Proper parenting isn’t easy in the digital age. There was once a time, prior to the internet, when a social network strictly referred to you and your band of cohorts, when “following” someone was considered illegal, and when the only pornographic images available lined the glossy interior of publications like Hustler and Penthouse.
Most kids these days are well versed in the tech-savvy art of computing. Many of us wouldn’t mind a little assistance when it comes to curtailing cyberbullying, blocking inappropriate websites, or simply limiting our childrens’ computer usage — for many, it now hovers around eight hours a day. Thankfully, there is plenty of free parental control software available to help.
If keeping your kids safe online seems like too much work right now, how about getting them to play with a real-world techy toy instead?
Built-in OS features
Although giving your kids technology designed for their age group is a good step to keeping them safe online, when they have access to more general computing devices, you can leverage parental control features built right into the operating system. The parental controls for both Windows and MacOS provide a convenient and acceptable means for restricting Web access and chat functionality, along with viewing detailed logs and monitoring email exchanges.
Windows Family Safety
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends
For Windows 10, you need to sign up for a Family Safety account. You can then add a specific child account (or more) to your family account that your kids can use.
This approach may be a little complicated, but it comes with a variety of benefits. You get activity reports for all online activity from the child accounts, and can block any apps, games or sites that you want.
For an idea of what apps are actually beneficial for kids, take a look at some of our favorites.
You can also limit how much time they spend on the account, and strictly control their purchasing activity. There’s also some real-world safety features including the ability to track your kids’ location as long as you use Windows mobile devices.
MacOS touts more than a few options when it comes to parental controls, each of which is accessible via the “Parental Controls” pane housed within the main System Preferences panel. The software includes options for blocking specified applications and websites. You can also block messaging with particular people you deem unworthy or inappropriate. Parental controls must be set individually for each person, but once done, users can also set time limits.
There are other options, such as the ability to hide profanity in most source content, and users can additionally prohibit the computer’s built-in camera and disc-burning utilities. If there’s more than one Mac on a single network, users can even remotely manage said parental controls from a different computer entirely. It’s a fairly comprehensive solution if you don’t mind spending some time in Mac settings making sure everything is set up correctly. The catch is that you can only manage parental controls by user, so you’ll need to set up separate accounts for each child.
Window and Mac OS X offer a decent selection of parental controls, but they can’t do it all by default. In the same vein, parental control can be a challenge to set up on child-focused mobile devices. Here are downloadable programs that may be more suited to your particular goals.
K9 Web Protection (Windows/MacOS)
K9 Web Protection, the company’s first offering in the market of parental-control software, is as lightweight as it is speedy, offering phenomenal cloud-based filtering and a swath of features common among the best premium products. This includes blocking websites by picking from more than 70 different categories (drugs, porn, gambling, violence, and more), and activity reports. K9 promises real-time categorization of the latest adult/malicious sites so that new threats won’t be a problem, either.
You can also create custom lists that permanently block or allow specific websites based on your own decisions, or limit web access to only designated times. Most of your settings can be overridden by your parental password when necessary. Plus, it works on the latest Windows, MacOS, iOS, and Android platforms. Really, it’s such a complete service that we’re surprised K9 hasn’t started charging yet. You may want to jump on this one quickly.
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Qustodio has a very clean, easy-to-use interface that allows you to sign up for the free version of its software in moments. You manage everything from the dashboard, which includes social media monitoring, individual time limits for internet usem, games or apps, and the ability to track text messages and calls on the right devices. The real-time internet filter can detect pornography, and makes sure that everything is blocked, even in private browsing modes.
Compatibility options are impressive, since the software supports Kindle and Nook, as well as Windows, MacOS, Android, and iOS. However, Qustodio is trying to make as much money as possible with this program, so many features (like game blocking, location tracking, etc.) are locked behind paywalls. You can also only use the free version on a single device, which limits its applicability. This is a great set of features, we just wish more of it was available for free.
