Top 4 Best Parental Control Software Programs: Protect Your Kids Online

best parental control softwareResponsible internet usage is to the digital-native generations what seat belt buckling and looking both ways before crossing the street were to their parents’ generation. But because they grew up with the internet, kids today are often more tech savvy than their parents, which can make it challenging to teach kids responsible, healthy internet habits. That’s where parental control software comes in.

Parental controls used to be available only as a basic software to filter explicit or violent content, but now a monitoring software needs to have much more than that. Because most of us are accessing the internet on our tablets and smartphones as well as (or perhaps even more than) on laptops or desktop computers, an effective monitoring software should be supported across several different devices. Children are also increasingly targeted for online harassment, stalking, and predatory grooming, so many parents opt for software that allows them to monitor who their children are exchanging messages with, either through social media or by SMS. Finally, one important aspect of teaching kids personal digital responsibility is helping them limit the time they spend plugged in. Many parental control software also include some sort of time management capabilities, allowing the parent to designate specific times that internet usage is allowed or to set a cap on how much time they’re allowed to spend online either by the day or by the week.

For the sake of simplicity and clarity, I’ll refer to the adult administrator of these software products as the “parent.” I of course recognize that in many families, someone other than the biological parent may take on a parental role in the life of a child—grandparents, aunts, uncles, or other guardians—and I value and celebrate their importance in fostering a safe and healthy environment for the children in their lives.

Comparing features

little boys playing on tabletThere’s some variation by software in how these features work, but each of our five selections has some form of the following:

  • Customizable real-time content filtering that allows parents to regulate and monitor what their kids are exposed to while surfing the web.
  • Access scheduling that helps parents teach and enforce time-management by allowing internet usage only at specified times.
  • User-specific settings that allow the parent to personalize filtering and access scheduling according to the needs of each child.
  • Remote management either by app or web portal so parents can view reports and make changes even when they’re not at home.

Here’s how other features compare at a glance:

Our ranking#1#2#3#4Honorable Mention
Product nameKaspersky Safe KidsNet NannyNorton Family PremierQustodioMobicip
View product
Price$14.99 per year$39.99 to $89.99 per year$49.99 per year$49.95 to $87.95 per year$39.99 per year
Free version available YesNoFree 30-day YesYes
Operating systems /devices supportedWindows Mac OS X Android iOSWindows Mac OS X Android iOSWindows Android iOSWindows Mac OS X Android iOS Kindle NookWindows Mac OS X Android iOS Chromebook Nook Kindle
Notifications
SMS text monitoring
Location tracking
Our ranking #1
Product name
Kaspersky Safe Kids
View product
Price
$14.99 per year
Free version available
Yes
Operating systems /devices supported
Windows Mac OS X Android iOS
Notifications
SMS text monitoring
Location tracking
Our ranking #2
Product name
Net Nanny
View product
Price
$39.99 to $89.99 per year
Free version available
No
Operating systems /devices supported
Windows Mac OS X Android iOS
Notifications
SMS text monitoring
Location tracking
Our ranking #3
Product name
Norton Family Premier
View product
Price
$49.99 per year
Free version available
Free 30-day
Operating systems /devices supported
Windows Android iOS
Notifications
SMS text monitoring
Location tracking
Our ranking #4
Product name
Qustodio
View product
Price
$49.95 to $87.95 per year
Free version available
Yes
Operating systems /devices supported
Windows Mac OS X Android iOS Kindle Nook
Notifications
SMS text monitoring
Location tracking
Our ranking Honorable Mention
Product name
Mobicip
View product
Price
$39.99 per year
Free version available
Yes
Operating systems /devices supported
Windows Mac OS X Android iOS Chromebook Nook Kindle
Notifications
SMS text monitoring
Location tracking

#1 Kaspersky Safe Kids: Best overall value

kaspersky safe kids
Kaspersky Safe Kids is our top pick because it offers the most features at the lowest price. Not only does it have custom web filtering, but Kaspersky also allows parents to monitor apps on mobile devices, Facebook accounts, and SMS messages (Android only). Parents can also implement time management and location tracking.

For Premium accounts, Kaspersky supports an unlimited number of individual family member profiles on an unlimited number of Windows, Mac, Android, and iOS devices. For each individual profile, the parent or adult administrator can configure filter categories such as adult content, weapons, religion, etc., as forbidden, warned, or allowed. This is one of my favorite Kaspersky features because, especially for families with teens, having the option to issue a warning rather than restricting content entirely can help teach personal online responsibility. If a child decides to ignore a warning, you’ll get a notification. This can then be used as an opportunity not so much for punishment, but for conversation.

