Modern kids spend an awful lot of time glued to their phones, tablets and other screens. It’s almost expected that kids as young as six or seven years old will have a smartphone or, if not a phone, then a tablet.
And once you’ve given them a device, it’s very difficult to stop them spending all their spare time using it.
Asking them to turn it off usually turns out to be ineffective, but you should should care more about what they’re using their device for than how much time they spend on it.
However, good parental control software lets you place limits on both. It can prevent them from using certain apps at all, or for too long, and can block the device entirely at bedtime.
One of the hardest things to control is when your kids have access to various devices. If they do, you’ll need an app that works across all those devices and can enforce an overall time limit so they don’t simply pick up a second screen when the first one times out.
However, while some apps such as Qustodio are great for this, even they have their limits. They don’t work on smart TVs or games consoles, so can’t prevent your child or teenager turning on the TV and watching more YouTube or playing games on their Xbox once their screen time has run out on their phone, computer and tablet.
That’s when parenting skills have to be used, or you find a way to enable parental controls on those devices as well.
Regardless, the services we’ve reviewed here allow you to limit screen time on the devices they do support as well as filtering out ‘bad’ stuff from the web – assuming you even let them have access to a web browser, which you don’t have to.
Bear in mind that no parental control app is perfect, and there’s no cast-iron guarantee that any web filters will block 100% of undesirable content on the internet. Each of the apps here has its strengths and weaknesses but, since you probably just want to know which one to go and download,
Qustodio is the pick of the bunch. It has a three-day free trial, so you can find out if it does what you need it to without spending any money.
And if you have only one child with one device, you can use it for free (with a few restrictions). It really comes into its own when you have more than one child, and they have multiple devices, though.
Also, parental control software isn’t a replacement for actual parenting and supervision. They’re not stealthy, secret apps for spying on your kids either: you’ll need to talk to them about why too much screen time is bad for them and the dangers that lurk online, and why you’re installing a parental control app on their phone (or tablet) in the first place. They won’t like it, but once they understand the reasons for it, it will stop all those arguments about why they shouldn’t have to turn off their device and go to bed. Or school.
If you’re wondering about the kind of boundaries to set for your kids, here are some guidelines on
how much screen time is healthy for children and some useful
tips for keeping kids safe online.
What parental control software is best?
$54.95 per year (five devices)
Qustodio’s main advantage is the number of platforms it covers. The app can be used on Windows, macOS, Android, iOS and Amazon Fire devices, which just about covers everything.
The idea is that you install the Qustodio app on your child’s device(s) then us the Qustodio Parent app on your own phone, tablet or PC to monitor and control how they use their devices.
For example you can specify when they can and can’t use their devices (in 1-hour blocks – there’s no finer control than that, unfortunately) and also set time limits for specific apps and an overall daily time limit, which can be different on different days.
So, for example, on weekdays you could let them have three hours of screen time between 9am and 8pm, but be able to use TikTok for a maximum of one hours, and have no limits on WhatsApp so they can chat to their friends.
And those limits apply and sync across devices, so they can’t spend that hour on TikTok on their phone, then pick up a tablet and use the app for longer.
Smart filters prevent access to inappropriate content (including in private browsing modes), plus you can see just how much time they are spending on social media sites (which again can be curtailed or blocked completely). If you’re worried about inappropriate communications with people, you can also see who your children are messaging and calling, plus there’s the option to actually read their SMS messages (Android only) or block a contact.
Control is more limited on an iPhone or iPad, but the clever use of a VPN means Qustodio can restrict use at certain times and limit how long apps are used for. Most other parental control apps are close to useless on Apple devices.
Qustodio also has a location tracker which requires that the device is turned on and has an internet connection. It’s not great, though. Alerts tend to arrive ages after the child arrives at or leaves a location. It doesn’t report their device’s battery level, so you won’t know if it’s about to run out. Life360 is a much better option if you want to track where your kids are (or use Google Family Link if they have an Android Phone, or Find My if they have an iPhone).
YouTube monitoring is available on Android, Windows and Mac and lets parents see what their kids are watching and searching for. There’s also a section called Social media, but this only includes Facebook monitoring – a bizarre choice as it’s the one social media platform kids don’t use.
