Everything You Need to Know About Parental Controls

From simple content filters to robust home network solutions, new parental controls offer a range of media-management options.
Caroline Knorr Senior Parenting Editor | Mom of one Categories: Cell Phone Parenting, Privacy and Internet Safety
Senior Parenting Editor | Mom of one
Everything You Need to Know About Parental Controls

Even if you've talked to your kids about screen-time limits and responsible online behavior it's still really tough to manage what they do when you're not there (and even when you are). Parental controls can support you in your efforts to keep your kids' Internet experiences safe, fun, and productive. But they work best when used openly and honestly in partnership with your kids -- not as a stealth spying method.

Of course, nothing is entirely fail-safe -- and you'll still want to have conversations about making good choices. Here's an overview of the different levels of protection available.

  • Your device's operating system. Microsoft's Windows, Apple's Mac OS, and Google Chrome come with robust built-in parental controls. To get the most benefits, you need to use the most updated version of the operating system, and each user has to log in under his or her profile. 
    Good to know: You don't have to pay extra for them and they apply globally to everything the computer accesses. 
    Good for: All ages.
     
  • Web browsers. Browsers, for example Mozilla Firefox, Google Chrome, and Apple Safari, are the software you use to go on the Internet. Each one offers different ways of filtering out websites you don't want your kids to visit. Learn how to set restrictions in your browser
    Good to know: Browsers are free, but if you have more than one on your machine, you need to enable filters on all of them.
    Good for: Younger kids. Older kids -- especially very determined ones -- can easily defeat browser restrictions either by figuring out your password or simply downloading a new browser.
     
  • Kids' browsers. Sometimes called "walled gardens," these are protected environments that fill up your entire screen (so kids can't click out of them). They typically offer games, preapproved websites, email, and various activities. Examples include ZoodlesKido'z, and Tweens Browser.
    Good to know: Kids' browsers are usually free for the basic version, but cost money for a premium upgrade. They also sometimes display ads or promotional content.
    Good for: Younger kids. Walled gardens are too limiting for older kids who need (or are allowed) greater access to the wider Web.
     
  • Computer-software controls. Full-featured parental-control programs, such as NetNanny and Qustodio let you block websites, impose screen-time limits, and monitor online activity (for example, which sites your kid visits) on your computer or laptop. Many of these programs also offer added security against malware and viruses and will send you a summary of what your kid does online. 
    Good to know: They usually require a monthly subscription fee.
    Good for: Kids of all ages -- and especially kids who need a lot of support in following your rules.
  • Smart phones and tablets. Some mobile devices come with basic parental controls -- but the options vary a lot depending on what you have. You can also download apps such as Bark, Limitly, and TeenSafe to track and control online activity, including text messaging and social media. If you're an Amazon user, Kindle Fire tablets come preloaded with Kindle FreeTime parental controls. (Learn how to set parental controls on the iPhone and how to lock down your iPad.)
    Good to know: To monitor your kid's social media accounts, you'll need their passwords and user names.
    Good for: Younger kids. Once kids get older, they will either resist any attempt to limit their access or simply figure out a way to defeat what you've restricted.
  • Home networking. There are both hardware and software solutions to control your home network and your home WiFi. OpenDNS is a download that works with your existing router (the device that brings the Internet into your home) to filter Internet content. Circle Home and Torch are newer types of WiFi router controls that are designed to be easy for parents to operate. They include the ability to turn off the internet with a single click when used in conjunction with the app.
    Good to know: Mucking around in your network and WiFi settings can be challenging.
    Good for: All ages.

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About Caroline Knorr

As Common Sense Media's parenting editor, Caroline helps parents make sense of what’s going on in their kids' media lives. From games to cell phones to movies and more, if you're wondering "what’s the right age for…?"... Read more
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Comments (42)

Parent written by Play O.

Besides router settings and the router where it can't be accessed, neither physically or through the interface is worth anything but a false sense of security. Keep the computer in an open area not in their room. If a child can't pay for and be responsible for a smartphone only allow a tracphone for emergency calls. You can secure your router and have WiFi turn off durung certain hours. Not all routers give you much in the way of options. Doing anything at the device level will only work with very young children who shouldn't be alone on the digital highway to begin with..
Parent of a 6 year old written by Nancy A.

Thanks for your guide. I have a six-year-old son and I am searching for parenting tips recently. Your article is really helpful. I will share it to my friend. BTW, I read an article before, it also brings some benefits to me. Here I think I can let you know: https://www.cisdem.com/resource/how-to-prevent-children-from-accessing-a.... Meanwhile, it seems AppCrypt is a great third-party app for parent to limit child to play games on Mac. Thanks a again. Have a nice day!
Adult written by Ray Terner T.

