Parenting isn’t easy in the digital age. Many of us wouldn’t mind a little assistance when it comes to curtailing cyberbullying, blocking inappropriate websites, or simply limiting our children’s’ computer usage — which, for those eight to 12, is part of 6 hours of screen time per day. Thankfully, there is plenty of free parental control software available to help.
Sidenote: If keeping your kids safe online seems like too much work right now, how about getting them to play with a real-world tech 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
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 built-in parental controls
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.
Apps and extensions
Window and MacOS 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.
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 use, 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.
Zift (iOS, Android, Amazon Fire)
Zift is a top-notch parental control app focused on smartphones. It uses the Net Nanny filter, which allows you to block precisely the type of internet content you don’t want your kids to access. You can see how much your kid is using the phone, what searches they are making, and what apps they are using: If necessary, you can limit screen time and apps as needed, or shut off smartphone internet entirely. Zift will also send you alerts if it detects particular searches for things like porn, drugs, weapons, and mentions of suicide. If you’re primarily interested in smartphone control, Zift is one of the top apps to take a look at. A premium option is available, but the basic app is free.
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. It is compatible with popular destinations like Instagram and Discord, where parents may want to pay close attention, and updates continue to add more compatibility for the service.
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 being the one getting caught. 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.
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.
The normal free version stops there, but the advanced “premium” edition–$60 annually, or $8 per month–adds many more features, including time management options, storybooks, individual site blocking, multiple languages and more. You can get a free trial of the premium mode if you want, but it will start to auto-charge your account. Zoodles is excellent for younger kids, but remember that older kids will quickly learn to work around it.
FoxFilter (Google Chrome/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 and one of the fastest options to get up and running, but inexperienced users may want to stick with the pre-formatted list of warning words. Add 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.
If you want full protection for your growing kids, you’re probably concerned about smartphone use, too. You should check out our list of the best control apps for your kid’s smartphone. And we bet some of you are also interested in learning more about security on gaming consoles.
Also, since 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.