Kaspersky also has some pretty smart time management and app monitoring features. It can limit the time spent online overall, in addition to time spent playing games or using social networks, so you can differentiate between the time spent doing homework and playing.

Pricing

Kaspersky offers two plans: Free and Premium. Both plans can support an unlimited number of devices, which is great if you have a lot of kids with a lot of gadgets. The Free plan offers the following features:

  • Online activity management
  • App management
  • Time management

To upgrade to the Unlimited plan, you’d pay $14.99 to get everything the Free plan offers, plus the following add-ons:

  • Location tracking
  • Facebook monitoring
  • Android call and SMS monitoring
  • Real-time alerts and notifications

If all your kids are still young, the Free plan is likely sufficient to cover their online homework and game play activity. Once they get older and more mobile (and especially if they have their own cellphones), $14.99 per year is a pretty reasonable price to help them stay safe online and on the go—it’s less than half the price of every other plan on this list and offers the most features.

Supported devices and system requirements

  • Windows desktops and laptops: XP Professional and newer
  • Mac desktops and laptops: OS X 10.9 and newer
  • Android: Version 4.0 and newer
  • iPhone/iPad: iOS 8.0 and newer

Pros

  • Free version available
  • Low annual cost with premium features
  • Option to give warnings instead of completely blocking
  • Location tracking and SMS monitoring
  • Advanced per-device access scheduling, including daily and weekly caps
  • Ability to limit the time spent on social media and playing games
  • Real-time mobile alerts for parents

Cons

  • Limited functionality for iPhones and iPads due to restrictions in the operating system

#2 Net Nanny: Best social media monitoring

Net Nanny 10-Device Family Protection Pass - Parental Control Software and Internet Filter for Mobile and Social MediaOur runner-up, Net Nanny, shares most of Kaspersky’s features and adds a couple of its own to the mix. It’s our second choice instead of our first because it does not have call and SMS monitoring or location tracking like Kaspersky, and it’s over double the annual price but monitors only five devices. However, its unique profanity masking and social media monitoring capabilities may make it worth the extra cost for some families.

Unique to Net Nanny, this software has profanity masking that replaces profanity with special characters and works even in constantly changing comment sections, where the most explicit language is often found. We’ve all seen this—you’re watching a cute cat video on YouTube and scroll down to the comments to find a heated argument chock full of profanity and slurs. Net Nanny ensures that your kid can watch cat videos to their heart’s content without unnecessarily adding to their vocabulary.

Net Nanny is the best choice for a parent whose main priority is monitoring their child’s social media activity because it has the most comprehensive social media software, called Net Nanny Social. Most social media monitoring features monitor only Facebook, but Net Nanny can also monitor Twitter, Pinterest, tumblr, Google+, and LinkedIn. It will even notify you when your child’s email address is used to create a new social media account so they can’t create secret accounts. As a parent, you’ll have access to posts, photos, and videos published on your child’s accounts.

Net Nanny is equipped with algorithms that identify cyberbullying, cyberstalking, grooming, or other harmful activity so you can be aware of how your child is treated (or treats others) online. If you’re not hip with the current lingo, Net Nanny even offers a glossary of terms and acronyms so you’re not left in the dark. Net Nanny Social is included in all of the Net Nanny plans (prices below), but if you want only social media monitoring without the other features, you can get just Net Nanny Social for $19.99 per year.

Pricing

All of Net Nanny’s three plans share the same features, so the pricing tier is based on the number of devices you want to support. For $39.99 per year you can get support for just one PC or Mac computer. The single-device plan comes with one free year of Net Nanny Social, and after that it’s $19.99 per year (in addition to the $39.99 you’re paying for Net Nanny).

If you want to support for multiple devices (desktop computers, laptops, smartphones, tablets), you’ll need to go with a Family Pass—either $59.99 per year for up to five devices or $89.99 per year for up to 10 devices. The two Family Pass plans come with Net Nanny Social at no additional cost.

Supported devices and system requirements

  • Windows desktops and laptops: XP and newer
  • Mac desktops and laptops: OS X 10.7 and newer
  • Android: Version 2.3.3 and newer
  • iPhone/iPad: iOS 8.0 and newer

Pros

  • Profanity masking, even in comment sections
  • Protection against cyberbullying, cyberstalking, and grooming on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, tumblr, Google+, and LinkedIn (with Net Nanny Social)
  • Real-time access-request alerts
  • Access scheduling and daily use caps

Cons

  • No SMS monitoring
  • No location tracking

#3 Norton Family Premier: Best privacy protection

norton family premier
I wish I could give Norton Family Premier a higher ranking, but the software is not compatible with Mac computers, and its iOS support is limited. If you don’t need to monitor any Apple products, Norton Family Premier is a great parental control software with similar features to Kaspersky Safe Kids, including customizable filter settings for each user. It can monitor apps, calls, SMS, and social media.