Not to turn into control freak you may use Geo-fencing and Keyword alerts features that http://familyshield.club developers created. You are not watching your kid all the time, but you got notifications when your children leave safe zone set by you. Parents got notifications when a word they added to a black list appear in conversation.
Parent of a 10 year old written by simonl1

The key to Parental control is being a parent. Software controls are a tool to help. Our family started to use Safe Lagoon ( ww.safelagoon.com) with all of the blocking that was covered above as well as a whole lot more - for example in our case we use Whatsapp monitoring, GPS tracking and instagram control. The whole package for the cost of a visit to Starbucks! Our daughter knows that we use this and is ok with it on her android. Would be great to get this on our home Mac, but it looks like they focus on mobile... worth it.
Kid, 11 years old

Look Parents, If You Get All These Third-Party-Blockers And Stuff, We Can Just Open Task Manager And Close Them. We Can Use Built-In Features (And If You're Like Me, Hacking) To Stop Parental Controls! Because Built-In Features Cannot Be Blocked!
Parent written by bnjmnsmith6

Follow-up question: we're all about parental controls in our home and on our devices. However, i do agree that someone always finds a way to out-smart the controls somehow. Like, for example, my nephew found out that if you look up Night Clubs on Apple Maps, you could find inappropriate pictures on them. Anybody find out how to block Apple maps? Or maybe just monitor what he searches without giving him the option to delete the history?
Teen, 14 years old written by Beeblebrox

Just a note to all parents, be careful when installing SMS trackers, keyloggers and monitoring programs, as many of them, especially keyloggers, are often designed for hackers to log passwords etc. The download of such programs is illegal in certain countries (I.e. Germany).
Parent written by petrinab

This is a great article, I love all the informative information. I have tried a few different parental control apps which I did not find to be very beneficial to me. I finally found a wonderful parental control app that does everything I need and is very user-friendly. I now use Familoop Safeguard for Android (https://www.familoop.com ) I manage all my protection settings and feature restriction right from my Android device - I only need Internet connection to get my restrictions applied on all my devices that my son has access to. It's great because it filters web pages, blocks apps, collects information about visited and blocked websites for my review. I highly recommend this parental control app!
Parent written by rasirud

I'm using Best free keylogger of bestxsoftware to watch my kid's internet activities. I think it's very necessary thing using it.
Adult written by sarah_jayne

I'm a teenager (aged 18) and I've always had NetNanny on my phone and laptop. I feel much safer online because of this. I know this is a surprising view because most teens absolutely hate this sort of software, but I can't see any argument at all against being protected in this way.
Teen, 13 years old written by Prefer_Anonymity

As a soon-to-be 14 year-old teen I feel like I should provide some input on this issue. My parents have always been conscious about my sites and programs I download and install, and have imposed Parental Controls, NetNanny, and the like on my various devices that I have had over the years. I have extremely mixed feelings regarding restricting child access to the web or OS, among others. Parental Controls not fail-proof, and take little skill to bypass or remove. Even applying a password to a child's account is ineffective (ex: Linux boot stick, simply replace the sethc.exe file with cmd). However, especially for preteens, restrictions significantly improve computer skills. I actually have my parent's restrictions to thank for teaching me to hack, rebuild/repair machines, and code. For example, when I was 11, in order to bypass the password to my account I coded an .exe that replaced the magnifier to display a list of my most-used programs and games- this opened a new world of programming to me. There is no way restrictions will effectively block access to porn sites or social media, short of disabling your internet service at regular periods (this is counterproductive tho), and exposure to such things WILL HAPPEN. I am not condoning letting kids have free reign; give them something else to do besides being on Instagram or Facebook; open a new world for them by exposing them to coding and computer science. The RaspBerry Pi is a great option for kids who are becoming introduced to the world of computers. I hope my feedback impacts your decisions on restricting your child's computer use.
Educator and Parent written by tamaras2

I have some concerns about my 6- year old Nabi. My husband has set it up to where it is "kid friendly" and sites such as YouTube could not be visited okay. Somehow porn was still accessed, even in the Kids YouTube app? All parental controls were set accordingly so how can this still happen? You would think that your child's "Nabi" is considered safe to use due to the limitation software installed on a child device. I watch him like a hawk now when he is on our devices. I do not want to completely ban him from his Nabi. I am also very paranoid because I do not want my son exposed to gay porn. Are there other software that can be downloaded? I hope support from this group can put my mind at ease.
Teen, 14 years old written by Beeblebrox

