It is both increasingly important and challenging to monitor children’s technology usage. As the number of connected devices and opportunities to explore increases, so does potential exposure to the dark side of the internet. Pornography, cyber bullying, violence, and fake news are all a few clicks away either as an intentional search, accidentally, or via some other bad actor.
Kids now have access to the abyss of the internet via things like smart watches, personal assistants like Amazon Alexa, laptops, tablets, gaming consoles, and smart TV’s. Parental controls and monitoring should be considered for apps like Google, XBox, PlayStation, YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, SnapChat, Facebook, text messaging, WhatsApp, and email.
With everything to consider, it’s hard to know where to start, and that’s where this guide and our general resource guide for kids and tech come in handy.
Parental control overview
In general, parental controls on your child’s tech comes down to three categories:
- In-App Controls
- Device Controls
- Monitoring Services
In-App Parental Controls
The most important thing to remember when you start allowing your kids to use apps such as TikTok, YouTube or Instagram is to accurately reflect the child’s age when signing up. Apps like TikTok automatically adjust settings based on birth date of the user. From a privacy standpoint, thanks to child privacy laws, it is against the law for apps to collect any data on users under the age of 13.
For YouTube specifically, consider YouTube Kids. If that’s a little too young for your children, the first line of defense is restricted mode. Most apps have something similar that restricts violent or pornographic content from being displayed, even if specifically searched.
Beyond restricted mode, the next level of defense is creating a private account. A private account prevents random strangers from communicating with your children. Sadly, it also prevents random strangers from liking and subscribing and giving that social feedback that may be the reason your child is trying to use the app in the first place.
For a more comprehensive and all encompassing level of control over multiple apps, many of the monitoring and control services offer similar control over apps in one place.
In-App Parental Control Guides
- TikTok – This link is to CommonSense Media’s ultimate guide to TikTok, which includes parental controls
- SnapChat – Finally!
- Google – This is more of a device control, but may be useful even if you do not have an android device.
Device Parental Controls
The next category of parental controls are on the device or subscription level. Most platforms use a similar model whereby parents can set up a family plan. Apple calls it a Family Sharing Plan. Microsoft calls it Microsoft Family Safety.
Use the links to either Microsoft or Apple to learn specifics, but the important things to configure are as follows:
- Age filters
- Restrict purchasing to require “ask to buy”
- Set App limits – you can restrict how long an app can be used per week
- Communication limits – establish who your child can contact and when, if anyone
- Content & Privacy Restrictions – within this category, you can restrict a variety of things including purchases, content restrictions, access to web content, gaming, etc.
Below is an example of our son’s tech usage on his Microsoft Surface for the last week. This was a really good week for Lincoln. I can see he watched about an hour of YouTube using the BlueStacks app. I did about an hour of homework with him in Notepad. Finally, he played about an hour of Minecraft. You can see he had 3+ hours on his laptop on Saturday which is supposed to be a no-no in our house, but I think that when he walks away from the screen without locking it, it continues to record the time.
Device level parental control guides
Below are a collection of resources for device or subscription level parental controls on various platforms. Check out our overview of getting started with video games if you need more details from the ground up.
Pros and cons of device level parental controls
- These are all free and fairly robust
- You can get granular and either create a restricted app list, or even just have a list of apps that are allowed.
- You can view multiple devices in one place.
- There are controls to view search results, add blocked websites, or similarly to apps, you can have a whitelisted only group of sites.
- At least with Microsoft, you can only see a week in the past, so no reporting on usage over time.
- You cannot configure or monitor Microsoft or Apple devices from the same place.
For even more control over your child’s technology, consider a monitoring service. These services do not integrate well with console apps like XBox or Playstation, but they do a great job tracking and proactively controlling what happens on PC’s, Androids, and iOS devices. The best parental control apps for Android and iOS can also track your child’s location via GPS.
The level of monitoring and controlling ranges from web filtering and location tracking to straight up stalking. Some of the more creepy apps that will not be listed on this site allow parents run in stealth mode or record phone conversations without mutual consent.
The best parental control apps use AI to identify troubling or suspicious text or search history and notify parents. They can also be used to set up geofencing, notifying parents when their children are not physically located where expected.
Best parental control apps
The best apps we have reviewed are below. One notable missing app from our list is Kapersky, which generally receives good reviews, but is a Russian company. Politics aside, the United States banned using Kapersky on federal devices due to security risks.
Net Nanny is on most lists as the best for real-time monitoring. It is easy to use with excellent web filters and geolocation. Net Nanny offers great monitoring and screening with social media apps like Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube. The down side of NetNanny is it does not monitor phone or text messages.
If you search “parental controls for [anything]” on Google, Bark will probably have a paid result come up as one of the top results. We’ve had friends recommend Bark because of it’s ability to monitor social media activity, which is great for older kids. This is one of the apps that monitors for cyberbullying. The down side is it only works on mobile devices.
Norton Family is more affordable than Bark or NetNanny and makes it easy to track activity across multiple devices. The down side is it does not work on Macs and the mobile platform leaves a little bit to be desired.
Qustodio is compatible with nearly all devices, can support up to 15 devices, and checks most of the boxes when it comes to what parents are looking for. The main down side of Qustodio is it gets expensive quickly.