ByNeil J. Rubenking
Back in 2010, the Eyjafjallajökull volcano disrupted European air travel, 33 Chilean miners saw daylight after 68 days underground, and Safe Eyes enjoyed a reputation as a hot parental control program.
It had some then-unusual features, such as limiting children’s consumption of media based on ratings. McAfee bought the company and rereleased the product with a McAfee brand, but McAfee Family Protection 2.0 hasn’t changed much since.
The long-promised updated edition of McAfee’s parental control product should appear later this year.
That’s fantastic news, because the existing product is getting long in the tooth.
Your $49.99 yearly subscription lets you install McAfee Family Protection on up to three PCs, and configure up to 10 child profiles on those PCs.
The separate McAfee Family Protection for Mac offers most of the same features for three Macs.
That’s a bit different from most competing products, which tend to offer protection across multiple platforms.
For example, Qustodio Parental Control 2015 lets you protect five children on five devices (Windows, Mac, Android, iOS, and Kindle) for $44.95 per year.
A $39.99 subscription for ContentWatch Net Nanny 7 protects just one device, but for $79.99 you get ten licenses to use on your Windows, Mac, and Android devices, plus an all-family license for ContentWatch Net Nanny Social.
And Symantec Norton Family Premier ($49.99 per year) doesn’t impose any specific limit on number of devices or children, though it only supports Windows, Android, and (to a lesser extent) iOS.
Getting StartedTo get your installation of this product started, you redeem your registration code online and download McAfee Family Protection to your PC.
As noted, the license lets you install on a total of three PCs.
A setup wizard starts by letting you choose a protection level and gender for your PC’s administrator user.
The default low protection mode applied to this account does nothing but block pornography.
Most parents will probably go on to define a profile for each child.
This process starts with selecting a username which, in an odd twist, must be unique across all users of the service worldwide.
I found I could name an imaginary child Lommy, but Arya was already taken. You’ll have to find an available variation on your child’s name before you can proceed.
Define a password, add age, gender, and an optional email address, and you’re almost done.
To finish, you choose whether to configure this account based on age, or copy settings from an existing account.
With Symantec Norton Family Premier, Mobicip, and others, you configure each child’s profile online and associate that profile with any number of Windows user accounts or devices. McAfee works a bit differently.
If all users rely on the same Windows account, each user, whether child or parent, needs to log in before using the Internet and carefully log out when done.
If each child has a Windows user account, it’s possible to have McAfee log in automatically to the correct profile for each account.
Family SummaryTo manage your McAfee Family Protection configuration, you right-click the notification area icon and choose Open Administrator.
This brings up a multi-tabbed display that lets you view and modify settings for all family members.
The display starts with a Family Summary tab that lists all family members across the top.
Each column displays the family member’s status for each of 11 tracking areas, among them Websites, Online Games, and Time Limits.
In many cases you can click on an item to make large-scale settings.
For example, you can click on the Websites item in a child’s column to set content blocking to low, medium, high, or custom.
Down the left side, 11 tabs let you dig in for more detailed configuration.
You can also log in to your configuration online, though I had a tough time finding the correct URL.
There was no direct link from my online account to the management console.
Conveniently, the online configuration page looks and acts exactly like the local one.
Content FilteringWhen you initially set each child’s age, McAfee preselects an appropriate collection of content categories for blocking. You can also make your own choices from the 35 available categories, and choose whether or not McAfee should enforce Safe Search in search sites that support it.
In testing, McAfee’s content filter proved to be browser-independent, unlike Microsoft Family Safety for Windows 10, which only works in Windows Explorer and Microsoft Edge.
It resisted the simple three-word network command that caused it trouble when I first reviewed the product.
And it handled secure (HTTPS) websites, so your oh-so-clever teen can’t do an end-run around the content filter by using a secure anonymizing proxy.
When McAfee blocks a website, it warns the child that access is not permitted.
Clicking a link on the warning page displays the categories that triggered the content filter.
In this situation, Norton and Microsoft offer the child the option to send parents an email request for an exception; McAfee simply advises consulting the administrator.
When blocking a secure site, McAfee can’t display a warning in the browser.
The browser simply shows an error message, while a popup banner reports that an HTTPS site was blocked.
I found it odd that it repeatedly blocked Chrome’s sign-in page in this fashion.
And because the HTTPS banner offers no details, I had to dig deep to find out why Facebook was blocked even when I enable Social Networking.
It turns out that the Personal Info category also blocks Facebook.
Internet SchedulingOne way parents can take a hand in monitoring children’s Internet use is to just watch them while they’re online.
Are they giggling? Sniggering? Trying to hide the screen? That doesn’t work if the child gets online in the wee hours, so most parental control systems include the option to set a schedule for use of the Internet, the computer, or both.
For each child, you can define a weekly Internet usage schedule in half-hour increments.
The configuration process uses the familiar grid model, but dragging with the mouse “draws” on the grid rather than setting a rectangular block of times to allowed or blocked. You can also limit the number of hours the child can spend online every day.
And your kids can’t get around the scheduler by meddling with the system clock.
A child who has access to multiple PCs in the house could conceivably hit the time limit on one and just switch to the other. Norton also sets limits on a per-device basis, while Net Nanny’s daily time limits apply across all devices assigned to the child.
