It used to be the case that the easiest way to monitor what your youngsters were up to online was to keep the family PC in the living room. Now, with tablets and smartphones a regular fixture in family life, it’s a lot harder to know what they’re doing and the kind of content they see. That’s where parental control software comes in. These simple, inexpensive services allow you to restrict the amount of time spent online as well as ring-fencing browsers from mature material.
We’ve gathered together a selection of the best parental control software available at the moment, so you don’t have to feel overwhelmed by the challenge of keeping your kids safe on the internet.
What parental control software is best?
How do I control my kids’ internet access?
If you have your broadband provided by BT, Sky, Virgin or TalkTalk then you may have seen prompts to use their respective content filers. BT calls its option Parental Controls, Sky has Sky Broadband Shield, Virgin uses Web Safe, while TalkTalk offers HomeSafe.
These all provide the ability to set the general level of content that can be accessed online, usually broken down into age groups. That means it’s easy to set blocks for sites and services that are aimed at adults or teenagers. The downside of these protections is that they apply to the whole family. So, while you may want to protect little Timmy from accessing grown-up material on the web, doing so means you won’t be able to either.
A more nuanced route is to restrict access from certain devices rather than the connection itself. This can be done either by using the controls built-into the operating system itself, as you can see from our Android parental controls, Amazon Fire for Kids and how to limit iPhone app usage with Screen Time guides, as with the specialist software we feature below.
The advantage of the services here, as opposed to the controls built into devices, is that they can work across various platforms which means you can keep tabs on what they're up to even if they have access to an Android phone and an Amazon tablet, for example.
Qustodio is a service that has built up an enviable reputation for quality and ease-of-use over the years. One of the main advantages it has is the number of platforms it covers. The app can be used on Windows, macOS, Android, iOS and Amazon Fire devices, which just about covers everything.
The idea is that you install the app on your child’s device then monitor and control various aspects directly from your own phone, tablet or PC. You can set general time limits for daily use or make them specific to certain apps. So, for example, you could have a two-hour maximum on Snapchat but give them free reign on BBC BiteSize.
Smart filters prevent access to inappropriate content (including in private browsing modes), plus you can see just how much time they are spending on social media sites (which again can be curtailed or blocked completely). If you’re worried about inappropriate communications with people, you can also see who your children are messaging and calling, plus there’s the option to actually read their SMS messages (Android only) or block a contact.
There’s also a location tracker so you’ll know where your child is at all times (so long as their phone is turned on). The latest feature to be added is YouTube monitoring. It's in beta and is available on Android, Windows and Mac to begin with, and lets parents see what their kids are watching and searching for.
The basic blocking and monitoring features are available on the free tier, but for all of the more granular tools you’ll need to sign up to the annual plan that costs £39.95/$54.95 per year and covers five devices. It’s not the cheapest, but it's a price worth paying for the control it offers.
Kaspersky Safe Kids
Another heavyweight in online security is Kaspersky, whose Safe Kids suite offers similar features to Qustodio and has picked up several industry awards. As with most parental control software you have an app that is installed on your child’s device and another for your own. These link up and then allow you to set restrictions for the kind of content they can access, limit specific apps by time, age or category, and control the amount of time each day they spend on their devices.
All of these features are included on the free version, but if you want to add even more options then the Premium suite costs £14.99/$14.95 per year, which makes it cheaper than some of its rivals.
If you do choose the paid route, you’ll be able to track your child’s location and even set ‘safe’ boundaries in which they should remain. Should this be left, notifications will be sent to both parties informing them this has happened. A useful feature is the battery tracker, which lets you know how much charge is left on the child’s device, plus there’s also social network monitoring which alerts you to any public posts that are made on Facebook.
Kaspersky Safe Kids is a solid offering that gives you a wide range of controls to keep your family away from some of the nastier elements online. Apps are available for PC, macOS, Android and iOS, which should just about cover all your devices.
Net Nanny has been around for many years now, always with the specific aim of keeping children safe online. Where it started out on the Windows desktop it now encompasses Android, iOS, and Amazon Fire products too, giving you plenty of scope so long as your kids don't use Macs.
The current version of the software comes with controls for filtering adult content, notifies you of the online search terms your children are using (which can be a good way to see if they are being bullied or experiencing other unpleasant things),naturally there’s a block on pornography, plus the ability to ban specific apps or websites.
Screen time can be limited via the parental control app which also allows you to set times of day when the internet will be available. A curfew setting means there should be no sneaking of phones or tablets into their rooms, as the apps will all be locked down after bedtime. These can all be relaxed quickly via the control app, meaning you can reward good behaviour with extended time online.
You’ll also find a location tracker, instant notification of online searches that contain trigger words (usually related to drugs, suicide and other scary stuff), and online summaries that breakdown how your child is using apps and the web.
Net Nanny offers a package for one PC, but in these mobile times we’d recommend the slightly more expensive (but not by much) Family Protection Pass package that covers five devices and costs £49.99/$54.99 per year.
While most of the packages on this list cover laptops and desktops as well as mobile devices, MMGuardian takes the view that most kids these days are on their phones and tablets rather than sitting at the traditional PC. This makes its offering quite interesting as you can pay a monthly subscription just for the device that the child uses, so long as it’s running Android or iOS.
For parents not wanting to overspend, which is pretty much all of us, the option to pay £2.99/$3.99 to protect an iPhone or iPad each month is more tempting than the annual fees some rivals charge. You can download the iOS app here. It costs the same if you want the Android app for a phone, but less if its on a tablet, priced at just £1.49/$1.99 per month.
As you’d expect there’s the standard pairing of apps (one for the child one for the parent) which then gives you the ability to set time limits on screen usage or for specific app, block apps and websites, turn on filters to keep inappropriate content away, curfews, and a location tracker to know where they are at all times.
One valuable ability is to be alerted if certain words are used in text messages, which could indicate bullying or something of a sexual or threatening nature.
MMGuardian is an excellent option if your child spends their time on a phone or tablet.
Norton Family Premier
The Norton brand is synonymous with antivirus protection along with other security software. So, it’s no surprise that the famous yellow livery also provides cover for children as well. Included in the Norton Family Premier pack is a comprehensive set of tools to prevent the little ones straying too far from the path.
There are the obligatory content filters, time management options, monitoring of search terms and sites they’re visiting, along with the ability to block apps and certain websites. Summary reports show the breakdown of all this information and provide a deeper understanding of online behaviour.
One interesting addition is a video content monitor which lets you know the content they’re watching on YouTube. Each one comes with snippets, so you can evaluate whether they are the kind of things you want your child to consume.
It’s pretty standard fare, accompanied by app and web access to the control area so you’re always able to adjust the settings no matter which device you’re using.