Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S
It’s no secret that kids engage with and through digital devices almost constantly. Because of this, many (probably most) parents worry about potential dangers in the online universe – mostly inappropriate content and contacts, but also the amount of time their children spend socializing and gaming digitally instead of face-to-face. No matter what, parents can’t be at a child’s side 24/7, hovering and monitoring. And what kid would put up with that, anyway?
So what’s a parent to do?
One relatively effective way to control your kids’ Internet usage and protect them from inappropriate online content and contacts is to install “parental control” software on their digital devices.
NOTE: This software needs to be installed on all of their devices, not just their computers. After all, anything kids can do on a laptop, they can also do on a tablet, pad, or smartphone.
I do not recommend installing a parental control software on your kids’ devices without telling them first. Your children will realize you’ve done it – usually sooner rather than later – and your secretive actions will create an enormous resentment. It is much better to discuss the idea with your kids beforehand, letting them know you’re not trying to spy on them or limit them, you’re just trying to protect them. It may help to explain that as long as they aren’t overusing their devices, trying to access inappropriate content, or talking to someone who might be dangerous, the software does nothing at all. Sometimes you can get kids on board by giving them input when selecting the time constraints, level of filtering/blocking, and degree of accountability/parental notification. Usually, when they feel they’ve had a say in the matter, protective measures are better received.
It is important to note that most kids can find a way around even the best of these products if they really want to. Or they can simply buy a new device and use it in secret. As such, the products reviewed below should not be looked at as enforcers of your will. Instead, they should be viewed as tools of effective parenting, best used in conjunction with an ongoing series of open-minded, nonjudgmental conversations about the healthy use of digital devices.
When shopping for protective software, parents should consider the following:
- Customizable Filtering and Blocking. Nearly all protective softwares have preset filtering levels ranging from settings appropriate for young children to settings appropriate for adults who wish to stay away from certain types of sites/apps. The better products also offer customizable filtering, with blacklisting of specific sites/apps that would otherwise be allowed and whitelisting of specific sites/apps that would otherwise be blocked. The best filters analyze page content in real time, which means, for example, they can allow access to a fan fiction site while blocking access to any erotic stories on that site. Ideally, filtering features are browser independent, preventing users from downloading a new browser or using a secure anonymizing proxy as a way to circumvent the protections.
- Secondary Filtering and Blocking Features. In addition to website filtering and blocking, most products offer various secondary features, including:
- Online search filtering and blocking
- App blocking
- Social media filtering and blocking
- Instant message and chat blocking
- File transfer blocking (preventing the sending and/or receiving of pictures, videos, and the like)
- Video game filtering and blocking
- Profanity filtering and blocking
- Time Management Features. Time management features control when a child can use his or her digital devices, and the total amount of time each day or week that he or she can be online. Some products will allow and/or prohibit use of certain programs and apps at various times of day. This feature can be quote useful – preventing kids from playing video games after a specific hour, for instance, while allowing them to still be online to finish their homework.
- Monitoring and Reporting (Accountability) Features. Ideally, protective software products monitor online activity and provide parents with reports on usage, along with real-time alerts if the child uses or attempts to use a digital device in a prohibited way. Available monitoring and reporting features may include:
- Websites visited
- Apps used
- Online searches
- Social networking
- Usernames and passwords
- Screenshot playback
Ideally, reporting is available remotely (accessible via your own computer or phone) at regular intervals, on demand, and via real-time text and email alerts.
- Ease of Use. Protective softwares should be easy to install and to customize. Ideally, you should be able to globally configure the product, establishing settings on all of your child’s devices simultaneously instead of dealing with each machine individually. The best softwares offer free 24/7 tech support via email, phone, and live chat.
- Compatibility. Not all softwares work on every digital device. It is important to make sure a product works on all of your kids’ devices before you purchase it. It is also important to see how many devices the license covers. Ideally, you want to cover all of your family’s equipment with only one license.
Below are short reviews of the most commonly utilized parental control software programs. These evaluations are geared toward the protection of kids. The reviews are separated into two categories: recommended products, and other possible options. The fact that some programs are not recommended does not mean they are bad products. It simply means they are not the best products for protecting young people.
Net Nanny. Net Nanny’s Family Protection Pass costs $59.99 per year for up to five devices, $89.99 per year for up to ten devices, and $119.99 for up to fifteen devices. The software is usable on Windows, Android, Mac, and iOS devices. Net Nanny has long been the gold standard in online protection, and the current version is no exception. It offers superb filtering and blocking, excellent time management, and very good monitoring and reporting features – all of which are easily adjustable. This means the product works well for all age groups.