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Family Shield from OpenDNS (multiple platforms)
OpenDNS bought and fostered FamilyShield with the goal of creating a free, powerful parental control tool that was focused on the practical lives of kids. As a result, FamilyShield is both easy to download and provides a lot of unique features. That includes protection for Internet-connected game consoles, like Xbox One, automatic fraud blocking, and automatic blocking of proxy servers that might be used to get around parental controls.
The service also uses automatic updates to ban adult and violent websites as they appear. The catch here is that you have to set up your router to be compatible with OpenDNS, which involves a little technical work, and some testing to make sure everything is compatible.
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Kidlogger (multiple platforms)
Kidlogger is a great option if you’d prefer to be covert instead of proactive. Instead of blocking sites, Kidlogger automatically tracks keystrokes and web history, as well as program use (and it automatically saves any screenshots taken on the computer). When installed on a smartphone, the app also automatically logs any phone calls made, by number and by contact name.
The free version of Kidlogger is OK, but the premium versions add some oomph, though some of its features are downright invasive. If you want to monitor your child’s phone conversations and record WhatsApp messages, Kidlogger can do that. Unfortunately, the app doesn’t have native password protection, so if you’ve got a smart kid, you could end up getting caught (ironically). The app is available for Windows, MacOS, Android, BlackBerry, and iOS. Like Qustodio, a free account limits you to one device, while paid versions offer more protection.
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Zoodles kid friendly web-browser (Windows, MacOS, Android)
Zoodles takes the dramatic step of replacing the entire web-browser with one built around children. Specifically good for really young kids just getting to grips with accessing content online, Zoodles combines a filtered online-experience with a walled garden of promoted, child-friendly content.
Available on a variety of devices and operating systems, Zoodles offers games, books, videos, and access to other age-appropriate content, all customizable by parents. There are activity reports to see what your child spends time doing, as well as an adjustable “recommender engine” which helps parents promote certain learning tools to their children through the application.
No matter if you use the free version with basic features, or the more advanced “premium” edition, Zoodles is a great tool for younger children. It’s easily circumvented once they know what they’re doing, however, so don’t try and force this one on your teens. For baby’s first internet-experience though, Zoodles does a great job.
Browsers, add-ons, and extensions
Since the Web is where most children spend the majority of their computer time — don’t we all? — it’s not a bad idea to incorporate an add-on, extension, or even a dedicated browser featuring a basic filtering system and monitoring mechanics. They’re lightweight, install in seconds, and provide enough protection for young children — though like the Zoodles browser, older kids and teens may be able to find their way around extensions.
FoxFilter (Google Chrome/Mozilla Firefox Add-on)
FoxFilter is designed to provide users with a score of blocking filters based solely on individual keywords and sites (i.e. Playboy, lingerie, nude), while offering solutions for adding trusted sites to a curated list of exempt content. Moreover, the add-on’s sensitivity settings can be tweaked to scan body content as well as the title and URL, and users can set notification and alert preferences detailing the type of content underlying each blocked site.
This preference managing is great for blocking a range of websites according to your own goals, but it may also be tricky for inexperienced users. Use the wrong keywords, or too many keywords, and you may find nearly every website blocked. FoxFilter does offer free email support, so if you encounter any issues don’t hesitate to contact them.
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Nanny for Google Chrome, LeechBlock for Firefox (Browser Extensions)
As children get older, certain content concerns may go away. However, time management becomes a greater source of worry, especially for teenagers whose lives begin to increasingly revolve around social interaction — and, in turn — social networking sites. Nanny and LeechBlock are browser extensions that offer a simpler and more specific version of control: productivity control.
The extensions block particular sites at specific times of the day to prevent distraction and promote productivity, thus allowing you to block Facebook from noon until 6 p.m., for instance. The two add-ons also let you designate how much time your kids can spend daily on certain websites, which means you can allocate an hour or two of time on a specific site instead of blocking the domain entirely. The extensions might even help you with your productivity, especially considering how easy it is to fall prey to productivity-hindering distractions now and again.
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Now that you’ve made sure your kids are safe online, what about making sure your web activities are well protected too? Make sure you’re running a strong antivirus solution and keep your passwords shored up with our favorite password managers.
Updated 11/22/17 by Jon Martindale – Updated links and text.