Last week, I had several conversations with other parents at my son’s school about technology, smart home stuff, and our kids. They were telling me about how they had a “Circle with Disney“, and how that made it so much easier to manage their kids’ time online. Normally, in a conversation like this, I tend to be the one sharing the merits of some technology (software or hardware) that is somehow simplifying my life. This time, however, I was on the other side of the conversation, and it was weird.
I’d never even heard of this device. (What is a Circle with Disney? I imagined it was a wi-fi router with Mickey’s ears that had simplified software for non-technical folks to understand.) Even if I haven’t tried something, I’ve usually heard of it, or at least the category. This one completely caught me off guard. So I checked it out.
It. Is. Awesome.
It’s about the size of a can of soda, and it manages and reports all of the activity and devices that are on your wi-fi network.
You’ve probably seen clever images like this making the rounds on your social media:
The idea behind changing the wifi password every day seems brilliant. “Kids, do your chores, and I’ll give you today’s password.”
In practical use, however, your kids aren’t the only ones using the wifi in your home. Your phone, your laptop, your television, your Xbox, your light switches, your lightbulbs, your thermostat, your garage door, maybe even your refrigerator are using it too! Nobody is going to change the wifi password on all of those devices every day, just to get their kids to do a few chores.
Circle solves that problem by giving you the ability to turn access to the Internet on and off for every single device (or person) on your network without any effort. This means you can set specific limits for each person or device in your home.
Setting Up Your Circle
When you first set up your Circle, you go through a quick five minute setup, and then the work really begins. You are presented with a list of every single device that is currently connected to your network.
I’d love to tell you that it automatically knows the name of every device on your network, and you won’t have to put on your Sherlock Holmes hat to figure some of them out, but I’d be lying to you. I know my home is far beyond the average, but I have 44 devices on my network currently. This includes:
- 4 iPads
- 3 iPhones
- 3 computers
- 2 light switches
- 2 Amazon Dash buttons
- 1 Garageio
- 1 Fitbit Aria Scale
- 6 Amazon Echo devices (Dot, Tap, Echo)
- 1 Nest thermostat
- 3 Rokus
- 2 Xbox Ones
- 1 Wii U
- 2 webcams
- 2 Apple TVs
- 2 Nintendo DSs
- 2 Amazon Kindles
- 2 wi-fi printers
- 2 televisions
- 1 Logitech Harmony remote
- a few wi-fi lightbulbs
Very few of them were obviously named, so I had to compare the MAC addresses to the Circle app to make sure I had the right one. Even the iPads only identified as an iPad, so I had to make sure I knew which one was which. Once you’re done with your sleuthing, however, it is magical, as you’ll see in the next section. (My recommendation is to go to your router’s home page, and turn a device completely off. If it disappears, that’s the one you were looking for. Turn it back on, and mark it accordingly.)
What Circle Can Do
To start, you set up all of the people that live in your home. For me, that’s my wife and my two children.
You’ll notice on most of the screens of the app, there’s a prominent PAUSE button available. This turns off Internet access for all of the devices in context. In the screenshot above, that would pretty much turn off everything that I’m managing with Circle. (You can have a list of “unmanaged devices” as well, that aren’t affected by your actions in Circle. This makes sense for things like your thermostat, which you’d never want to shut off unless your kids find a way to watch YouTube on it.)
You can also manage access on an individual level.
You can see above that I currently have five devices, and I don’t have many restrictions. I’ll take you briefly through each of the sections.
Insights is for seeing data. How much time a person was online, how much they used a certain app, etc. Here’s a screenshot of my activity today:
I can open each of those sections and dive into websites visited, time spent at each, etc. The downside to this, at least in my situation, is that if you have a browser tab open, it seems to count that as “activity.” It’s especially prevalent when that tab auto-refreshes, because even background activity will be considered activity. It is only monitoring the traffic from these devices, it isn’t checking to see what the traffic actually is.
The devices section just shows you all of the devices you’ve assigned to a specific person. It’s entirely up to you how you assign devices, but my personal rule was to classify anything that has one unique user to a person, and things like the Xbox One, which many people use, to my Home group instead.
Opening a specific device gives you the MAC address, as well as a place to edit the Device name. In most cases, the Manufacturer field will be filled in accurately, but not always. I wish they would allow you to edit the Manufacturer field as well, but they don’t. This is also where you can change where a device is assigned, or pause the access for this specific device. (Circle manages your wi-fi access. It does offer an add-on program for $10/month that can also manage your cellular access. I’m not using this, but I could see it being handy if you have a child that overuses data or spends time at school playing instead of learning.)
Filter level is simply some default settings for people of different ages. When the Circle detects a user trying to access content that isn’t appropriate for their filter level, it will present them with a webpage that lets them know the content has been filtered. It also restricts the apps/websites they can use, but you can customize all of it to fit your family’s needs.
As you’d imagine, Circle lets you set time limits for your users, and also by specific apps. Many children need access to the Internet to do their homework, but they don’t need to be on YouTube while that’s happening. This would allow you to limit their access to YouTube to 30 minutes a day, but their total time available could be more like three hours.
Bedtime is just another way to manage access times. You can set a time that everything shuts off for a specific person, so then when they’re supposed to be in their room sleeping, they’re not sneaking in another four hours of Netflix. Obviously, you can take the devices out of their rooms (as we do), but on the weekends, we tend to be a bit more lax. This lets you be as lax as you want.
Overall, the Circle is an amazing device for my home. Not only can I manage, view, and control what my children are accessing, but I also get this control for any additional devices that wander into my house, like the tablets and phones of their friends. It gives me the peace of mind that they’re not going to venture to places I don’t want them going. I don’t need angry neighbors asking why their child was watching something inappropriate at my house.
I get notifications every time a new device appears on my network, so there’s no way to sneak your way past the Circle, either.
Finally, I have to mention the Disney angle. I mentioned that this device is called Circle with Disney. It wasn’t obvious to me how Disney was even involved, other than the name. They basically provide a portal on your network at http://mycircle.meetcircle.com. If you go to that page from any of your devices, it will tell you the specifics about the controls on that device (bedtimes, time limits), as well as a bunch of Pinterest-style photos and links to Disney content. This seems to be the only real involvement by Disney, which is fine.