Qustodio Parental Control. Qustodio can be downloaded and used for free, but that version does not have the full set of features. For complete protection, you’ll definitely want the premium version, which costs $49.95 per year for up to five devices, or $87.95 for up to ten devices, and $125.95 for up to 15 devices. Qustodio works onWindows, Mac, Android, and iOS devices. The filtering and blocking features are very good. Time management is excellent. Monitoring and reporting is also very good. Pricing is comparable to Net Nanny.
WebWatcher. WebWatcher is a good program, mostly on par with Net Nanny and Qustodio, except it’s really expensive at $99.95 per year for each digital device. It is usable on Windows, Mac, Android, and iOS devices. WebWatcher is great about capturing the content of emails and IMs, logging keystrokes, and providing actual screenshots. The filtering and blocking features are also good, as are the time management and reporting features. The company’s website brags a lot about stealth and covert monitoring. I’m not a fan of that, as this type of intervention does nothing to further the development of relationship trust. Still, this is a good product, except for the fact that it’s considerably more expensive than comparable products.
CovenantEyes. CovenantEyes offers online accountability with optional Internet filtering and blocking for a total of $10.99 per month ($131.88 per year) for each user (unlimited devices) or $14.99 per month ($179.88 per year) for the entire family (unlimited devices). CovenantEyes is usable on Windows, Mac, Android, and iOS devices. Most features are quite good, though filtering is a notch below the best programs.
Other Possible Options
Circle With Disney. Circle costs $99. Because it’s a router, rather than a download, it works with all devices. Basically, it replaces your home’s traditional internet and Wi-Fi router, letting you manage every device on your network, both wired and wireless, with no additional software. Products like Circle might eventually prove useful as a secondary protection, but as a primary defense they are unlikely to help, as kids can simply take their device to another Wi-Fi location and use it there.
Content Protect. Content protect costs $39.99 per machine. Content Protect works on Windows and Mac computers, but not on Android or iOS devices. The product offers above average filtering and blocking, with average time management features and below average reporting features. Content Protect is geared more toward businesses than families. In a pinch, this is a serviceable protective software product, but there are definitely some better options. The fact that this product is not usable on smartphones is a major shortcoming.
CYBERSitter. CYBERsitter pricing starts at $39.95 per year for up to three computers. It is usable on Windows based computers, but not on Mac, Android, or iOS devices. The filtering and blocking features are average, as are the recording and reporting features. However, the real drawback is that it is not usable on smartphones. This is a major shortcoming.
Elite Keylogger. Elite Keylogger costs $49 per year for one Mac computer or $99 for up to five. For Windows based computers, it runs $79 for one machine or $249 for up to five. It does not work on Android or iOS devices. Elite Keylogger is exactly what it says it is – a monitoring and reporting program. It does nothing in terms of filtering and blocking, or even time management. As such, it is not recommended as a protective software.
Forcefield. Forcefield costs $11.99 per month for one user, and $3.99 per month for each additional user. Currently, this product supports only Mac and iOS devices, which makes it less than useful for many families. This product allows parents to monitor pretty much everything a child does online, and to limit or even shut off access in real time. As such, it is more about control than building trust.
Intego ContentBarrier and Family Protector. ContentBarrier, $39.99 per year for one computer, $79.99 per year for three devices, works with Mac computers only. Family Protector works with iOS devices only, $5 per month per family. If you’re an Apple family, then these products are decent. The filtering and blocking features are above average. Time management features are also pretty good. However, the monitoring and reporting features are not quite as strong as with a few other products. Other drawbacks are lack of compatibility with Windows and Android devices, and that different programs are needed for computers and phones, which is a hassle during set-up and whenever you want to change settings.
Kaspersky Safe Kids. Kaspersky Safe Kids has a free version, and a version with more features for $14.99 for one year for one device, and an additional $4.95 for multiple devices. The product is fully functional on Windows, Mac, and Android devices. It is partially functional on iOS devices. (There is no call or text monitoring on iOS devices.) This product is a newcomer to the scene, and it doesn’t offer every possible feature, but it’s actually pretty good, and it’s definitely affordable. With some minor tweaks, this could become an excellent product.