Why gay porn in particular? I think that the only way you can really impose good parental control is to actively impose your own controls, (I.e. blocking surviving websites) rather than relying on built-in safety controls, as the built in one's don't block some sites that you may consider age-innapropriate.
Parent written by charlene02

wow... as a fellow parent I'm also concerned about exposing my kids to porn and indecent images online. I personally use Alvosecure, and it completely gives me peace of mind. This software covers everything I possibly wanted!! Here's the website: http://alvose.com/parental-control.php. I hope it helps you as much as it helped me!
Adult written by natahorchata

I'm using this application and functionality that blocks mobile phone, you can also set a schedule for the release, for example, block whatsapp your children when they are at school. Safe Kids parental control ;) https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=parental.control.safekids
Adult written by tecnik

@2many2please I know this seem a little too late. But I think you might be interested in looking at this router: http://www.pcwrt.com
Parent written by neilf

In addition if your teen has Administrator rights in Windows so you should to install the additional parental control program, for example K9 or Time Boss Pro. There are dozens of such programs (with many features - forced breaks, time limitation of internet sites...) in the net
Parent written by rickye1

A pretty great post. Today parents are always worried about their children. I think we should use parental control software on our pc. http://www.remotespy.co/best-keylogger-for-mac.html I have heard about Aobo keylogger is such kind of more effective keylogger. It track all the activities of children on computer. Also it works invisibly.
Parent written by 2many2please

Hey! Great info from all. Tell me - if I do a router/network version of parental control - can I limit access to the internet with different times for different users? With an 18 yr old, 14 yr old and 9 year old, the needs are very different for all. Also can I limit access to certain sites/pages for my daughter, but still allow her to access internet for homework purposes?? Would love some clarification on this.
Parent written by Play O.

You can do this. Depending on your networking knowledge, it isn't always simple. You need a router that allows you to control the WiFi access by the MAC address. Keep in mind savvy kids can spoof MAC addresses. There are routers that can do that but the ones people get from the cable company don't have much settings. Also if the kids can access the WiFi settings then it is useless. There are programs like Wireshark that track all network activity but they are really hard to use without a networking background.
Adult written by nightyl

"Aobo Mac keylogger is invisible parental control software for Mac. It logs keystrokes, websites, chats and takes screenshots. It offers three day free trial. Just have a try. http://download.cnet.com/Aobo-Keylogger-Standard/3000-2162_4-10911381.html Micro Keylogger is the best Windows parental control software: http:www.remotespy.co/pc-keylogger.html"
Teen, 13 years old written by Yvonne_Harper_Crana

It's rather interesting how secure parents think their controls are. My parents never put controls on computers, so I have been able to use computers freely and learn with them. A lot of my friends had controls on their computers/tablets/phones. So I started seeing what can bypass/break them. I have 4 preloaded USBs: 2 for windows, 2 for Mac, full of stuff to disable controls. Often the easiest solution is to just run a Tail live cd via USB. Many apps can be disabled or deleted on phones/tablets. Nexus settings are really annoying though. The funny thing is I'm actual making them more secure. I give them pgp for their email so not even the government can see their secure communications and they can be authenticated ei. No one can impersonate them. Anyway, I strongly suggest you don't put controls because they can always be broken (and it encourages people to teach them about computers). If you put controls on computers, it just makes it take more time. You could put a keylogger but first you'd have to jailbreak their phone. And it wouldn't stop them, it would just log it. Also, all teens will watch porn at least once whether or not you want them. It's honestly not the worst thing in the world. Your stigmas involving sex just make it seem shameful.
Parent written by DavidtheParent

Seems like there was some problem in my past comment, here comes the parental review website I put together Parental Control Software Review Thanks once again Caroline for a great guide! http://www.parentalcontrolnow.com
Parent written by LinVA

What about an iPod? I've figured out how to set up the Restrictions (under Settings-General) to limit content. But I see no way to limit hours, like I can do on the Windows 8 computer. I've looked at apps but none of them seem to have time limits for iPods or iPads. Also, the passcode on Restrictions is a basic 4-number system--seems way too easy. It would be so helpful if Apple let you set up these kinds of restrictions at the iCloud level for a certain device.
Parent written by Johnb

For my younger kids (under 10) I care about content filtering (I'm using KIDOZ on PC and my Android Mobile ). But for my oldest daughter I find myself worry more about cyber bullying... and here I find no helpful tools :-(
Parent of a 8, 11, and 14 year old written by thelittlebird

We control access to the web at night by having our wifi turn off at a certain time. Late night phone and text access is controlled through setting restricted times on our Verizon website. We can't really control what she does during the day but we can make sure she's not on the web or phone all night! This will be great to have in place as our 2 younger girls start testing boundaries and have phones of their own.
Parent of a 12 and 15 year old written by denejean

