Microsoft Family Safety Review | PCMag
Most modern parental control software focuses on mobile devices, but desktop monitoring is important too. Microsoft Family Safety is ideal for parents looking for help with web filtering, screen time restrictions, and app monitoring on Windows computers. Microsoft Family Safety is available for mobile platforms too; it offers well-functioning location features, but web filtering and device-level screen time restrictions for monitored Android devices don’t work. For iOS, the location features function well, but app blocking and web filtering are not available on that platform. The software also lacks social media monitoring of any kind, making it a less-than-ideal pick for most parents.
How Much Does Microsoft Family Safety Cost?
Microsoft Family Safety is free and includes location tracking, web filtering, app blocking, and usage scheduling for up to six family members under a single account login. Alternatively, you can subscribe to Microsoft 365 Family for $99 per year. That subscription is the multi-user version of Microsoft 365 Personal and gives up to six users access to all Microsoft’s Office apps, plus 1TB of OneDrive storage each. In terms of parental control features, a Microsoft 365 Family subscription unlocks location alerts (Microsoft’s version of geofencing), Drive Safety reports, and Drive History. If you already subscribe to Microsoft 365 Family, then these extras are an excellent bonus, but I wouldn’t recommend paying that cost solely for those features.
Microsoft Family Safety is most similar to Google Family Link and Apple’s Screen Time solutions. For more, you can check out our in-depth comparison of those three services. Norton Family is more expensive ($49.99 per year) than Microsoft Family Safety and covers an unlimited number of devices. Kaspersky Safe Kids charges only $14.99 per year and supports an unlimited number of child devices. Editors’ Choice pick Qustodio organizes its paid subscription plans by family size, with Small (five devices), Medium (10 devices), and Large (15 devices) choices. These plans cost $54.95, $96.95, and $137.95 per year, respectively. Two-part hardware and software solution Circle Home Plus is more expensive; the device costs $129 and includes a one-year premium membership, but after that, you need to pay $9.99 per month to maintain the service on an unlimited number of devices.
Microsoft Family Safety runs on Android, Apple, Windows, and Xbox devices. You can’t monitor macOS computers with Family Safety, but parents can access the web dashboard and make changes to the rules from their Macs. Web filtering, app blocking, and screen time scheduling do not work on iOS devices. To test Microsoft Family Safety’s Windows capabilities, we used a desktop PC running Windows 10. For evaluating the app on mobile, we used a Samsung A71 5G running Android 11, an iPhone XS running iOS 14.7, and an iPhone 12 Mini running iOS 14.7.
Setup and Devices
You need to invite each person you want to monitor to be a part of your online family. Use an email address, phone number, or create an Outlook account for each member. Once each family member (up to 6 people) accepts the invitation, you can turn on activity reporting and web filtering for their devices, set screen time limits, track their location, and observe their driving habits. All the restrictions placed upon a family member’s activity show up on their dashboard on the Microsoft Family Safety app or website, adding a layer of transparency to the monitoring process. Norton Family’s House Rules section offers a similar level of transparency.
The Microsoft Family Safety app is available on the Google Play Store; both parents and children use the same app. You need to grant various permissions on Android, including apps with usage access and accessibility access, a process that requires physical access to the mobile device. This is a chance for you to set up your child’s phone or computer with their help and explain why you are placing restrictions on it.
Make sure to lock down the Android settings with a password and disable the Guest account on the phone. Otherwise, kids can defeat parental controls by using the Guest account.
For iOS monitoring, you need to download the Microsoft Family Safety app from the App Store. Change your location settings to Always Allow, and then you’re ready to go. Because the primary function of the iOS app is location monitoring, it doesn’t require an MDM profile to work, unlike many other parental control programs.
For Windows 10 devices, you need to make a separate login for the monitored child on the computer. Add the child to your family by clicking the plus sign beside your avatar on the dashboard. Enter the child’s email address and specify that they are a member of the family. Family Safety then sends an email invitation for them to join the family. Once the child logs in on their account and clicks the link in their inbox, desktop alerts inform the child that monitoring is active. Make sure your child is not an admin on Windows, or they will still be able to install apps without restrictions.
The Microsoft Family Safety dashboard is bright, white, and spacious, with cheerful graphics and green accents. All the elements are consistent, and the organization is excellent.