KidGuard. KidGuard costs $19.99 per month per device. That is pretty pricey for what you get. Plus, it only works on smartphones – not computers, laptops, tablets, etc. And it’s more focused on “spying” on users (monitoring what they do) than on filtering and setting limits.
KidsWatch Professional. KidsWatch costs $49.95 per year for up to three computers. It is usable on Windows based computers, but not on Mac computers, Android devices, or iOS devices. Kidswatch offers good filtering and blocking features and solid monitoring and reporting features. However, it does not work with Firefox or Safari browsers, nor is it usable on anything other than Windows based computers. As such, it is not recommended.
McAfee Safe Eyes. Safe Eyes is designed for computers. Safe Eyes runs $39.95 per year for use on up to three computers, either Windows or Mac. Safe Eyes for Mac does not offer all of the features available with Safe Eyes for Windows. This is a major drawback for Mac users. In general, filtering and blocking is OK with Safe Eyes, while time management and monitoring/reporting features are better than average.
Mobicip. There is a free version of Mobicip, but the features are limited. The premiere version is much better. It protects up to five devices for one year for $39.99, working across pretty much any platform, including Windows and Mac computers, plus Android and iOS devices. Mobicip is awkward during set-up, and not as intuitive as the best programs. However, once it is set up properly, it provides decent filtering and blocking, time management, and monitoring and reporting.
Norton Family Premiere. Norton Family Premiere costs $49.99 per year for each device. It is usable on Windows, Android, and iOS devices (with limited features), but not Mac computers. Norton Family Premiere offers solid filtering and blocking, decent time management, and average recording and reporting. The downsides with Norton Family Premiere are that it is not compatible with Mac computers and its iOS features are limited. Moreover, at $49.99 per device, it can get expensive.
OpenDNS Home VIP. OpenDNS Home VIP offers a couple of free products with limited features. For $19.99 per year you get the Home VIP version with extended features. It works with Windows, Mac, Android, and iOS systems. The filtering and blocking features are fine, as are most of the other features that are available. However, it does not filter proxy servers or social networks. Nor does it offer real-time reporting of abuses (and attempted abuses). As such, it falls short of the better products.
PC Pandora Pro. PC Pandora Pro costs $69.95 for up to two computers. It is usable on Windows based computers, but not Mac computers, Android devices, or iOS devices. The filtering and blocking features are average, with above average recording and reporting features. However, the fact that it can’t be used on Mac computers or smartphones is a major drawback.
PureSight Multi. PureSight Multi costs $39.90 per year for up to three devices, $49.90 per year for up to five devices, or $59.90 per year for up to ten devices. The product is usable on Windows based computers and Android devices, but not on Mac computers and iOS devices. The filtering and blocking features are average, as are the time management and accountability features. For Windows/Android families, PureSight is a viable (and affordable) option. However, those who prefer Apple products will need to use another protective software.
SentryPC. SentryPC costs $59.95 per year for one computer, with additional licenses costing $19.95 per year. SentryPC is usable on Windows based computers but not on Mac computers, Android devices, or iOS devices. The filtering and blocking features are adequate, as are the recording and accountability features. The problem here is lack of compatibility with Mac and mobile devices.
SpyTech SpyAgent. SpyTech SpyAgent costs $69.95 per year for one computer, with various pricing available for multiple computers. SpyAgent is usable on Windows based computers but not on Mac computers, Android devices, or iOS devices. SpyAgent is not a filtering and blocking program, though it can provide a moderate degree of filtering and blocking. Its real purpose is monitoring, recording, and reporting. Because of this, along with the fact that it is not usable on Mac, Android, or iOS devices, it is not recommended for families.
Verity Parental Control Software. Verity costs $49.99 for a one year subscription covering one computer. The product works only on Windows based computers. It is not compatible with Android devices, iOS devices, or Mac computers. The basics of filtering and blocking, and the basics of monitoring and reporting are available here, but only the basics.
Witigo Parental Filter. With Witigo Parental Filter, a one-year subscription for up to three Windows based computers costs $49.99, Mac Computers run $29.99 per machine, and Android devices are $12.99 per device. Witigo does not work with iOS devices. Filtering and blocking is solid with this product. Time management features are also decent, as are reporting and monitoring features. Unfortunately, Witigo is not yet available for use on iOS devices, and this lack of compatibility is a drawback. The need for separate programs on computers and smartphones is also a shortcoming.