Modern kids have never known a time when they couldn't connect to the entire world via the internet. In fact, they probably spend more time online than anyone else—certainly more than their parents. If you are a parent, this presents a problem, as there are explicit, disturbing, and illegal websites and apps that you don't want your kids to encounter. Parental control services can help you manage the ever-increasing number of devices that your kids use. Before you start imposing limits and restrictions though, take some time to learn how your connected kid uses technology.
These software and hardware solutions let you block unwanted web content, limit screen time, restrict the use of risky applications, and more. Basically, they are a way to help keep your kids safer on their computers and mobile devices. Communicate with your kids before implementing any of these options, as it is important that they feel that you respect their privacy. Otherwise, they'll make sure to find a way around any protections, even if you had your kids' best interests in mind. Also, as tech addiction increasingly becomes a problem, it's important that children learn the value of good device habits for themselves.
Monitor Your Child's Devices
Gone are the days when a single parental control utility on the family PC was sufficient for keeping your kids safe and productive. Modern kids use all kinds of internet-connected devices, and parental control systems must keep up.
Before settling on a particular parental control utility, you need to make sure that it supports all the device types in your household. While all the products in this roundup support Windows and Android, compatibility with macOS and iOS varies. Apple's Screen Time features for iOS, iPadOS, and macOS are quite capable and come with the added benefit of first-party support. Microsoft (Family Safety) and Google (Family Link) both offer first-party parental control tools, too. You should consider using these free first-party options before you pay for a third-party solution.
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Note that some parental control utilities leverage VPN technology, running internet connections through a local app to enable content filtering. You'll see the VPN icon when such a utility is active, but it doesn't mean the child's connection is secured by a full-scale virtual private network, nor that the device's IP address is masked.
Check, too, that any limits on the number of child profiles or devices won't be a problem. Large families, for example, will appreciate that Norton Family and Kaspersky Safe Kids work on an unlimited number of devices. Most parental control software operates as a subscription service, so pricing tiers tend to align with device limits, though some offer free versions for basic protection on a limited number of devices. If your kids are strictly smartphone users, take a look at our roundup of mobile parental control apps.
If getting parental control coverage installed on each of your family's devices starts to seem too difficult, consider a whole-network solution, such as Circle Home Plus. These systems perform content filtering at the router level, so your settings affect every device on the network. Naturally, you don't get the same fine level of control and detailed monitoring that you get with a local agent on each device, but this is a much broader solution.
Some kids spend more time on gaming consoles than any other device. The parental control services in this roundup don't cover consoles, but we can help you learn how to enable parental controls on gaming consoles.
Web Filters, Time Limits, and Apps
At the very least, a good parental control tool features content filtering—the ability to block access to websites matching categories such as hate, violence, and porn. This type of filtering only really works if it's browser-independent and works with secure (HTTPS) sites. With no HTTPS filtering, a smart teen could bypass the system using a secure anonymizing proxy website or even an uncommon web browser in some cases. Using a VPN or the Tor browser often breaks even the strongest protections, too. Most also have the option to permanently enable SafeSearch, though those settings are often limited to Google, Bing, and sometimes YouTube. Your child can thwart most SafeSearch restrictions by using a privacy-focused search engine such as DuckDuckGo. Of course, the most capable solutions also keep a detailed log of your child's web activity.
Access scheduling is another very common feature. Some services let parents set a daily or weekly schedule for device usage. Others specifically restrict the amount of time your kid spends on the internet. Qustodio lets you set time restrictions on individual mobile and desktop apps. This is particularly useful for children who have a habit of playing games or using social media apps when they should be doing homework. The most helpful time-based settings apply to all your kids' devices, so they just can't switch between them to evade limits.
Check out our coverage of additional ways to manage your child's screen time on all of their devices, including options already built-in to the respective platforms.
Messaging and Social Media
As kids get older, content filtering may start to seem pointless. At some point, you start to worry more about their interaction with the wider world. Sure, if their friends come over in person, you can at least meet them, but what about friends on social media and other contacts your child never mentions? Who are they, really, and what are your kids discussing with them? Although some supervision is acceptable, you still need to respect your child's basic right to privacy and encourage open discussion, rather than using parental control software as spyware.
Some services let you monitor contacts and messages and keep an eye out for potentially dangerous or unsanctioned situations. You can even block new contacts or view message content with some parental control software. Keep in mind that this primarily applies to SMS texts; messaging apps such as WhatsApp, Snapchat, and Signal do not fall under the same scope. Social media tracking can also provide a glimpse into your child's social life, though many services now only monitor Facebook or have given up monitoring social media entirely.
Parental Controls and Video Streaming
You can use parental control software to block access to video streaming apps and sites, as well as limit how much time your child can spend using them. However, if you are looking to restrict what your child can watch on Netflix, Disney+, and other video streaming services, none of these parental control tools provide that capability. Instead, you need to dive into the settings of each video streaming service.
The parental control capabilities of video streaming services vary widely. Some do not offer any options to restrict content, while others may simply offer a kid-friendly mode that broadly limits the streaming library to content appropriate for young children. The best services allow you to set rating restrictions on individual profiles and prevent your kid from simply switching to an unmonitored profile without a password or PIN.
Remote Notification and Management
Most kids are on mobile devices at least some of the time, and many are almost exclusively accessing the internet on their phones. Fortunately, many parental control services offer a companion app that lets you view your child's activity, set basic rules, and view notifications as they arrive. This kind of companion app is particularly useful for responding to access or time-extension requests on the go. Otherwise, you manage everything online or locally on the PC, where you have fine control over activity reports and restrictions. Any changes you make should propagate to your children's devices when they connect to the internet.
When your child tries to visit a blocked site, makes a post using iffy language, or otherwise bends the rules, the best parental control services send you a notification to your preferred channel, such as via the app, web, email, text, or some combination of those options.
When you get beyond the basics, parental control systems start to diverge, with many advanced features to help them stand out from the crowd. Among these standout features are YouTube monitoring, geofencing, and remote device locking. You'll also find advanced versions of standard features. For example, the best content filters don't just use a database of categories. They analyze page content, filter profanity, and allow you to add custom keywords and categories you want to block. We also like those services that support two-factor authentication for account logins.
Make an informed choice for your own family: Check out our full reviews of these parental control solutions. Several offer free trials, which are worth checking out before committing your time and money.