A lot of our readers have been asking us about Circle with Disney, a new device on that market designed to connect to your WiFi specifically to help parents monitor their kids’ internet usage and manage screen time. We were really curious about how it works and effectiveness, and so far, I’ve been very impressed by some of its functionality and how easy it is to use.
So after trying a unit sent for review consideration, here’s my honest breakdown of Circle with Disney, for you fellow digital parents who could use the help.
Circle With Disney: What Is It?
Interestingly, this is the third product of its kind I’ve reviewed in recent weeks; the other two being Luma and Torch. However those devices are each WiFi routers with device management capabilities built-in. Circle works separately from your existing router. The modern looking and conveniently compact Circle gadget (which is not actually circular, by the way) connects to your home’s Wifi network to accesses all the information that travels over it. So to be clear, it is not a router, but a complementary device that specifically acts as an “information guardian,” providing insight into every single device that’s on the same network.
Where you step in is taking the insight provided by Circle with Disney, then applying your own guidelines for your kids’ to help keep a closer eye on your kids’ screen time and internet choices. I really like that aspect of it.
It’s a snap to get things going, with the very simple Circle mobile app for iOS. (Apologies to Android users, however it looks like they’re working on a version for you to come out in 2016.) It all takes just a few minutes and requires nothing more than pairing the unit with your WiFi network, no software downloads or subscriptions required.
After that however there’s a more detailed set-up process that allows to customize settings per kid and per gadget so that you get it working for you the way you wanted it.
Putting Circle with Disney to Work
Customizing each individual profile definitely takes some time because there are so many options for managing screen time in your house based on the age ranges of your kids.
The general age categories are set for Pre-K, Kid; Teen, and Adult — I guess if you want to manage your own Internet usage too which may not be a bad idea for some parents!
Each category then offers relevant, age-appropriate content that users can access, like Disney (I know, you’re shocked) and PBS for pre-K; up to social networks like and Facebook and Instagram for teens. Nope, no Snapchat.
I love that you can get super specific with your controls. Like if you want to allow your tween only one hour of Facebook a day plus one hour of Netflix; your 8-year-old only one hour of Minecraft; and your 4-year-old only a 1/2 hour of the PBS Kids app, you can do that. You can also set more general guidelines for overall screen time, like allowing two hours per day per kid, or whatever you think is appropriate.
You can also limit yourself to say an hour a day of Pinterest (ha) which actually might be interesting should you be one of those users who finds yourself down the rabbit hole and suddenly you blink and it’s two hours later.
You have full reign over how much access each user has, how long you want them to be on devices as a whole, and you can even set bedtime and wake-up timeframes so there’s no sneaking videos at 5AM. Unless you want that, so they stay in bed a little longer.
Similar to Luma and Torch, you can also pause the internet entirely, even remotely from your mobile app, so no one can get online at all. That’s something I’d like to do during mealtimes and grandparent visits.
What’s really interesting though is that you can create limits for every single gadget in the house on your WiFi network — even smart home devices, though I’m not quite sure how many people have the need to monitor and limit their Belkin WeMo Crockpot usage. The best application seems to be that if you hve a kid who tries to beat the system and use someone else’s phone, tablet, or PC, you have power over everything. You even get a notification if someone sneaky should try to turn off Circle altogether.
Circle with Disney Helps Kids, Too
Since data is continually monitored, you can keep a running tally of how much time your children have spent on devices. But what I think is even better over the long run, is that you can provide kids with insights into their own habits. It might be a rude awakening for those Minecraft devotees! But isn’t the real win for parents when kids start to be be able to self-regulate? We all want our kids to grow into self-sufficient young adults who make good choices about all kinds of things, and it’s like training wheels when they see that they only have so much remaining time, and have to decide whether to use it all now, or delay gratification for a little email checking just before bed.
Kind of like a digital allowance. And when they’ve reached their limit, they get a notification.
(It just says you are finished for the day; not, time to play a board game with your sister! Or time to start helping with the dishes! Maybe in version 2.0?)
Overall Thoughts about Circle with Disney: The pros and cons
Looks: The modern, streamlined, compact design of the Circle device is definitely a plus. At just 3.25″ square, it’s nearly invisible on a bookshelf or near your desktop computer setup.
Customization: Being able to customize Sophie’s iPad, Jack’s Kindle and your own iPhone based on individual behaviors is a huge win. The insights into each person’s usage is great to have as well.
