions for installing virtual private networks to control the device. Then you need to set up the various filters and limits. This is not a quick process.
That said, one of the selling points of Circle Home Plus is that you can control everything — and we mean anything from phones to computers to media streamers to thermostats — from the app on your phone … once you set up child accounts for other devices, of course. The Home Plus device also includes a battery backup that will keep the service running for an hour or two even if it’s unplugged by sneaky kids. (You’ll get an alert on your phone app that someone is messing with the cube if that happens.)
Circle Home Plus includes a number of functions to limit content and screen time for managed devices. It offers time limits, usage and history of sites and apps used, and robust content filtering for anything from adult sites to games to chat apps to social media and everything in between. You can set it to block the internet at certain times, like bedtime or dinnertime, and even set up what it calls focus time. This is presumably for adults working or kids doing homework since it limits the types of sites you can access to what Circle considers work- and school-related sites. All of these can be customized as well.
Finally, there’s a nifty reward system. For instance, say your kid does her homework quickly and well. You can reward her with, say, 45 minutes of game time even if she’s in a homework focus time.
The parental account has a dashboard in the app to see what sites kids are visiting, what’s being allowed, what’s being filtered and so on. Kids can see what their filter level is, how much time they have left on the internet, a countdown until bedtime (if you’ve set it), how much time they’ve used the device and any rewards you might have given them.
Circle Home Plus adds a hefty dose of convenience for managing a large household of kids and gadgets, but it doesn’t really do much beyond what iOS, Google and Android parental controls offer. That said, the convenience factor of being able to manage every device your kid has in a single app is nice.
Second, it’s not cheap. The kit costs $129. That includes a free year of the Circle subscription, which gives you access to all the traffic control functions. But after that, the subscription is $9.99 per month, $29.99 for three months or $89.99 per year. If you have a number of kids with multiple devices, it might be worth it. But if you have a smaller brood, the cost might seem a little high.
Third, and this isn’t limited to just Circle, but a determined kid could probably find ways around this. The latest versions of iOS and Android both offer private IP addresses, which discourage tracking of the device on the internet. But it can also befuddle the Circle Plus Home device, which expects a consistent, public IP address. Also, Android users can switch user accounts to evade detection. Both platforms offer ways to prevent the deletion of the Circle app, but if kids are determined to find a way around it, they probably can.
Fourth, Circle collects a lot of data about you and every device on the network, “which may include, without limitation, Navigational Information and Network Preferences. … Navigational information refers to information about Your device and operating system and Your interaction with the Services, including but not limited to: Your IP address, device model and version, the date and time of the visit to Our Services and how long You remained on Our Services, the referral URL (the site from which you came), the pages visited on Our Services, browser type and version, operating system, browser history, Your Device ID, and geographical location.” While Circle’s privacy statement is clear, the amount of data collected still seems excessive.
Finally, and this might be a nit to pick, would it kill Circle to make a web app available to manage things? You can only access the service and manage devices on your parental phone.
Circle has a unique value in allowing you to manage lots of devices in a single app that provides kids with good, but not groundbreaking, protection from the wilder parts of the internet. It also allows parents to impose some digital discipline on their tweens and teens who might not be able to admit that checking their phones every 10 seconds is a problem. But you’ll need the child’s cooperation to install all the necessary functions on the phone, including the iOS or Android parental controls that limit their ability to bypass Circle’s limits.
$129.99 with one year of Circle subscription included
|Circle Plus Home dimensions||
3.25 x 3.25 x 3.25 inches
2.4Ghz Wi-Fi (802.11 b/g/n)
iOS 13 or newer