Like Kaspersky, Norton’s focus is not so much on control but rather on personal responsibility. The “House Rules” section on the dashboard is where you define the limits for each user. I like this phrasing because it reinforces the importance of conversation and collaboration among parents and their kids for deciding what is acceptable behavior, encouraging kids to take responsibility and ownership for their actions.

One of my favorite features is that Norton will notify you when kids try to share personal information such as a Social Security number, phone number, or email address. They’ll get a warning that it’s not allowed and an explanation of why. You can then set aside time to have a discussion about online security and why it’s dangerous to share personal information over the internet, regardless of whether it’s with a stranger or a friend.

As long as your kids have Android phones or Windows computers, Norton can let you check in on apps, calls, social media, and SMS messages. You can see all the apps installed on their devices and manually block the ones you don’t want them to use. Unlike Kaspersky, Norton provides no way to schedule app usage—if you want to limit access to an app, you’ll have to block it entirely. Norton does let you see the names and numbers of all incoming and outgoing messages and calls on your kids’ phones so you can approve or block contacts, see conversations, and choose which contacts your kids can exchange private texts with. For added safety, Norton uses GPS and Wi-Fi triangulation to locate your child’s phone, helpful in emergencies or instances where you suspect they’re not going the places they say they’re going.

Pricing

Norton offers a free 30-day trial of Norton Family Premier so you can try it out before committing. After that, it’s $49.99 per year.

Pro tip: Norton’s full security package, Norton Security Premium—which includes Norton Family Premier—is $109.99 at full price, but the company often offers discounts, so be sure to check back frequently. In addition to all the parental controls of the family package, Norton Security Premium also offers automatic backup, cloud storage, and protection against malware, viruses, and identity theft.

Supported devices and system requirements

  • Windows desktops and laptops: XP and newer
  • Mac desktops and laptops: not supported
  • Android: Version 4.0 and newer
  • iPhone/iPad: iOS 9.0 and newer

Pros

  • Free 30-day trial
  • SMS monitoring
  • Protection against your children giving out personal information online
  • Video supervision for YouTube and Hulu
  • Ability to lock a device via the Family Portal

Cons

  • No Mac support and limited iOS support (see full list of feature compatibility here)
  • No push notifications, just email alerts when your kids try to visit a blocked site
  • Time supervision only per device, not a total for all devices, so your kid could use up all their time on the PC and then switch to their cellphone
  • No game usage controls

#4 Qustodio: Best for time management

Qustodio Parental ControlIf helping your kids with time management is one of your top priorities, consider our fourth pick, Qustodio.

Qustodio has the most robust time management features I’ve seen. You can create weekly access schedules as well as daily time limits for each user, with either overall or per-device restrictions. It can be set to block the use of the device entirely when time is up, or just give your child an alert when they’ve maxed out their time. Time management is even built in to Qustodio’s app control features, allowing you to entirely block access to an app or create a schedule for when an app is allowed—this is particularly useful for monitoring game time.

Another unique feature is the panic button on the mobile app to help kids out when they feel unsafe. When the button is pressed (or the phone’s headphones button is clicked three times), Qustodio will send an alert with the phone’s location to up to four trusted contacts.

For its Facebook chat monitoring, Qustodio doesn’t report the content of the chat, just the person’s name and how long they were talking. I like this because it grants your teens more privacy while also keeping them safe from strangers.

Like many of the software on this list, Qustodio’s iOS compatibility is limited. If your kids use iOS devices, you’ll want to disable the use of other browsers so that your kid has to use the Qustodio Safe Browser. Instructions on how to do this come with the iOS edition. (On PCs, Qustodio is browser-independent.)

Despite its otherwise comparable features, Qustodio comes in fourth on our list because it is fairly expensive at $49.95 and supports only five devices. Norton is about the same at $49.99 but supports an unlimited number of devices.

