If you have children, of course you want them to be able to take advantage of the internet, and free parental control software can take the worry out of letting them loose online. Whether conducting research for a school project, keeping in touch with friends, or just enjoying what the web has to offer, you don’t want to have to worry about them stumbling across inappropriate content. In an ideal world, you would probably spend the time to go online with them, but this is not always going to be possible – and this is where free parental control software can help.
Using such a tool, you can place limits on the sites that your children can access – either by blocking access to particular sites that concern you, or by only permitting access to sites you know to be suitable. It does not matter what age your child is, or whether they are using a mobile device, Windows, or macOS, in this roundup you will be able to find the perfect free parental control software to look after them when you're unable to.
A full suite of parental control tools to keep your kids safe online
Most parental control software is aimed at Windows, but Qustodio (think 'custodian') is also available for Mac, Android, iOS, Kindle and (weirdly) Nook.
The free version is one of the most comprehensive parental control apps around, enabling you to set rules and time schedules, block pornography and other unsuitable content. If you go for the paid-for version, you'll also get SMS monitoring, social media features and per-app controls.
Its raft of features and support for a wide range of platforms make Qustodio the best free parental control software, but there are some other excellent free programs available, some of which may be better suited to your individual needs as a parent. Read on for the rest of our our top choices.
Block domains on your whole home network at router level
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.
This 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.
Detailed activity logging, including apps used and keystrokes
Nothing gets past KidLogger. This free parental control software not only tracks what your children type and which websites they visit – it also keeps a record of which programs they use and any screengrabs they take.
If you're concerned about who your kids might be talking to online, there's even a voice-activated sound recorder. If your children are a little older and more responsible, you can pick and choose which options to monitor and give them a little privacy.
The free software only covers one device and lacks some of the sneakier features of the premium editions (including silent monitoring of WhatsApp conversations and the ability to listen to Skype calls), but it's still a well-rounded tool if you're concerned about your kids' safety.
Find out what your kids are typing, and if they might be in trouble
Keyloggers have something of a bad reputation online, as they're often used by crooks hoping to capture passwords and bank details, but they can be a force for good too, and Spyrix Free Keylogger enables you to see what your children have been up to.
Although it's dubbed parental control software, the free version of Spyrix 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. If you want content blocking too, premium subscriptions start at US$59 (about £45, AU$75).
The absence of filtering means Spyrix might not be the best choice for younger kids' computers, but it may be useful for older children if you suspect online bullying or other unpleasantness.
A kid-friendly search engine that's ideal for researching homework
Even with safe search enabled, even the most innocent Google search can bring up some pretty unsavory content. That's why Google has developed Kiddle – a visual search engine specially made for kids.
It's no substitute for a parent's watchful eye – typing a word into your browser's address bar will perform a regular search unless you've specifically disabled that feature – but Kiddle is a great way for young children to learn the fundamentals of how to use a search engine and learn more about subjects they're covering at school.
Kiddle still includes ads at the top of search results, and depending on the search term, they might have no relevance at all to your kids. For example, a search for 'trains' brings up ads to transit booking services – not something your little ones are likely to be interested in.
Below these you'll find results from sites that Google staff have hand-picked as safe sources – including Kiddles' own Wikipedia-style simplified encyclopedia. The first few search results will be sites presented in particularly kid-friendly language, while lower results will still be OK content-wise, but may be too technical for young children.