We have added Parent Kit to our smart phones - this is an app that allows up to shut down game play, access to the web, etc on a schedule, and as a consequence to poor behavior. We have LOVED having this feature. We can still get hold of our kids as needed, but they aren't playing games when they are supposed to be doing homework!
Parent written by Christer6

I am concerned about who they are talking to over the internet. Although I told them they could not talk to strangers and don't give out any personal information including their name. I would love to see what they are doing and what sites they are signing up for besides going through their history. I also make them give me all their passwords and they are suppose to ask before signing up which they do (so far.)
Adult written by crashtx1

Parental controls always fall short and can always be beaten. I have spent to much time trying to filter things out it's hard to know if it was/is worth it. Kids work together to beat the system, so they continually pass around the names of photo, blog, and movie sites that are not on the "bad" lists that filters use. This means we have to state vigilant and try to keep up, but as soon as you block one another pops up. I've also seen kids pass around VPN programs on a thumb drive, just pop it in the computer and it can bypass all your filters.
Adult written by claeton

Home Networking offers another powerful solution: limiting at what time of day the children's devices can access the internet. Turning off internet access from 10pm-7a, ensures that children are not using social media or interacting with their peers when they should be sleeping. It also prevents inappropriate online behavior to occur unobserved late at night when there is no parental supervision.
Parent of a 7 year old written by dbowker3d

Good topic and nicely spelled out, but the one HUGE red flag that stood out right away was the line about browser restrictions that: "Older kids -- especially very determined ones -- can easily defeat browser restrictions either by figuring out your password or simply downloading a new browser." That should NOT be the case- at all. Each user in a family should have a separate Login, and no kid/teen should have user privileges set up so that they can just install whatever they want. Make sure that when the machine goes idle or on screensaver it Locks that user and requires a password so a teen can't just jump onto a Parent session. If a one's password is so easy that your teen can guess it you have much bigger problems than your son checking out porn. And of course SO many users out there DO have very easy to defeat passwords, and thus that's why we have a massive amount of fraud and identity theft. So please, everyone start by securing your own credentials first, and then move on to secure your kids access. And BTW, on any newer Windows OS, (Windows 7 and especially 8) the Parent Controls are very secure, and can easily be set so as to not allow a new browser to be downloaded and installed. Having control over what software gets installed should be the first thing that is set. If anything just for virus and malware security, as frankly most kids are not NEARLY as "savvy" as they think they are. Thanks again for the article!
Teen, 14 years old written by Beeblebrox

However, speaking from personal experience, Windows 7 machines (not sure about 8, 8.1 and 10) are notoriously easy to hack into, given about 10 minutes. I personally am savvy when it comes to tech, so if I anything to go by, all Parnell controls are quite useless Sorry if I seem a bit up my own behind.
Parent written by LinVA

Thanks for addressing this topic. We got a new computer with Windows 8 on it, and I was disappointed that I had to set up even the basic parental controls online. The online Microsoft site wanted all kinds of details like my birthdate and my children's, and then needed a separate e-mail address for me and for my child's account. Crazy--the whole point is that I don't want my child to have an e-mail account yet. But once I got it set up, I did like the fact that it imposes both what is calls time limits and curfews, which are times when the child account can or can't be logged into plus a running total limit on number of hours per day.
Parent written by LinVA

Yes, that's what I'm doing with the e-mail account in my child's name, too. I didn't know about the way the profile follows each person in Windows 8 and will seriously considering changing all our available devices to Windows 8 just for that reason. It's a great improvement.
Parent of a 7 year old written by dbowker3d

Having a separate email for your child doesn't actually have to mean they themselves have access to it. For younger kids it's more like a placeholder account. I set this system up for our 7 year old son (again to filter content, and allow him to safely viewer Lego Youtube videos, for instance, and to have the time limits set up). But of course "his" email is only accessed by me. But the additional thing that is really nice, is that all the devices in the house are now Windows 8, and his profile thus follows to each device and tracks "screen" time to ALL of them. So if the limit is 30 minutes per day (or more for an older child) they can't just move from PC to another as the time is tied to the Profile, not the individual machine. And then again, it's also nice because it limits any software being installed accidentally, and on the plus sidle for him he feels like he has his own space on the computer, with his own wallpaper etc.
Parent of a 7, 9, and 11 year old written by Mflixx

We use Webtitan for a DNS filter; it's very affordable and is a great alternative to open DNS. However, DNS filters may not work well in blocking image searches so we use K9. It's image search filter seems to be pretty ironclad so it makes a great 1-2 punch.
Parent written by AnnE 2

Most of the free spyware applications are packed with viruses. They are unsafe to use. However, there is a certain reliable program I came across last week that lets you access to track kid's messages easily. You may look up at smstrackers.com and read full information.

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