Nervous about your kid spending time online unsupervised? That’s not being overprotective — it’s normal. Parental control software offers a bird’s eye view of the sites or apps your kid visits, control over inappropriate searches, and screen time limits. When kids are fully aware of what’s going on, it can be a more respectful approach than going through their phone or laptop.
Screen time is arguably the hottest parenting topic of the past 20 years. A pandemic that closed schools and caused kids to be home at all times forced the topic into the spotlight even further.
It’s natural for parents to freak out every time a new study about children and devices comes out, but here’s our advice: Don’t. The evidence between screen time and cognitive or behavior development isn’t super strong. Plus, parents cannot blame themselves for handing a kid a tablet when it’s time for a Zoom meeting, dinner prep, or a nap, especially when it’s high-quality content like an educational show.
But it would be naive to assume that kids are always soaking in high-quality content when they’re on the internet. Though modern kids are scarily adept with technology and social media (TikTok is basically run by teenagers), it doesn’t mean that parameters for web use aren’t necessary.
Minecraft may be distracting them from remote school work, or maybe you’d just feel more comfortable about this increase in screen time if you knew that your child wasn’t landing on any inappropriate sites or scrolling through Instagram at 3 a.m.
How does parental control software work?
The short version is that parental control software lets you monitor your child’s phone, tablet, or computer remotely. The corresponding apps let parents monitor internet searches and browsing history, block inappropriate apps (or block distracting apps during homework hours), or limit screen time all together. It’s a less invasive and more respectful method than physically going through their phone or computer — and when kids know that their activity is being watched or managed, cyber safety habits might stick better.
Is geofencing worthwhile?
Parental control software can also help keep tabs on your kid when they’re not at home. Though most have GPS and some sort of basic “Where’s my child?” function, only a select few software options offer geofencing, which is a big help for parents juggling the schedules of multiple children. This location-based service lets you set up virtual boundaries around where a child should or shouldn’t be, as well as a specific time that the child should be there. Let’s say that your child goes straight from school to a sports practice three times a week. The geofencing feature will monitor their phone’s location and will alert you if your child doesn’t show up to the scheduled area on time. Teenagers may even enjoy not being bombarded with “Where are you?” texts.
Geofencing can also be used to monitor web time when your child is in a designated location. For instance, many parents like to disable games or social media apps during school.
What is the best parental control software?
Every parental control software can put limits on screen time, show browsing history, and block sites. Got it. But some features might apply more to your family’s needs.
Households with a lot of devices in the mix will need to look at device limits. Some software allows unlimited accounts while others work like cell phone plans: More devices, more money. If you have three or four kids who all have a phone and a laptop, the unlimited route will be the best value. Families that share a device will need to ensure that their software doesn’t have a “one account per device” rule, which pretty much lock parents into dealing with kid settings (or vice versa, but that kind of defeats the purpose).
Some software gives kids more autonomy than others. If you’re worried about smothering them, consider an option that provides warnings about screen time instead of immediately locking the device, or an option that lets them request extra time or access to a site that they feel is wrongfully blocked. Things may go smoother when older kids feel like they can be a part of the controls.
Here are our top choices for the best parental control software:
Real-time website monitoring • Tracks YouTube search history • Panic button for emergencies when kids are away from home • Especially great for tracking social media activity
No keyword blocking • No geofencing • Some features are only available on Android phones • Doesn’t play well with iPhones or iPads
Sleep better knowing that Qustodio is on the lookout whether your kid is home or not.
1. QustodioFrom Instagram and YouTube monitoring to a panic button for kids away from home, Qustodio covers just about everything.
It’s a particularly great (albeit a bit outdated) interface for parents, grandparents, or other guardians who aren’t super tech-savvy. The mobile app is much fresher than the desktop app.
Though Qustodio’s monthly fee is a bit steeper than others, it feels like an appropriate trade for the robust list of ways to keep an eye on behavior. The expected screen time controls, pornography blocking, and browsing history are here (including time limits for specific apps or games), plus a look at posts and comments on social media like Instagram or WhatsApp. YouTube monitoring is a rare addition that plugs a loophole that can occur once savvy kids notice that sketchy websites have already been blocked. The SMS monitoring doesn’t apply to iMessages, obviously.
The panic button (only available in the Premium package) provides an extra layer of protection for parents who don’t get peace of mind from location tracking alone. When away from home, children can send a direct text alert to emergency contacts pinpointing their whereabouts.
Geofencing notifications if your kid isn’t where they should be • Can block specific searches on YouTube • Super all-encompassing free version • Tons of opportunities to customize each kid’s allowances
Desktop version is a bit clunky • iOS functionality is behind • No SOS button • Social media monitoring only covers Facebook
This popular choice doesn’t limit devices and has extras that others lack — but for much cheaper.
2. Kaspersky Safe KidsParents juggling multiple schedules will like how Kaspersky keeps close tabs on kids away from home.
Unlimited devices with Premium:
Web and app filtering are pretty black and white. You can choose to block specific apps or URLs or use Kaspersky’s pre-determined factors to decide whether a website or app is appropriate for the age of your child. (Older kids might appreciate that something like Netflix isn’t blocked for them even if it’s blocked for a younger sibling.) Unlike Qustodio, Kaspersky does not actively scan the page.
