Like many parents I have been using Microsoft Family Safety on my kids computers for several years now to keep them safe online by restricting what websites they can view, blocking adult content, restricting what apps they can use etc. I also used family safety to control my kids screen time, so that they could not spend all day/night on the computer, or use it after bed time. By default we gave all our kids ZERO screen time each day, and then used the handy “Add time” feature to add x number of hours for them each day as long as they had been good and done their homework and chores etc.
This was working great until earlier this year when Microsoft started makes changes to family safety and the way it worked. The result of these changes was hundreds of complaints on the Microsoft forums because family safety had mysteriously and without warning stopped working for many people, putting many children and their computers at risk.
Screen time was no longer working allowing kids to use their computers any time of the day or night or the times were simply being applied incorrectly, allowing access when they should be blocked and vice versa.
Content filtering had stopped working, allowing kids to view any website. I saw several reports on the forums where parents had reported their children had seen some very inappropriate adult content as a result, which is unfortunately a very easy thing to happen with a seemingly innocent google search, and I have experienced this myself one time before I had setup parental controls.
App & Games filtering stopped working, allowing kids to install and launch any app or game, regardless of age rating.
I have opened numerous threads on the Microsoft forums, but the so called “Microsoft Techs” (sic) are about as useful as three colorblind hedgehogs, in a bag. They do not even bother to read the questions, they look at the subject, and just post a canned response based on words in the subject telling you how to setup family safety, and you will not get any other responses from them beyond this. I have even made posts saying “DO NOT SEND ME A LINK TELLING ME HOW TO SETUP FAMILY SAFETY, THIS DOES NOT APPLY. READ THE QUESTION BEFORE REPLYING”. I have put it in bold, caps underline, with arrows pointing to it, but still they ignore it and still post the same useless canned response.
So I tried completely removing my kids from family safety altogether so as to try and add them again from scratch, this then resulted in my not being able to add them again as family safety said they already existed even though they did not, so now I was completely stuck. So I then resorted to using “Microsoft Answer Desk”, which is also accessible via a new live chat feature that I discovered in Windows 10, just type “Contact Support” in the search box, and voila, you get a live chat app. So I used this to ask for support, and on every occasion the answer desk tech was completely clueless and was simply quoting me the same crap from their forums. One tech asked to do remote assistance, and then simply proceeded to open a browser on my machine and use that to search the Microsoft KB and forums for an answer (like I haven’t already done that), and just randomly clicked around on my computer for a while before giving up and getting me to contact another completely unrelated dept that could not help either. Another tech was quoting me instructions from the OLD windows live family safety app (pre windows 8) that was completely out of date and not applicable, I had to tell him that it was all controlled from the family safety website these days. I ended up being transferred around to 3 different depts, none of which knew anything about family safety. One tech actually admitted to me that they knew everything was broken, and I simply had to wait until they got around to fixing it. This I find absolutely diabolical that Microsoft would intentionally cause this problem, put kids at risk and not only keep it quiet, but tell their forum techs to just fob everyone off.
Anyway, finally I got escalated to 2nd level support due to my Assure subscription (paid support) and spoke to some guy called Medha on the 10th October. Medha started a remote support session and pretty much did the same as the previous techs, just randomly moved the mouse around my desktop for a while, opened and closed the start menu a few times, then went to the family safety website, and just tried repeatedly over and over again to re-add my kids to family safety, getting the same error each time, and just looking blankly at the error, highlighting it, randomly clicking about a bit more and then repeating, somehow thinking he would get a different result if he repeated it enough times, he has was as clueless as the rest of them. So it seems no-one at Microsoft support has any clue how family safety works. Then suddenly my phone rings, it’s Medha, who proceeds to tell me that family safety is not a supported product and so he cannot help me, even though I have paid support, and the only place to get support is on the forums. Hmm funny how this came out of the blue only after he realizes he cannot fix it, after all these hours of speaking to different techs, including Medha himself, why wasn’t I told this right at the start by anyone else? In fact why did he not tell me this at the start of the session instead of spending 30 minutes cluelessly pissing around on my desktop. Strangely he did not have an answer for this.
I told him I had already posted on the forums many times, along with lots of other people, only to get useless canned responses. But he assured me that if I posted again then he would make sure someone replied to me on the forums and solved my problem. I asked him how he could make this random assurance, how would they find my post, he had not taken any details or anything? He could not answer this either and just waffled on saying someone would reply, which of course turned out to be a lie, as I have still not had any responses or help on the forum. Medha also told me he would create a support case and email me the details so that I could respond to him if I did not get any help on the forums, this was also a lie and never happened.
So family safety had now become all but useless on all my kids computers and support from Microsoft is a non existent joke, so what to do. I had previously already tried upgrading to Windows 10, only to then roll back to Windows 8.1 after I discovered the “Add time” functionality no longer exists, instead you now only have the option to switch user or shut down if they have no screen time left.
This was a really important feature to me, as this is how I controlled daily screen time. Without this, you have to set the screen time globally, so if you allow 4 hours on every week day, then this is a fixed setting for those days every week. Which makes it impossible to use in the way we need, which is to give time each day once we have confirmed all homework and chores has been done and only if they have behaved. Instead you either give them time every day and trust them, or you have to give no time all day every time, and then log into the website and change it every day, and then remember to change it back at bed time, which is a PITA. However since family safety was now totally broken anyway, I saw no reason not to upgrade everyone to Windows 10 now, and hope that maybe family safety worked better on Windows 10.
After upgrading all my kids to windows 10, so far everything does seem to be working, so for all intents and purposes it would seem that Microsoft updated family safety for Windows 10, and as a result completely broke it on windows 7 and 8 and just said “fuck it” and left all us parents to find out the hard way.
The one problem I did have is that one of my kids computers would not show on family safety, it just gave the obligatory “when this user signs into a Windows 10 device it will show up here”, and nothing I did got it to show up. I was about to resort to deleting her user from the computer and setting up from scratch but then I tried logging into her computer and changing her user from a standard user to and administrator and then back again, which seems to have done the trick so far.
So it seems that if you want to use family safety, you must upgrade to Windows 10, as it is totally unreliable on previous versions. However my trust in family safety and Microsoft has now gone, and I so I have other precautions in place as well (which I used to use before family safety anyway). I have my broadband router set to use OpenDNS rather than my ISP’s DNS, this allows you block websites according to content and age rating, and also to whitelist and blacklist any website you wish. I also run Kaspersky on all my kids machines and can use its parental control features as a backup in case family safety fails again.
So I would warn all parents at this time, DO NOT TRUST MICROSOFT FAMILY SAFETY. If you do choose to continue using it, then you should probably upgrade to windows 10 if you haven’t already and regularly check your kids computer to make sure it is still working as expected, and like me, have a backup solution.
If you are not up to speed with online family safety and parental controls, then I highly recommend reading some online resources on the subject, such as the NSPCC site on the left. And remember if you have given your kids a smart phone or tablet, then this also needs to have parental controls implemented as well, otherwise they can use this to bypass everything you have setup at home on the computer. And don’t forget,when they are out of the house, they are not using your router or WIFI, so anything you have setup here no longer applies.