Modern kids have never known a time when they couldn’t connect to the whole world using the Internet. They’re probably more at home online than you are. The problem is, there are things on the Internet that you’d rather they didn’t encounter. Sites promoting violence. Sites full of hate. Pornographic sites that promote a skewed notion of human sexuality. You can’t supervise every moment that they’re surfing the Web on a PC, much less on a smartphone or tablet. That’s where parental control software comes in, with the ability to filter out unwanted content, limit screen time, and in some cases monitor social media interactions.
Note that these applications can’t substitute for good communication. If you don’t want your kids to visit certain kinds of sites, talk to them about your concerns. And do take time to convince older kids that you’ll respect their privacy while monitoring their online actions. Otherwise, you can be sure they’ll find ways to evade even the most sophisticated system.
Parental Control Basics
Most parental control tools include content filtering—the ability to block access to websites matching unwanted categories such as porn, violence, and hate. This type of filtering only really works if it’s browser-independent, and full coverage requires filtering secure (HTTPS) traffic. With no HTTPS filtering, a smart teen could bypass the system using a secure anonymizing proxy website like MegaProxy or Hide My Ass.
Access scheduling is another very common feature. Some applications let parents set a weekly schedule for Internet access, some control computer use in general, and some offer both as choices. A daily or weekly cap on Internet usage can also be handy.
Devices, Devices, Devices
Long gone are the days when a single parental control utility on the singular Family PC sufficed. Modern kids use all kinds of Internet-connected devices, and modern parental control systems must keep up.
Before settling on a particular parental control utility, you’ll want to make sure that it supports all of the device types found in your household. While all the products in the chart above support Windows, support for Mac OS, Android, and iOS varies. Check, too, that any limits on the number of child profiles or devices won’t be a problem. And if your kids are strictly mobile, take a look at our roundup of mobile-centric 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. 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 wow, is it ever simple!
Social Media Tracking
As the kids get older, content filtering may start to seem pointless. Hey, you let them watch Game of Thrones, right? At some point you start to worry more about their interaction with the wide, wide world. Sure, if their friends come over to play Street Fighter V or Guilty Gear Xrd in person, you can at least meet them. But what about friends on social media? Who are they, really, and what are your kids discussing with them?
That’s where social media trackers come in. Typically you have the option to limit your view to posts and interactions that contain words or phrases that might indicate something inappropriate. Also typically, if you really want to you can dig in and see everything.
In most cases, installation of social media tracking requires that you know your child’s login credentials, or that you convince the child 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 get agreement from your child.
Remote Notification and Management
With most parental control systems, you can opt to receive notification via text or email when your child tries to visit a blocked site, makes a post using iffy language, or otherwise bends the rules. Some of these tools let kids remotely request parental override to unblock a particular site, or get extra time online to finish homework.
In most cases, you manage your parental control system by logging in to an online console. From the console, you can tweak settings, review activity reports, or respond to a child’s override request. And any changes you make propagate to your children’s devices when they connect to the Internet.
When you get beyond the basics, parental control systems start to diverge, with many advanced features to help them stand out from the crowd. Some limit access to games, TV shows, and movies based on ratings. Some let parents control just who the kids can chat with via various instant messaging systems. Blocking specific applications is another advanced feature, as is forcing Safe Search on popular search portals.
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 in real time so that, for example, they can allow access to a short-story site but block the erotica. To learn about these advanced features, and to make an informed choice for your own family, you’ll need to read our full reviews.
FEATURED IN THIS ROUNDUP
With configuration and reporting moved to the Web, ContentWatch Net Nanny 7 is fully at home in the modern multi-device world of parental control, and it still has the best content filtering around. Net Nanny 7 is a parental control Editors’ Choice. Read the full review ››
With Qustodio Parental Control 2015, you can keep track of your children’s online activity on PC, Mac, iOS, Android, or Kindle devices. Its rich feature set and clever social media tracking make it a new Editors’ Choice for parental control. Read the full review ››
Symantec Norton Family Premier lets parents track and manage their children’s use of Windows, Android, and iOS devices. Its completely Web-based configuration and wealth of features make it a great choice for parental control. Read the full review ››
Kaspersky Safe Kids offers well-rounded, very affordable parental control and monitoring, and it doesn’t limit the number of child profiles or devices you can cover. It’s an excellent choice. Read the full review ››
You configure Mobicip’s parental control options online, and a local agent enforces the rules on your children’s devices. In testing, we hit a few communication problems, but overall it’s a good choice for the modern multi-device family. Read the full review ››
OpenDNS Home VIP applies parental control and monitoring at the network level, for all your devices, and its essential features are available for free. Consider using it in conjunction with a more conventional parental monitoring tool. Read the full review ››
When you configure your router to use SafeDNS, you can filter out dangerous or objectionable content for every device that connects using your home network. Just don’t expect a full range of parental control features. Read the full review ››