Bonus Content: Because of Circle’s partnership with Disney, kids get age-appropriate access to select Disney content like trailers, video clips, games and more through the individualized MyCircle dashboard. Of course this is pretty much commercial content, but it may be the kinds of things your kids would be watching anyway.
No Replacing Existing Equipment: If you already have a router that you’re happy with like I do, and are paying for it through a bundled cable service, it’s nice that you don’t have to switch any equipment out, you’re just adding Circle with Disney into your existing set-up.
Security and Privacy: I’ve read a few interviews with Circle’s creator, Jelani Memory, who assures parents that info is safe with Circle, and that no data is mined for Disney’s sake, no information in stored in the cloud and the information packets are solely routed to the app for your information and that’s it. As someone who is very aware of security issues, that’s good reassurance. I like knowing that all the data stays on our own devices, and not somewhere else.
In the Middle:
Price: This could fall both into pros and cons, depending how you look at it. The unit is $99, no subscription necessary, no add-ons. That could end up being a lot less than services which charge you monthly, and I think you get far more control and peace of mind than you do with free apps I’ve tried that help control usage. Of course you could probably make good use of those apps or your own iDevice’s built-in parental controls which are quite good. The Circle price is more affordable than Torch, and the same as Luma — however keep in mind that those also function as routers too.
Home WiFi Network Management Only: The Circle system is designed to manage devices connected to your home WiFi system. In other words, our understanding is that if your child is using an iPad at a friend’s house, you aren’t monitoring usage there. Or if someone brings over a laptop or device to which your kids can connect their devices via VPN, I don’t sense that Circle will have any control over that. Now these are not huge cons, just some things to be aware of. Also a good reason to continue to use the parental controls built-in to all devices and not rely solely on one system.
Lack of More Specific Parental Controls: While the myriad choices for individual profile customization is a pro for me overall, I don’t see a way to filter specific sites. Assuming the overarching filters per age group, takes care of anything salacious, violent or arguably inappropriate, it would be really nice for parents to have a way to block specific sites, rather than rely on the general age-based restrictions to catch them for you. One parent’s “fine for my ten year old” might be another parent’s “not until you’re 13.”
UPDATE: We’ve been informed by a representative from Circle (below, in comments) that there are specific site filters. However I looked for what she calls a “sticky footer” at least three times and didn’t see one. So while there are filters, the UX makes them difficult to find for parents. Right now it gets lost among the many, many preset filters in place. It should be far more prominent, so we’re going to keep this in the con column for now.
iOS Only: (Update: Circle with Disney for Android is now available on Google Play as well) I find it odd that you can monitor both iOS and Android devices on Circle, yet it doesn’t come with an app to manage usage from Android devices. Ideally, it should have launched with both options. Now this may be a factor of Disney simply partnering with the existing Circle platform which was originally developed as a Kickstarter; and not investing a lot into blowing it out for a broader audience on multiple operating systems at launch. As we’ve written before, creating Android apps can be problematic for developers for a number of reasons; however our hope is that if Circle with Disney is successful, we’ll see Android parents benefitting from it soon enough.
Security,,,Down the Road: We should all know by now that all smart-devices and anything WiFi connected can be monitored by someone somewhere. (Think of the recent VTech Innotab kids’ tablet security breach, or the new issues regarding the privacy of smart TVs.) So while I feel reassured by Circle’s designer and their adamant claims about security, it’s still worth considering that down the line, there technically is the opportunity for Disney to harvest data about your children’s viewing habits for marketing purposes. That may not happen, but we’d still keep one eye out for any glaring changes in your TOS with future updates.
Bottom Line: Thumbs up…for the right household
In my house, where I have relatively younger children, iPad usage has so far been limited to cooking videos and sports videos. But my kids are not far away from wanting to join social networks, browse other websites, play more server-based games, and connect with friends. The more kids are online, the harder it is to know just what they’re doing, and admittedly that worries me.
With all of the features and personalization options available with Circle with Disney, I think it could be a terrific option for parents particularly of younger kids, at a decent price. It’s not a 100% fail safe solution of course, and older kids will probably find ways around it. Plus, it’s no substitute for talking to your kids about Internet use and safety, and establishing clear boundaries that they should respect whether or not you have a device like Circle in place.
However for some families, I’m thankful for another company out there who’s helping to appease parental worries (just a little) and give them another way to try and establish control over their kids’ online habits, at least until their kids are able to make good decisions all on their own.
Or so we’re hoping.
Circle with Disney is available for $99. If the product is on backorder, it should arrive within three weeks after purchasing. Thanks to the company for sending a unit for review consideration.