Have you ever wondered just how much time you’ve accidentally sunk into Instagram or Facebook in one day? Or how much time your kids have actually been playing Minecraft or watching Youtube videos?
Our family found a little white box that can reveal that information and let you take control of it for better balance in your household.
Circle with Disney
For the past few years, I’d been using OpenDNS Home to block specific types of websites and was fairly pleased with what it offered. The service was free, required a little technical knowledge to get set up, and provided a decent, crowd-sourced, category-based filtering system that would allow you to block certain things for everyone on your network.
While I know one is not to look a gift horse in the mouth, I found OpenDNS’ free Home service a bit lacking in that I couldn’t block sites or categories for specific people. When my wife or I needed to whitelist a site… it was whitelisted for the entire network. Additionally, we ran into an issue a few times where our cable modem’s IP address would change and suddenly OpenDNS was blocking nothing1.
About a year ago, I even chatted up a couple tech-savvy friends about attempting to collaborate on a better solution for our families:
Sadly, we never pulled anything off.
Thankfully, my wife discovered Circle this summer and we headed to our local Target to see if they had any.
Circle is a small, unassuming box you can add to your home network in order to “filter content your kids can access, limit screen time, and set a bedtime for every device in the home” (even your own ;)).
Laptops, Desktops, Tablets, Game Consoles, Streaming Boxes, Smart TVs, Smartphones, iPods, Printers… the Circle sees them all and you can decide which ones you want to manage and to what extent.
Here’s a quick feature overview
- Device Management
- Internet Filtering (ad block, category-based filters, Google Safe Search, YouTube restricted)
- Time limits for specific apps/categories… and overall daily activity
- Bedtime schedule
- Internet pause button (Immediately pause one person’s access to the internet on any of their devices, or pause everyone in the house)
There’s a one-time purchase price for the hardware: $99; no recurring service fees. We bought ours at Target, but you can pick one up at Best Buy or Amazon as well.
According to their Facebook page, they happen to be on sale right now for $15 off.
One of the features that attracted me to the Circle was the fact that my wife and I could add ourselves to the mix. We knew we spend more time on our phones or computers than we’d like to admit. We hoped we could leverage this device to pursue a better balance of connected time vs disconnected.
The iOS app provides Insights for each profile and allows parents to view total time spent on apps or categories, sites visited, and sites that have been filtered or blocked. This information can be the basis for good conversations about how we’re spending our time throughout the day and potential changes we need to make.
It’s also been fantastic for the kids. When they hit their limit for ‘online games’ in a day, we’ll find them in their room playing with Lego or -gasp- cleaning their desk.
With this solution in place, it’s easy to set limits for specific apps or categories and then put the thing down when you get notified that you’ve burned away your 30 minutes2 per day on Instagram or Facebook. It’s also been fantastic for the kids – and since the Circle controls the limits – we parents aren’t ‘the bad guy’. When they hit their limit for ‘online games’ in a day, we’ll find them in their room playing with Lego or -gasp- cleaning their desk. Perhaps our family is odd… but we all seem to have adjusted to our limits really well. I honestly think it’s because we all know ‘the why’.
That being said, none of these limits are set in concrete or unchangeable. One of the things we discussed with the kids is that this tool has been added to our home in a pursuit of balance – not as a way to penalize any of us. It’s completely acceptable for them to hit their usage limit for the day, and then come ask us for more time. If it fits with what the rest of the family is doing that day, we’ll say yes and adjust the time limit.
Who & When
In the 4 months we’ve used it, Circle has definitely been an incredibly valuable addition to our home. It’s on 24/7 and has been useful to both kids and parents… and even some guests!
While at work one day, I got a notification on my phone from the Circle Home app that a new device had connected to our network. Based on the detected name of the device, I could tell it was one of my son’s friends. I was able to quickly add it to a ‘Guest Kid’ profile that was pre-set with a decent set of appropriate filter/limits and then get back to my day.
Now, the likelihood of that child seeing something online they shouldn’t while at my house was drastically reduced.
That’s a huge win.
So how does it work?
There are two apps available for use with the Circle. Circle Home is meant for parents. MyCircle can be used by everyone.
Circle Home app
Note: I’ve only used the iOS version of the Circle Home app, but I’d imagine the Android version is pretty comparable.
The Circle Home app is basically the Admin console/tool for your Circle. I really dig that more than one person/parent can have the app installed to manage the Circle and I dig that it’s secured. When we first set ours up, it gave us the option to set a 4 digit passcode to keep our kids from monkeying with settings when they find your phone lying on the counter. A couple weeks after we started using it, they added TouchID support so we can log in with a fingerprint.
Each person in the house should have a profile. The profile gets assigned to all the devices that person uses and is where content filters, time limits, bedtimes, and off times get set.
The “with Disney” part
If there’s anything about Circle that garners a “meh.” it’s the Disney part. I’m surprised this even gets included in the product name. It’s so minor and barely compelling at all.
That being said, I should at least mention that this is the app that kids can quickly see their current time usage and other profile settings – as well as get notifications when they hit their time limits or the internet has been paused.
This solution only works while you are connected from within your home network. It works very well for parents of kids that have wifi-only devices and do not have phones yet. If your children have phones and turn off their wifi, they will no longer be protected/managed by the Circle. However, they do offer a Circle Go service to extend your protection to up to 10 devices for $9.95/mo regardless of where you’re connecting from.
We haven’t needed to cross that bridge yet, so I can’t tell you how well Circle Go works.
We’ve used our Circle for 4 months and it’s been really stable. We’ve seen several improvements to the app/service and my wife and I are really pleased with it.
The physical device itself is small enough to put pretty much anywhere in your home. We have it tucked away in our entertainment center near the rest of our home network equipment.
The Circle can operate via a wireless or wired connection. The initial setup process requires wireless, but we found that with a wired connection, we don’t see as much of a performance hit. Yes, there’s a small performance hit with all the filtering/measuring/hocuspocusing it’s doing.
We think it’s totally worth it.
Their December 12th update adds a couple great new features!
- OffTime – schedule daily, internet-free times for homework, dinner, or chores
- Rewards – bump up the daily time limit, delay bedtime a bit, or disable OffTime for the day
The rewards feature is awesome! We love rewarding our kids.
Update … again!
they keep making this product even better!
A recent update added something called “Connections”. They’re working on adding in some integrations to other apps/services:
Now you can do even more with your Circle. Circle Connections enables your family to connect your favorite devices, apps, and services to do things like reward screen time for chores, disable distracting apps while driving, and even ask Alexa questions about your Circle.
Update … 2017 0410
They just added Weekend Time Limits (separate from Weekday), Unmanaged Filter Level (i.e. don’t limit music), 45 New Platforms, and Backup & Restore profiles.