Parental control software used to be something you'd install on the family PC, but these days things are a lot more complicated with phones and tablets. Here we've rounded up the best parental control software that will let you protect your kids as well as monitor and limit their screen time.
Windows isn't the only operating system that your kids are likely to use these days. In fact, they probably spend more time using Android or iOS thanks to the proliferation of smartphones and tablets. So how do you keep track of what they're doing and limit how much time they can spend staring at a screen? Read our in-depth feature for expert tips on how much screen time is safe and also check out our online safety tips for parents.
An easy way to restrict internet access and any other communication is to enable flight mode before you give the device to your child. Savvy kids will easily work out how to disable this and turn Wi-Fi back on. There are a few decent children's tablets which offer excellent protector and time limits, so check out our best kids' tablets roundup.
Some devices - particularly Android phones and tablets - allow you to install apps which limit screen time, and most recent Android phones and tablets come with the ability to create user profiles and choose which apps each profile can access.
With Apple devices, there's no way - yet - to create profiles, so even if you set restrictions, they'll apply to everyone using the device. If it's your iPhone or iPad, this is simply impractical.
If you just want to block websites, install a web browser such as Mobicip Safe Browser with Parental Control or Maxthon Kid Safe Browser. Obviously make sure you remove or hide any other web browsers.
For more comprehensive control and monitoring, however, you'll need one of the packages below. Not included below, but one you may want to check out, is Test4Time, an app which awards kids one minute for each correct answer to a maths problem. It's only available on Android phones and tablets, though, and while the app is free, it requires a paid subscription.
Qustodio offers a fantastic blend of control and flexibility, and you don't need a degree in network administration to understand its features. There’s a free version that allows you to install it on one device and create one user profile – which would be a good way to experiment with the service.
If you think it’s useful then you can upgrade to a year-long Premium package (five users and five devices) for just over £30. Apps are available for Android, iOS (limited features), Amazon Fire, macOS and Windows.
Qustodio’s clean interface makes it very easy to understand, and you control everything via a web portal that displays the sites your child is visiting, how long they are there, and lets you change the content filters, plus settings usage time limits, all remotely.
It also includes impressive social monitoring, and on Android can monitor and block who your child can call and text. Plus it will show you where those devices are on a map.
It’s not perfect, as we were able to avoid a safety filter on sports sites by visiting the Guardian and then navigating to the Football section without detection, but in many cases it’s an effective safeguard.
As the name suggests, ScreenLimit is a service whose aim is to ensure kids don’t use their screens too much – you set the boundaries for how much screen time they can access. It’s available on Windows, iOS (more limited features), Android and Amazon Fire which covers a lot of the devices your kids are likely to have use of. Currently macOS is not supported.
You create a profile for each child and then choose a plan for them. This is basically a schedule which controls when they can and can’t use their device, and it can be different for schooldays, weekends and holidays. One subscription per family covers up to 10 children with unlimited devices.
Each device that runs the app will appear in your dashboard and you see a list of the apps installed. By default they’re in timed mode, but you can block any that you don’t want them using. Or you can set them to unlimited use.
You can add a list of tasks (tidy bedroom, do homeworks, etc) that kids can complete to earn extra time and you have to approve each claim before the time is given, which seems like a good way to show that screen time is a privilege and not a right.
As this is all about screen time, the safety aspect is up to you: there’s no content filtering beyond the ability to block entire apps (such as YouTube or the web browser).
A countdown on the screen shows your kids how much time they have left out of what you've set them. You can even message your kids to tell them it's time for dinner or whatever, and the alert pops up on whatever screen they are using.
The free version gives you basic blocking, but if you want the schedule and timed mode it’s £2.99 per month for unlimited devices, £29.99 per year or a one-off lifetime payment of £75. You can buy direct from ScreenLimit.
Also, read our full review of ScreenLimit.
UK-based HomeHalo has come up with a hardware-based solution to parental control. For £4.95 per month you get a service that is not only flexible but - probably - does exactly what you want it to.
Rather than get you to install an app on each phone and tablet, you get a second router which attaches to your main one. This is included in the subscription fee, but you can pay £199 for the router and lifetime use of the service with no ongoing subscription.
You connect each child's tablet to the Home Halo router's Wi-Fi and this does all the filtering and time limiting. Using the Home Halo app on your own phone or tablet you then assign each connected phone and tablet to a particular child. And you can set up each child's profile differently. Older kids will be able to access more websites, younger kids won't. You have control over the blacklist, though, so if you think a blocked site is fine, you can change it.
Since the adults' devices connect to the internet through your main router, their internet access is unrestricted. But if you do want to lend an iPad to a child, you can switch Wi-Fi networks to the HomeHalo and immediately get filtered internet.
The app also lets you grant time extensions if a child needs extra time to research for some homework, and there's also a homework mode that prevents them from accessing YouTube, Facebook and other entertainment so they remain focused on the task in hand.
However, it's worth noting that Home Halo does not restrict screen time, as it has no control over the devices themselves. Kids may not be able to carry on watching YouTube, but they can still fire up a game. That's where the Amazon Fire's parental controls come into their own, and a £49 Amazon Fire paired with a Home Halo is one of the best setups we can think of to keep kids safe online. (Read our full Amazon Fire review.)
OpenDNS isn't software as such: it's a free service that anyone can use on pretty much any internet-connected computer (including phones and tablets).
What you do is delve into the network settings of your kid's device and change the DNS settings. Instead of automatically using those from your broadband router (which will likely be your ISP's servers) it uses OpenDNS.
This categorises websites and filters them depending on the setting you choose in your account: High, Moderate or Low. High filters out a lot more than Low, and is the best choice to start with. You'll also find more fine-grained control over which categories of site to block, including any phishing sites.
We have a guide showing you how to install Familyshield, but before you rush over there it’s worth noting that this is for changing your router's settings which means the filtering applies to everybody on the network, not just your children. There are guides on OpenDNS' website for changing network settings on PCs and mobile devices.
Many Internet Service Providers, such as Sky, BT, and Virgin also offer family security filters, but once again these are blanket filters across all content, reducing the internet to a children’s version for everyone.
Needless to say, OpenDNS works only over Wi-Fi or a wired network connection so if your child has a tablet or phone with a SIM, the filtering won't apply when using 3G or 4G.