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.
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 at mind. Also, as tech addiction increasingly becomes a problem, it's important that children learn the value of good device habits for themselves.
Long 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 the chart above support Windows and Android, compatibility with macOS and iOS varies. Apple's Screen Time and Restrictions features for iOS are quite capable on their own and come with the added benefit of first-party support. You might consider using these tools over a third-party solution.
Note that some parental control utilities often 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 or Open DNS. 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.
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 a different 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. Privacy-focused DuckDuckGo is usually enough to thwart SafeSearch settings. 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. Some softwares 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.
As kids get older, content filtering may start to seem pointless. Hey, you let them watch The Witcher, right? 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.
Many 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. This kind of oversight usually requires that you either know your child's login credentials or convince them to log in and install the tracker's app. Disabling this kind of data collection is a snap for the child, so here, more than ever, you need to be on the same page.
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, 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 sends 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.
In order to 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.