Unlimited devices • Extends protection to antivirus, personal data, and webcam hackers • Comes with access to a VPN • Parent Portal is more organized than most dashboards
Cannot be downloaded on Macs • Basically locked into using Norton’s web browser • No geofencing • No more than five devices
Establish cyber safety habits early and monitor behavior with Norton antivirus and parental controls.
3. Norton 360 DeluxeGet webcam protection, malware threat alerts, and reliable parental controls in Norton’s sweet package deal.
Norton Family Premier (without antivirus):
Five devices with Norton 360 Delxue:
These controls are essentially identical to Norton Family Premier, a $49.99 per month one-off software with its own app. Norton 360 Deluxe will usually run you $99.99 per month, but has been on sale for $49.99 per month as of late. Unless you already have antivirus software that you really like, paying $49.99 per month for both ends of the spectrum seems like a no-brainer.
A menu of 40 web filtering categories (compared to 14 or 15 on competing software) will block or warn your kids about sites they shouldn’t be on. These range anywhere from sites themed around drugs and explicit content to file sharing and online chat, which comes in handy since kids tend to use way more messaging apps than adults even know exist. If an important website (like one to share documents for school) is accidentally blocked, you can reverse the setting directly from the notification.
Safety features revolving more around personal data include real-time malware threat detection, a password manager, and Safecam, which notifies you if cyber criminals try to access your webcam. Norton also scans the dark web in the background to ensure your personal info isn’t floating around.
Exhaustive web filtering • Family Feed offers a quick timeline of every kid’s recent activity • Friendly and easy to understand on the child’s end
No call or text monitoring • Screen time limits must be set on a daily basis • Pricing for mulitple devices gets steep fast
iPhone families have a reliable option with a long list of features, though screen time has to be set daily.
4. Net NannyNet Nanny/Zift is a rare Apple-friendly choice and one of the most approachable apps on the kid’s end.
Apple products don’t always play nicely with foreign downloads. Net Nanny (AKA Zift) is one of the only parental control softwares that has a near-identical mobile app for both iOS and Android devices.
To be fair, the parental controls built into iOS will suffice for a lot of people. You can set screen time limits, block certain apps and websites, or restrict new downloads or things with an explicit content rating all together. However, most action requires you to be on your child’s iPhone or iPad. Dedicated software like Net Nanny puts all controls, activity history, and profiles for multiple children on one screen: yours.
The shining function here is web filtering, and there are a few ways to make sure nothing slips through the cracks: block or receive an alert for all websites that fall under categories like “weapons” or “provocative content,” manually choose websites to hide, or leave it to Net Nanny’s real-time scan to determine whether a site appropriate or not.
Keeping track of every single app on an older child’s phone may not be necessary. You could instead opt for App Advisor, which will only notify you when an app involves potential risks like location or photo sharing. The option for a temporary time boost without altering the official settings is nice, too.
App is modern and intuivite • Works with gaming consoles and smart TVs • Less invasive option for older kids
Requires an extra device • Limited to one profile per device • Kids can get around settings with a VPN
Circle focuses on screen time over browsing or text monitoring but is painless to navigate.
5. Circle with DisneyInstead of downloading software, Circle is a WiFi-based monitoring solution with a well-designed app.
Circle Home Plus (hardware device):
Relying on the cloud means that a Chromebook can’t exactly store downloaded software. That’s where Circle with Disney comes in: a filter for your home WiFi that monitors behavior, has control settings, and presents it in a clean dashboard that is super easy to navigate. The $9.99 monthly subscription works in tandem with Circle Home Plus (the hardware device that looks like a Bluetooth speaker). Setup on each device is time consuming but the overarching account can be synced to the Circle Home Plus with a QR code.
Each profile is color-coded based on age filters: kid, teen, adult, and none. The “kid” platform lists supported apps like Cartoon Network and TikTok, but you can toggle these on or off and add custom URLs. Turning on “Bedtime” turns internet access off at a certain time each night, but doesn’t affect any offline games or books. Obviously, none of these settings will work once someone leaves the range of your home WiFi.
Actual activity and history reports are vague. Circle can report specific URLs that were accessed but can’t narrow down queries on Google or YouTube. Circle also stays out of all things call or text related.
Cheap entry to iOS, Android, and Kindle monitoring • Subscriptions are often on sale • Organized, minimalistic app feed
Mediocre location tracking • Can only set schedules, not a definitive time limit • Keyword blocking has weird rules
This budget-friendly software has no frills but keeps your kids on age-appropriate sites.
6. MobicipIf you can deal with a few quirks, Mobicip has decently customizable web settings at competitive pricing.
The “basics” still score you app or URL blocking and screen time breakdown, including the option to customize allotted time for specific apps, keywords, or for a category like “social apps.” It’s not the most detailed information you’ll ever see, but the color-coded graphs on a simple white background make features easily navigable and digestible. Unfortunately, screen time limitations can only be applied in a daily schedule instead of making a “10 hours per week” rule.
Mobicip was removed from the Apple Store in April 2019 as part of Apple’s crackdown on parental control apps, but has since returned (and has a four-star rating, which is impressive in the harsh world of app reviews).