As for Qustodio, it can impose limits on each device or on all devices—your choice.
Videos, Music, and GamesThe strictest parents might forbid their children all access to websites offering videos, music, and games, on the basis that those sites contain some content that’s just not for kids. McAfee avoids that sort of draconian lockdown by letting parents limit media access based on official ratings.
On the videos tab, parents can choose to limit TV shows and movies based on ratings: TV-G and G, TV-PG and PG, TV-14 and PG-13, or no limits. Parents can also block inappropriate YouTube videos, and optionally lock down media players.
The Music Page doesn’t offer quite as much control. Parents can block access specifically to songs that are flagged as having explicit lyrics on the iTunes store. Peer-to-peer file sharing, which isn’t limited to music, can also be blocked here.
As for managing the children’s access to games, your choices are simple. You can block all online games, and optionally block gaming websites and Web-based games.
There’s no gaming control based on ratings by the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) or International Age Rating Coalition (IARC).
Blocking rated content is one area in which Microsoft Family Safety excels.
Instead of going to multiple pages for different content types, you simply select the child’s age.
Family Safety then chooses the appropriate maximum rating for apps, movies, TV shows, and games.
Email and Instant MessagingFor the very youngest kids, email tracking and control isn’t a worry (unless you’re using Microsoft Family Safety, which requires an email account for every child).
Even older kids are more likely to communicate via social media, instant messaging, or text.
But in case you need it, McAfee includes the ability to lock down SMTP/POP3 email and block access to Web-based email.
It also has the unusual ability to limit the child’s email contacts to a parent-approved list.
McAfee also has the nominal ability to capture IM conversations, block IM protocols, and block all Web-based IM programs and chat rooms.
That last feature is just an extension of content filtering, so it probably works fine.
But IM monitoring and blocking work only for Yahoo, MSN Live Messenger (which has been folded into Skype), and ICQ.
ICQ? Really? This feature in particular is showing its age.
Social TrackingNet Nanny Social is all about monitoring your children’s social media activity, as is MinorMonitor. Qustodio keeps a full timeline of your children’s Facebook activity. McAfee’s social network monitoring is both broader and more limited.
For each child, you define a number of personal data items that probably shouldn’t be posted on social media. Street address, home phone, cell phone, and school name are available by default. You can add other data items if desired.
And you can check boxes to save sexually suggestive or profane posts.
This feature applies to all posts on any websites, not just specific social media sites.
In testing, though, I couldn’t see this feature working at all. Looking back at my earlier review, it appears I had the same problem, though at the time it was blamed on Windows XP.
It seems that Facebook’s switch to all-HTTPS knocked this feature for a loop.
Other SettingsIf your child starts wildly trying to access inappropriate content, McAfee can send you an instant alert. You can choose three levels of sensitivity, and have alerts sent to one or more email addresses, or texted to one or more phone numbers. On receiving an alert, parents might choose to log into the online console and lock down access even further.
Instant alerts aside, parents can also choose to receive a daily or weekly summary of each child’s activity.
On the advanced settings tab, there’s an option to turn off content filtering for HTTPS websites; don’t do that! You can enhance McAfee’s forced Safe Search by blocking any search that includes profanity, sexual language, or a parent-defined collection of keywords.
In testing, I couldn’t make this feature work.
I defined “fnord” as a banned keyword for one child account, but had no trouble searching the phrase “fear the fnord.”
Buried in this tab are settings for program blocking.
This feature blocks all Internet access for specific programs and program types.
For example, you can block file sharing, email, and FTP, if you wish.
The dated program lists include a number of long-gone programs such as LimeWire and Morpheus. Want to block a custom program? You’ll have to right-click the notification area icon and find it in the list of programs that have accessed the Web.
Activity ReportsYou’ll find a tab for activity reports in the configuration dialog, but no access to the reports themselves.
To get at those reports, you’ll go once again to the right-click menu of McAfee’s icon in the notification area. On the Activity Reports page you can select any use and pick a date range; the default range just covers today.
The websites page reports the number of sites allowed and blocked, lists the top sites visited, and graphs online activity for different times of day.
It also reports the child’s latest Web searches. You can dig in for a full list of blocked sites and click any of them to see what category triggered the block.
Another page lists all games and programs used by the child during the specified period. You might think you could right-click an item in this list to add it to the blocked list; you’d be wrong. Likewise there’s no easy way to block a website from the allowed list or whitelist a site found on the blocked list.
Other pages report on video, music, email, IM, and social networking activity.
As noted, I didn’t find that McAfee actually captured social networking messages that included the too-personal data I specified.
Wait for the UpdateMcAfee Family Protection 2.0 is a blast from the past.
Its features were top-notch five years ago; today they’re a bit dusty. My McAfee contacts would have preferred that I simply ignore it until the new, shiny version comes out later this year, but I couldn’t do that. Rest assured, when the new edition comes out, it will have my undivided attention.
For now, skip this product and instead choose one of our three Editors’ Choice products for parental control and monitoring.
They are: ContentWatch Net Nanny 7, Qustodio Parental Control 2015, and Symantec Norton Family Premier.