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How do I decide which parental controls to use?

When it comes to screen time, sometimes you need tech support to back you up.

A lot of us don't think about parental controls until after something bad happens (your kid stumbles onto porn, you get into a shouting match over screen time, a group chat goes off the rails). Even if nothing has happened yet, you know it's just a matter of time. In these situations, shutting everything down (what we call the Nuclear Option) feels like the only choice. But in reality, what most of us want—and need—is simple: an extra set of eyes and ears on our kids as they venture into the online world. Still, a just-right solution can be hard to nail down. You can find it, though. Whether it's tools, talking points, or a combination of both, we'll help you figure out what tech you need—and what you don't.

Quick Take

The best parental control is you. Set clear expectations, be consistent, and talk about what your kids are doing, who they're talking to online, and how they're feeling about it.

Start with free options. Turn on Google SafeSearch, use Screen Time if you have an iPhone, use Family Link if you have Android, and look at the settings on all your devices and services to see which built-in parental controls are already available.

Parental controls are handy, but not perfect. While they can block inappropriate content, impose screen limits, and more, they can be a pain to manage, kids can get around them, and they can even damage your relationship.

Play the long game. Your ultimate goal is for your kids to learn responsibility and self-regulation, and that takes time and, sometimes, struggle.

What are all the different kinds of parental controls?

Parental controls cover a wide range of functions, from simple content filters to fee-based solutions that let you manage every device on your network. Depending on your kid's age, the type of device(s) you have, and the level of supervision you can devote to your kid's online activities, you can pick and choose the kind of coverage you need. Here are your options:

Search filters. SafeSearch in Google is a first line of defense against exposure to inappropriate content, and all parents should take this basic precaution. You can also use kid-specific browsers such as Kiddle that return only age-appropriate results.

Time limits. Most devices let you set time limits for a total amount of screen time on that device as well as time limits for individual apps. You can usually find this feature in the device's settings. Some apps, such as YouTube Kids and TikTok, offer time limits within the app's settings.

Content blockers. These prevent kids from accessing entire categories of content called "domains," such as all porn sites, all gaming sites, or entertainment sites. You can find this feature in the free parental control OpenDNS and in fee-based products such as Net Nanny and Qustodio.

Download and purchasing limits. These settings prevent kids from buying games, music, apps, and other content based on age ratings or permission settings. You usually manage this in the device itself.

Social media and text monitors. These services keep an eye on what your kid is doing on social media and SMS and give you a report on their activities. They also alert you when suspicious words are used. You need your kid's social media info (log-ins and passwords) for them to work. They cost money because they're monitoring your kid's apps in real time. Bark and Qustodio are two popular social media monitoring programs.

Location trackers. Apps such as Life360 and Find My tell you where your kid is. They don't work when the phone is turned off, when it has location turned off, or when the battery is drained.

Home and mobile all-in-one solutions. Some parental controls allow you to manage everything connected to your network. First check the software that comes with your internet router (more on that below) to see if it has built-in parental controls. Otherwise, consider an easy-to-use hardware device such as Circle Home Plus or check to see whether your internet service provider (ISP) offers this service. AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon all have parental control apps.

What's the right solution for me?

Every family's needs are different. While it's important to make sure you're talking to your kid about healthy online habits, balancing their online time with offline activities, and staying attuned to potential behavior issues, sometimes you need tech support to back you up. Here are some common device-use scenarios most families face and sample tech solutions.

"My kid doesn't have a phone but uses mine sometimes, and I'm able to supervise most of their screen time."

  • Make sure Google SafeSearch is enabled in all the browsers you use (as long as you're signed in, the settings will apply across all your devices).
  • Add limits to your own phone: If you have an iPhone, use Screen Time and especially review the settings in the Content & Privacy Restrictions and Always Allowed sections. If you have an Android phone, set up Family Link (in Settings) on your phone.

"My kid doesn't have a phone yet but wants more independence on our connected devices (tablet, laptop, desktop) and I can't supervise it all."

  • Enable SafeSearch on all browsers.
  • Try the parental controls built into your device's operating system. Every operating system—Windows, Mac OS, Android, Fire, or Mac iOS—has some built-in parental controls, which you can find in the device's settings. Usually you can set screen time limits for days of the week, add content filters, and more. Most OSs require you to create individual user profiles for each family member in order to enable these restrictions. Your kid needs to log in to their own account for them to work.

"My kid needs to use devices for homework, and I want to block distracting stuff like YouTube, games, and social media but allow them to access what they need to for school."

  • Determine whether the device's operating system has built-in parental controls that will work for your needs. If not, you may need to spend money on one of the options below.
  • Invest in an all-in-one parental control software package such as Net Nanny or the Circle Home Plus hardware solution. They cost extra, but could be worth it if you're struggling to keep your kid on task but don't want to block sites they need for research.
  • Download an app designed to keep kids focused and limit distractions, such as a timer, a goal setter, or a task manager.

"My kid won't get off their video games."

  • If you have a console such as Xbox, PlayStation, or Switch, you can enable time limits and even block the game that's causing problems directly on those devices.
  • If your kid is playing on a PC or mobile device, you can set time limits and block access in the device's settings.
  • You may have parental controls in your router software that let you shut off the game console, block the game, or eliminate access to all games. Routers from Asus, Linksys, Netgear, and others have highly rated parental control options. You can access your router software on your main home computer, or Google its name and follow the instructions for setting up parental controls.
  • If your ISP offers online tools or an app, use it to turn off the internet for a while.

"My kid has a phone, and I want to block mature content, prevent downloads, and limit their screen time."

  • Use Screen Time for iPhones or the Family Link app for Android phones.
  • If you want to add social media and text monitoring to their phones, consider an app such as Bark, which offers real-time activity reports and danger alerts.

"My kid sneaks their phone into their bedroom at night."

  • Collect phones and charge them in your room at night.
  • Use Screen Time (iPhones) or Family Link (Android phones) to enable Downtime or Bedtime until the next morning.
  • Turn off the Wi-Fi and the data using your router software, or, literally, press the "Off" button on your router.

Do parental controls really work?

From a technical standpoint? Yes. But the jury is still out on whether they're really effective. The tools can be confusing to figure out and time-consuming to manage. Parental controls are kind of blunt instruments designed to solve problems with many variables. And sometimes, for seemingly no reason at all, they don't work; a software update, for example, can throw everything off. Finally, studies on parental controls indicate that they can harm the parent-kid dynamic enough to make them a complicated choice. And:

There's no proof parental controls actually protect kids. Do kids see less inappropriate material because they have parental controls enabled? No one knows.

They can erode trust. When kids feel like you don't trust them, they might shut down, stop communicating, and engage in secretive behavior.

They can give you a false sense of security. Parental controls can make you feel like you're doing your job. But kids can defeat them, which sets up an unproductive game of cat and mouse. They work best with open, honest communication to ensure your kid learns to manage their own use, make good choices, and become a productive digital citizen.

Ultimately, the best parental control is you.

A combination of modeling a healthy approach to devices, and discussing media and tech use over time, on multiple occasions, will help kids regulate themselves and build skills to carry into adulthood. When you say things like, "Remember to think before you post," "Don't talk to strangers on the internet," and "Use strong privacy settings"—followed up with why it's important—they'll remember. And if you need some assistance from technology, there's no shame in that.

Caroline Knorr
Caroline is Common Sense Media's former parenting editor. She has many years of editorial and creative marketing writing experience and has held senior-level positions at Walmart.com, Walmart stores, Cnet, and Bay Area Parent magazine. She specializes in translating complex information into bite-sized chunks to help families make informed choices about what their kids watch, play, read, and do.