Navigate the interface using the text options on the left-hand menu: Overview, Screen Time, Content Filters, Spending, and Find Your Child. At the bottom of the dashboard, there is a section called Help with Microsoft family features that directs you to Help pages for tasks like setting screen time limits and setting app and game limits. At the top of the screen, you can access your Microsoft Account Info, Privacy, Security, Rewards, Payment & Billing, Devices, and Family. The Privacy section allows you to manage your activity reporting and opt-out of data sharing with Microsoft. On the Security page, you can enable two-factor authentication for your account.
As with Qustodio, you need to specify a name, birth year, and avatar for your child when you add them to your Microsoft Family Safety. When you enter an email address or create an Outlook account for each family member, all that information is required and populates the profile automatically. If your child is under 13 years old, Microsoft Family Safety will not allow them to set up their profile. The parent will need to sign in and give their consent to allow the child to make a profile on the app.
To change restrictions for a child, navigate to the Family section, and click More options under the Child’s name. You navigate this area with six menu items: Screen Time, Content filters, Spending, Find [Child] on a map, Xbox online settings, and Remove from the family group. You can click into most of these sections to see more entries. From the Overview page, you can filter the data to show the last day or the past seven days. The Overview dashboard is interactive too, so, for example, you can block or allow apps right from this screen.
Microsoft Family Safety’s web filtering only works with the Microsoft Edge browser. Many common and uncommon browsers are blocked by default on child profiles for both mobile and desktops, including Chrome, UC Browser, Opera, Firefox, Brave, and DuckDuckGo Browser. Check out our list of alternative web browsers and add them to your block list. You can also block and allow specific web addresses from the dashboard. Unlike Qustodio and Norton Family, Microsoft Family Safety does not list the categories of websites it blocks by default. Net Nanny allows you to restrict sites by keywords.
While testing Family Safety’s web filtering on Android using the Edge browser, I visited various websites about guns, a commonly blocked category, without any restrictions whatsoever. After browsing mature websites freely for several minutes, I checked to see if the activity was being monitored by the app, and none of the websites I visited showed up on the dashboard, which is unacceptable. When I reached out to a company representative about this flaw, they said, “The team is investigating but have not heard or encountered this problem.” I have not heard anything further at the time of publishing.
Web filtering works better on Windows 10. Family Safety blocked me from visiting some sites with mature content, but I was still able to navigate to sites like guns.com, which are usually prohibited by parental control software. You can restrict access to all websites by blocking the Microsoft Edge browser app.
Time Usage Limits
Screen time limits in Microsoft Family Safety allow you to set a cap on device usage for each day of the week. You can set one schedule across all devices or set limits for individual devices. In testing, I gave my fictional child a limit of 15 minutes of screen time per day on their Android device. When the time was up, nothing happened. I could still use every app as per usual. Qustodio locks down the device when the allotted screen time expires.
Determined to make the screen time restriction feature work on Android, I navigated to the Apps and Games section of the web dashboard. Here, you can set a limit on an app-by-app basis if your child tends to use one or two apps much more than others. I set a limit of 15 minutes on Instagram and that limit worked as expected; I was unable to open Instagram without parental permission after hitting that time limit. Locategy and Qustodio also let you set time limits for individual apps.
The workaround I described above is not ideal, and when I asked a Microsoft representative about the screen time limiting issue with Android, they said, “Screen time limits work on apps and games on Windows, Xbox, and Android, and device limits work on Xbox and Windows.” Microsoft is basically saying here that device limits don’t work on Android, so that’s why my tests did not work.
On Windows 10, the device screen time limits work as expected. I set a time limit of 15 minutes for my fictional child, and after minutes ticked away, a “Time’s Up!” notification popped up, and the computer locked.
For app blocking on Android and Windows devices, navigate to the App and Games section within the Content Filters and Screen Time tabs. Here, you determine the age rating of new apps your child downloads from the Microsoft Store and Play Store, as well as block apps that are already installed on the device.
For any app entry on the list, you can set a time limit for the app (as mentioned) or just block it completely. I had no issues blocking apps on our Windows and Android test devices. There’s also an app whitelist, for apps parents have approved in the past. When a child tries to access a blocked app, a pop-up window directs them to ask for permission to access the app in question. Parents grant or deny requests from the web dashboard or the Android and iOS apps.
In testing, app blocking worked as expected on Windows 10. The functionality for Android worked well, except for filtering apps based on age rating. I was able to download and install Snapchat, which had a Teen rating on the Google Play Store, on a phone configured to allow only app downloads appropriate for an 8-year-old.