Pricing

Qustodio offers one free plan and two paid plans. For one device and one user profile, the free plan offers the following features:

  • Web, search, and app monitoring
  • Smart filtering and safe search
  • Social media monitoring
  • Time controls
  • Online monitoring dashboard

To upgrade to a premium plan, you can pay $49.95 per year for up to five devices and five users or $87.95 per year for up to 10 devices and 10 users. The premium plans offer all the same features as the free plans, plus these add-ons:

  • Monitoring of multiple users on multiple devices
  • Game and app blocking on all devices
  • Time controls per device
  • Panic button/location and tracking
  • Call and SMS monitoring/blocking
  • Advanced Facebook monitoring: status updates, pictures, relationship status, events
  • 30-day detailed activity reporting
  • Priority help and support

Supported devices and system requirements

  • Windows desktops and laptops: Vista and newer
  • Mac desktops and laptops: OS X 10.6.8 and newer
  • Android: Version 2.2 and newer
  • iPhone/iPad: iOS 7.0 and newer

Pros

  • Free version available (with limited features)
  • Kindle and Nook monitoring
  • Robust time management feature

Cons

  • Limited iOS compatibility
  • Higher price than most other services

Honorable mention: Mobicip

Mobicip Safe BrowserLike the other software on this list, Mobicip covers the basics by allowing parents to manage filtering, monitor apps, and access schedules on multiple devices for multiple users. It gets only an honorable mention, however, because it lacks some of the more advanced features of the other choices on this list, such as social media and SMS monitoring, which many parents see as important in keeping their kids protected from online predators.

Some customers also complain that its user interface (UI) can be difficult to navigate and that Mobicip’s browser can run frustratingly slow at times. If the product isn’t easy to use, customers (even parents) are more likely to disable it because it just isn’t worth the hassle. Mobicip offers a free version of its product, which is great for trying out the UI for yourself, but at $39.99 for five devices, its paid version is a little pricey considering the features it’s missing.

Things to consider

As a parent, you could have a lot of different reasons for wanting to monitor your kids’ online activity. Maybe you want to keep them safe from cyberbullying and online predators, or you need help enforcing time limits on video games, or you need to address a responsibility issue. Before choosing a monitoring software, identify your major goals in monitoring and look for something that has similar priorities. Here are some other factors to consider while you shop:

Customizable, user-specific filtering

If you have kids in multiple age groups (young kids, tweens, teens), you’ll want something that has highly customizable filtering for each user. If you just have young kids, a pretty standard filtering system should be enough to keep your kids away from objectionable content.

Multi-device support

teenager listening to musicMany families now have smartphones, tablets, and gaming consoles to contend with in addition to computers, meaning you need a software that’s robust enough to handle many different devices and their operating systems. Be sure to check that all the devices you want to protect are compatible with your desired program—some of them have features that work on some devices but not on others.

If you have a huge number of devices, you may want to consider a router-level device so that you don’t have to download software on every single device and make sure they’re all accounted for—the device will take care of that. If you want to monitor just a handful of devices, a less-expensive software should do the trick.

Notifications

Most modern parental control software includes some sort of real-time updates to your phone. These could be access requests when your child wants to see something that’s been blocked, alerts that a kid downloaded a new app, or notifications that someone used up all their internet time for the day.

App monitoring

Particularly if your kids have their own cellphones or tablets, you’ll want something a software that includes app monitoring. Some software will just let you see what apps are downloaded on each device, while others allow you to remotely block or allow apps.

Social media monitoring

parent browsing with childSocial media monitoring could be anything from reading kids’ personal messages and posts to accessing their friends list and messaging partners (without access to the content of those messages) to getting alerts when a user attempts to send personal information.

Access scheduling and time management

Access scheduling can help you teach your kids to set healthy limits for themselves and may even help you to do the same for yourself. Look for a software that allows you to designate specific times for internet usage so no one’s tempted to browse at bedtime. Another useful feature for the whole family is daily or weekly usage caps, which will track the total amount of time a user spends online and either give the user a warning or cut them off entirely when they’ve reached their limit.

Free version or free trial period

No matter its purpose, I always like software that offers a free or trial version so I can try out its user interface and basic features without making a purchase. Kaspersky, Qustodio, and Mobicip each offer a free version with limited features, and Norton offers a free 30-day trial. As with any trial version, be sure to put the trial expiration date in your calendar so you’re not charged for something you don’t want to keep.

Don’t forget to talk about it

Whether you’re looking to protect your kids from explicit content, keep an eye on their social media activity, help them manage their internet time, or do all of the above, there’s an affordable parental control software for your family. As with any home security measure, remember to have frequent family discussions about online safety and responsibility, even if you have software to help you out.

Have you used software to help monitor your family’s online activity? What are your priorities for protecting your children online?