The best free parental control software
It's hard to imagine anything less child-friendly than an uncensored internet. A rabid wolf, maybe, or a playground floored with broken glass and razor wire. The more connected we become the more we need everybody online - and that means trying to ensure that our children aren't exposed to the very worst content, ideas and behaviour that exist online.
Software can't do everything, of course, but it can help to make parents' lives much easier. These are our picks of the best parental control tools.
If you're looking for a tool that will just monitor your kids' activity without blocking them from specific content, consider installing a free keylogger instead.
A full suite of parental control tools to protect your children from threats
Most parental control software is aimed at Windows, but Qustodio (think 'custodian') is also available for OS X, Android, iOS, Kindle and Nook.
The free version is limited to one user and one device, but if you want to control multiple devices the paid-for version isn't too steep at US$44.95/£29.95 (about AU$61) per year for up to five devices (higher-end plans are available for larger families).
The free version covers the basics, enabling you to set rules and time schedules, block pornography and other unsuitable content; if you go for the paid-for version that adds SMS monitoring, social media features and per-app controls. But even the free version is one of the most comprehensive parental control apps around.
Its raft of features and support for a wide range of platforms make Qustodio our top recommended parental control software, but there are many other excellent free programs available, some of which may be better suited to your individual needs.Read on for more of the best tools to keep your kids safe online.
Blocks dangerous domains, and can be used on your whole network
FamilyShield is a free service from OpenDNS. Its parental control tools automatically block domains that OpenDNS has flagged under the headings "tasteless, proxy/anonymizer, sexuality, or pornography".
One of the big pluses here is that while FamilyShield can run on PCs and mobile devices, you can also apply it to your network router and filter all the traffic that passes through it - it's just a matter of changing the DNS server numbers in your control panel, and that has the happy benefit of improving DNS lookup speeds on some ISPs. By filtering everything at the router level, every device on your network benefits from the filters.
3. Norton Family
Protection for your kids when they're using social media
Its creators would really like you to subscribe to the paid-for Premier version, but the free edition of Norton Family is an excellent tool to support you in protecting your kids online.
You can block inappropriate web content and monitor the kids' online activities, see what they've been searching for and how often they've been on Facebook (and whether they're using a fake name or age), ensure they don't accidentally give out personal information, and lock down your internet connection at specific times.
The Premier version of Norton's parental control tool adds video supervision, location tracking, Android app and SMS use and time-locks for Android apps. That's US$49.99, £29.99 (about AU$60) per year.
A sensible parental control measure or invasion of privacy? It's your decision
We're in two minds about using logging software for children and teenagers: tracking every single keystroke, SMS, photo, instant message, Skype call and location feels like an invasion of privacy, but we can see the benefit for parents who suspect their child may be keeping something important private, such as online bullying or grooming.
The free version of Kidlogger tracks one device and keeps logs for nine days. Upgrading to the premium package for US$29 (about £20, AU$40) per year lets you monitor five devices, with log history stored for 30 days.
The service is available for Windows, Mac and Android, and there's a separate app for non-jailbroken iPhones and iPads.
5. Spyrix Free Keylogger
Take a virtual peek over your kid's shoulder as they surf
Keyloggers have something of a bad reputation online, as they're often used by villains, but they can be a force for good too, and Spyrix's features enable you to see what your children have been up to.
Although it's dubbed parental control software, it's really a monitoring program; it doesn't stop the kids getting up to no good, but it does let you see exactly what they've done. That means it isn't really appropriate for younger children's computers, but it may be appropriate for older children if you suspect online bullying or other unpleasantness.
6. WebFilter Pro
A good browser add-on, but quite easy to disable if they know how
WebFilter Pro is a cloud-based parental control add-on for Chrome and Firefox that adds filters to web browsing. It can block malware, adult content including drug, guns and other inappropriate content, proxy servers, known spam sources, social networks and media streaming sites.
You can add your own sites to the blocklist and to the whitelist, but there's a fairly big Achilles Heel here: while there's password protection to stop the kids from overriding your settings, there's nothing to stop them from simply disabling or uninstalling the extension altogether. That means the add-on does a decent job, but it's not one for older children.
7. Windows Live Family Safety
An older program, but handy if you still use Windows 7 or earlier
The app offers a range of parental controls including restricting web browsers to specific sites or specific kinds of content; tracking your kids' activities and enabling you to see what websites they've visited
You can also lock down search engines so they don't return inappropriate results, and limit what can be done at specific times - handy if you're trying to ensure your kids aren't spending every waking hour in multiplayer gaming or social media. It's particularly good if you use Microsoft's Internet Explorer or Edge browsers.
8. Zoodles Kid Mode
A whole browser designed for younger kids
The problem with many parental control apps is that they're most effective for older children: while filtering adult content and other unpleasantness is obviously a good thing, there's plenty of stuff that isn't adult that can still scare younger children silly.
Zoodles Kid Mode addresses that by combining filtered browsing and a dedicated web browser to create a walled garden: everything in it is safe for kids and there's no risk of anything awful popping up.
9. K9 Web Protection
Multi-platform protection, but a little outdated
Available for PC, Mac, iOS and Android (but not updated in some time: the most recent release notes date from 2014), K9 Web Protection's features include blocking of 70 different website categories (including illegal drugs, dating and racism), time restrictions, mandatory SafeSearch in Google, detection of new and malicious adult websites and custom block/allow lists.
Its parental controls don't cover chat programs, unfortunately. We wouldn't rely on its ageing database to block malware either, and there's no support for multiple users (for example, you can't have different settings for a teenager and for a younger child), but K9 is impressively difficult to disable or remove, and it's good at what it does.
Available for Firefox and Chrome, but no good if your child installs IE
There are plenty of browser add-ons that offer parental control, but there's a big flaw in each and every one of them: if your child downloads or sideloads a different browser, they're useless.
That means parental control filters such as FoxFilter are useful only for children who won't do that, or for environments where the filtering is just extra insurance for children who are usually within sight and sound of the grown-ups.
In such cases it's simple and effective, with good blocking of suspicious content and the ability to fine-tune the filter so it doesn't block innocent content. It's now also available for Google Chrome.
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