Basic blocking and monitoring features are available on the free tier (which covers only one device), so most people will need to sign up to the Family plan which covers five devices. There are more expensive options if your kids have more devices than that. Qustodio’s not the cheapest, but it’s worth it for the control it offers, despite its foibles.
Read our full
2. Google Family Link
Great control over screen time
Reliable location tracking
Works only with Android devices
Google Family Link used to be terrible. But now, it’s fantastic, so long as your child has an Android phone, that is. Although you can install it on an iPhone, that capability is only for iPhone-owning parents wanting to monitor and control their child’s Android device.
There are three main reasons that Family Link is such a great option. First, it’s free, which is of course the best price.
Second, it allows you to set up an overall time limit for each day, bedtime hours when their phone can’t be used and individual time limits for specific apps. A nice, relatively new feature is that you can set an app as ‘Always allowed’. This differs from the ‘No limit’ option in that the child can continue using that app until bedtime even if their screen time for the day is used up.
This is handy for apps such as WhatsApp or anything you deem to be “wholesome” and not really count as screen time. The only thing you can’t do, which Apple’s Screen Time can is to allow specific apps to be used during bedtime hours. This may not bother you, but such an option can be useful in certain situations.
The third reason we like Family Link so much is its accurate location tracking. You can see at any given moment where your child is on the map, and that location is really precise.
When your child is close to running out of screen time, an extra time option appears, which lets you grant them a bit longer, if you choose to do so. You can also set it up so any apps they want to install need your approval first.
If there’s a downside, it’s that Family Link doesn’t really do web filtering. It has a setting to ‘Try to block explicit sites’ in Chrome, and you can switch it to a mode where your child can only visit sites on a list you put together, but neither option is ideal. And neither will stop them using another web browser that’s already installed on their device.
3. Net Nanny
Great web filtering
Can block inappropriate content in TikTok and Instagram
Control over app blocking needs to be improved
Limited geofencing options
Net Nanny has been around for many years now, always with the specific aim of keeping children safe online. Where it started out on the Windows desktop it now encompasses Android, iOS, macOS and Amazon Fire.
Its focus, as the name suggests, is to filter out unsafe and unsavoury content on the web. It also notifies you of the search terms your children are using (which can be a good way to see if they are being bullied or experiencing other unpleasant things). Naturally there’s a block on pornography, and you can block or allow other categories as well as specific websites.
Screen time can be limited via the parental control app which also allows you to set times of day when the internet will be available. A curfew setting means there should be no sneaking of phones or tablets into their rooms, as the apps will all be locked down after bedtime. These can all be relaxed quickly via the control app, meaning you can reward good behaviour with extended time online.
Unfortunately, you can only block or allow apps (and on iOS there’s control only over listed apps – a little over 100 are on there). What you can’t do it limit how long your kids use them for, which will be a deal-breaker for some parents.
You’ll also find a location tracker with geo-fencing so you can be alerted when the child arrives or leaves. Unfortunately, you can’t set up a location in advance: you must pick from locations they’ve been to already. You can’t set a distance from that location, either: it’s the default or nothing.
Net Nanny will give you instant notification of online searches that contain trigger words (usually related to drugs, suicide and other scary stuff), and regular reports summarise how your child is using apps and the web.
Net Nanny offers a package for one PC, but you’ll almost certainly need the 5-device
Family Protection Pass package that costs £49.99/$54.99 per year. The next step up is 20 devices, and that’s a lot more expensive.
Lots of different plans available
Starting from $1.99 p/m for 1 device
While most of the apps here cover laptops and desktops as well as mobile devices, MMGuardian takes the view that most kids these days are on their phones and tablets rather than sitting at the traditional PC. This makes its offering quite interesting as you can pay a monthly subscription just for the device that the child uses, so long as it’s running Android or iOS.
For parents not wanting to overspend, which is pretty much all of us, the option to pay $3.99/£2.99 to protect an iPhone or iPad each month is more tempting than the annual fees some rivals charge. However, if you have two or more kids and / or they have multiple devices, MMGuardian offers a Family Plan that supports up to five devices. It’s an annual subscription that costs $69.99/£49.99.
