The internet can be a fantastic educational tool, but it can also be a dangerous place for kids. 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. That's why parental control software is so important – and some of the best tools are completely free.
Software can't do everything, of course, and there's no substitute for being there supervising your kids directly online. Parental control software has its uses through, and can help to make parents' lives much easier – particularly once your kids are a little older and want more independence.
With that in mind, here are our picks of the best parental control tools for Windows, macOS and mobile devices.
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 whole web browser designed specifically 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 (nothing to do with zucchini noodles) 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.
In addition to Windows, Zoodles is also available for Mac, Android and iOS, and a brand new version is currently in development.