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The Best Parental Control Software for 2024


How to Monitor Your Child’s Devices

Experts say that kids who feel like they have some agency in the use of parental control apps are less likely to try to disable the software or get around restrictions. Not looking forward to hard talks with your kids? Take time to learn how your child uses technology. As tech addiction increasingly becomes a problem, it’s important children learn the value of good device habits for themselves.

Check that any product you choose doesn’t place restrictive limits on the number of child profiles or devices covered by your subscription. Large families, for example, will appreciate an app that works on an unlimited number of devices. Most parental control software operates as a subscription service, so pricing tiers tend to align with device limits, though some offer free versions for basic protection on a limited number of devices. If your kids are strictly smartphone users, take a look at our roundup of mobile parental control apps.

If getting parental control coverage installed on each of your family’s devices starts to seem too difficult, consider a whole-network solution. These systems perform content filtering at the router level, so your settings affect every device on the network. Naturally, you don’t get the same fine level of control and detailed monitoring you get with a local agent on each device, but this is a much broader solution.

Some parental control utilities use VPN technology, running internet connections through a local app to enable content filtering. You’ll see the VPN icon when such a utility is active, but it doesn’t mean the child’s connection is secured by a full-scale virtual private network, nor that the device’s IP address is masked.

Some kids spend more time on gaming consoles than any other device. The parental control services in this roundup don’t cover this situation, but we show you how to enable parental controls on gaming consoles elsewhere.

Web Filters, Time Limits, and Apps

Parental control tools usually offer content filtering, which is the ability to block access to websites matching categories such as hate, violence, and porn. This type of filtering only works if it’s browser-independent and works with secure (HTTPS) sites. With no HTTPS filtering, a smart teen could bypass the system using a secure anonymizing proxy website or even an uncommon web browser in some cases. Using a VPN or the Tor browser often breaks even the strongest protections, too.

Most apps also have the option to permanently enable SafeSearch, though those settings are often limited to Google, Bing, and sometimes YouTube. Your child can thwart most SafeSearch restrictions by using a privacy-focused search engine such as DuckDuckGo.

Access scheduling is another very common feature. Some services let parents set a daily or weekly schedule for device usage. Others specifically restrict the amount of time your kid spends on the internet. This is particularly useful for children who have a habit of playing games or using social media apps when they should be doing homework. The most helpful time-based settings apply to all your kids’ devices, so they just can’t switch between them to evade limits.

Check out our coverage of additional ways to manage your child’s screen time on all of their devices.

Monitoring Your Child’s Messaging and Social Media

As kids get older, content filtering alone may start to seem pointless. At some point, you start to worry more about their interaction with the wider world. Sure, if their friends come over in person, you can at least meet them, but what about friends on social media and other contacts your child never mentions? Who are they, really, and what are your kids discussing with them? Although some supervision is acceptable, you still need to respect your child’s basic right to privacy and encourage open discussion rather than using parental control software as spyware.

Some services let you monitor contacts and messages and keep an eye out for potentially dangerous or unsanctioned situations. You can even block new contacts or view message content with some parental control software. Keep in mind that this primarily applies to SMS texts; messaging apps such as WhatsApp, Snapchat, and Signal do not fall under the same scope. Most of the services we’ve tested have given up on monitoring social media for now.

Parental Controls and Video Streaming

You can use parental control software to block access to video streaming apps and sites, as well as limit how much time your child can spend using them. However, if you are looking to restrict what your child can watch on Netflix, Disney+, and other video streaming services, none of these parental control tools provide that capability. Instead, you need to dive into the settings of each video streaming service.

The parental control capabilities of video streaming services vary widely. Some do not offer any options to restrict content, while others may simply offer a kid-friendly mode that broadly limits the streaming library to content appropriate for young children. The best services allow you to set rating restrictions on individual profiles and prevent your kid from simply switching to an unmonitored profile without a password or PIN.

Parental Controls Notification and Management

Most kids are on mobile devices at least some of the time, and many are almost exclusively accessing the internet on their phones. Fortunately, many parental control services offer a companion app that lets you view your child’s activity, set basic rules, and view notifications as they arrive. This kind of companion app is particularly useful for responding to access or time-extension requests on the go. Otherwise, you manage everything online or locally on the PC, where you have fine control over activity reports and restrictions. Any changes you make should propagate to your children’s devices when they connect to the internet.

When your child tries to visit a blocked site, makes a post using iffy language, or otherwise bends the rules, the best parental control services send you a notification to your preferred channel, such as via the app, web, email, text, or some combination of those options.

Additional Parental Control Features

Some parental control systems have advanced features to help them stand out from the crowd. Among these standout features are YouTube monitoring, geofencing, and remote device locking. Microsoft’s Family Safety app even keeps track of your teens while they’re driving to encourage better habits on the road.

You’ll also find advanced versions of standard features with paid parental control apps. For example, the best content filters don’t just use a database of categories. They analyze page content, filter profanity, and allow you to add custom keywords and categories you want to block. We also like those services that support multi-factor authentication for account logins. Generally speaking, the more advanced features you want, the more you can expect to pay.

What Is the Best Parental Control App?

At PCMag, we believe parental control apps are only effective when installed with a child’s consent. Otherwise, the kid will simply find ways to get around the restrictions you’re paying to put in place. That’s why we recommend free parental control apps from Apple, Google, and Microsoft instead of paid third-party solutions.

Talk to your kids about online safety and why some of the behavior, content, or relationships they witness on the internet need to be off-limits for now. The internet wasn’t created with kids’ safety in mind. Remember that fact, and help create a safer online space for your family through open, compassionate, and engaged communication with your kids.


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