Speaking of social media, Microsoft Family Safety does not monitor or filter social media posts of any kind. Qustodio and Kaspersky Safe Kids both monitor child activity on YouTube and allow parents to see searches and viewing history. In the future, I hope to see some kind of social media monitoring from Microsoft Family Safety.
Location tracking only works with the Microsoft Family Safety app for Android and iOS devices (not Windows devices). From the web, you cannot monitor location tracking. You are directed to download the mobile app to see where your family members’ locations.
On the Android app, tap the Maps tab to get to the Location Monitoring section. From the Settings menu, a child can choose if they want to share their location with the rest of the family.
There is also a section called Arrives and Departs, which is Microsoft Family Safety’s version of geofencing. This is limited to Microsoft 365 Family subscribers. Geofencing defines a virtual boundary around a geographic place. With Arrives and Departs, you choose whether to receive alerts when a family arrives or departs from a designated address. This is helpful when making sure your child is in school all day and goes home immediately afterward.
The size of the boundary is not disclosed by Microsoft, but I received a Departure alert after I traveled about a mile away from my home (once I specified my address as a location).
Boomerang supports geofencing on Android devices, and with it, you can draw custom boundaries around a location. Kaspersky Safe Kids allows you to set up a schedule for when your child should remain within the geofence. Locategy tracks your child throughout the day with a series of dots on a map, so you can see their route to and from school, for example.
Drive Safely with Drive Safety
A unique feature for Microsoft Family Safety is Drive Safety, which is also limited to Microsoft 365 Family users. I haven’t seen this feature in any of the other parental control software solutions I’ve reviewed. The monitored teen has to turn the feature on themselves and choose whether to let the family group see where they are going and whether they are braking hard or accelerating quickly while they drive. The Drive Safety feature could help parents of new drivers, providing peace of mind while their teen roams the roads, though some may find it invasive.
To test this feature, I took my Samsung A71 5G on a car trip a few miles away from my home. The phone was in the passenger seat for the duration of the journey. According to the app, on the 2.3-mile trip, I got up to 42 mph and accelerated rapidly twice, with no hard braking and no phone usage. I’ve been accused of having a lead foot before, so this isn’t surprising, but it does seem like the app is very sensitive to movement. The app’s map shows dots where the rapid acceleration occurred.
Microsoft Family Safety on Mobile
Microsoft Family Safety is the app name to look for in the Google Play Store and App Store. The Android app is white with green accents. On Android, the app is well-organized and functional. With an organizer account (parent account) you can view your family on the default screen and set up another user profile with the button at the bottom of the page. You cannot delete family members or their devices from the app. Instead, you need to use Family Safety’s web dashboard to do so.
When you tap a family member’s name or avatar, the app takes you to their profile page, which shows their screen time, drive safety, and content filter activity from today or the last seven days. The gear icon in the top right corner of the screen takes you to a page where you can toggle on and off the activity reporting, app and game limits, web and search filter, and age filter for each family member. Location features are up next. The Share Your Location and Drive Safety features are both controlled by each family member independently, so you cannot toggle them on and off, even as an organizer. I think this is an excellent choice because it gives the monitored person some sense of control.
The Microsoft Family Safety app for iOS is similar in appearance and functionality. The iOS app tracks location data for Apple and Android devices. You can also set time limits and block apps for Android devices from the iOS app. Additionally, you can view child data such as screen time, drive safety, and content filters for each monitored child.
Apple’s free built-in parental control function called Screen Time is a better option for Apple device users because it has screen time monitoring, app blocking, and web filtering capabilities for iOS and macOS devices. It’s best to skip the paid apps if your kids have Apple devices.
Surface-Level Parental Control
Microsoft Family Safety is a parental control option best suited for small families with children who use Windows computers. Web filtering did not work on Android phones in testing and the app also does not attempt to monitor any social media platforms. The unique Drive Safety feature and location tracking capabilities are effective but could be improved by allowing for geofencing customizations.
Qustodio continues to be our Editors’ Choice winner for the parental control software category because of its simplicity and effectiveness. That service offers robust time restrictions, geofencing tools, and app-blocking on both web and mobile platforms.
The Bottom Line
This free parental control solution has slick-looking web and app design, but its drawbacks include limited functionality for mobile users and a lack of social media monitoring tools.
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