In fact, there’s a wealth of different plans, even options to sign up for five years on a single device, or multiple devices if you want to. Unusually, there’s a discounted rate for using it on Android tablets: just $1.99/£1.49 per month.
As you’d expect there’s one app for the child and a different one for the parent. The parent can then use their app to set time limits on screen usage or for specific app, block apps and websites, turn on filters to keep inappropriate content away, curfews, and a location tracker to know where they are at all times.
One valuable features is notifications of when certain words are used in text messages, which could indicate bullying or something of a sexual or threatening nature. In fact, MMGuardian is one of few apps that can monitor the messages your child sends in Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Instagram, Snapchat, Kik, Discord and TikTok – in addition to SMS and MMS messages.
As with others here, the features on offer vary a lot between Android and iOS, and there’s very little control over iPhones.
But for Android phones, you get a similar set of features to Qustodio including overall time limits, the ability to block or allow specific apps and set time limits per app. You can even group apps and set rules for, say, games. You could let you child play them after school until bedtime on weekdays, but whenever they like at the weekends (until the overall time limit is reached).
Location tracking is better than Qustodio’s, partly because you can set up schedules to report a child’s location every 15 minutes, say, between 8 and 9am and 3.30-4.30 when they’re on their way to and from school.
5. Norton Family
Good location tracking, and geofencing
School Time feature
Doesn't work on Macs
Limited control over iPhones
The Norton brand is synonymous with antivirus protection along with other security software. So, it’s no surprise that the it also provides protection for children as well. Included in Norton Family is a comprehensive set of tools to prevent kids straying too far from the path. But only if they’re using the right devices.
There’s no support for Macs at all, and on iPhones and iPads many of the features are simply those that you get from the built-in Screen Time feature.
There are the obligatory content filters, time management options, monitoring of search terms and sites they’re visiting, along with the ability to block apps and certain websites. Summary reports show the breakdown of all this information and provide a deeper understanding of online behaviour.
One interesting addition is a video content monitor which lets you know the content they’re watching on YouTube. Each one comes with snippets, so you can evaluate whether they are the kind of things you want your child to consume.
Though you can set the times between which the child can use their device(s) in half-hourly increments, Family Premier sees each device individually, and therefore you have to set limits per device. Maybe that’s attactive to you, but we like Qustodio’s approach which syncs across devices and lets you more easily limit your kid’s time on Roblox regardless of which device they use.
As well as the app (which can be used by a parent) there’s a web-based portal so you’re always able to adjust the settings and monitor your kids’ usage no matter which device you’re using.
It’s the only system with a ‘School Time’ feature that stops distractions (such as blocking access to games) while the child uses the device for school work. This was primarily designed for remote learning during lockdown, but remains a useful feature if the device is used for homework even after lockdown ends.
There’s location tracking, but no social monitoring, so you won’t be able to see what your child is up to in TikTok, Instagram or any other social app.
How do I control my kids’ internet access?
Your broadband provider may already offer parental controls. This might just involve content filtering, but it may also give you control over when kids can use their devices. In the UK, BT has Parental Controls, Sky has Sky Broadband Shield, Virgin uses Web Safe, while TalkTalk offers HomeSafe.
Filters like these provide the ability to set the general level of content that can be accessed online, usually broken down into age groups. That means it’s easy to set blocks for sites and services that are aimed at adults or teenagers. The downside of these protections is that they apply to the whole family. So, while you may want to protect little Timmy from accessing grown-up material on the web, doing so means you won’t be able to either.
A more nuanced route is to restrict access from certain devices rather than the connection itself. This can be done either by using the controls built-into the operating system itself, as you can see from our Android parental controls, Amazon Fire for Kids and how to limit iPhone app usage with Screen Time guides, as with the specialist software we feature below.
The advantage of some services here, as opposed to the controls built into devices themselves, is that they generally support various types of device which means you can keep tabs on what your kids are up to even if they have access to an Android phone and an Amazon tablet, for example.
If you only use Screen Time or Family Link, you’ll need to set up restrictions on other devices your child has access to, otherwise they could just get more screen time after their Android phone or iPhone locks for the day.