How to Choose Internet Filter Software
The top performers in our review are Net Nanny, the Gold Award winner; SpyAgent, the Silver Award winner; and Qustodio, the Bronze Award winner. Here’s more on choosing a program to meet your needs, along with details on how we arrived at our ranking of the top internet filter software programs.
Communication is every parent's first line of defense when it comes to keeping their kids safe from online pornography, sexual predators and cyberbullies. Internet filter software is the second. You can install this software on your computer to block websites and filter content, and it will alert you if your child is being cyberbullied, so you can oversee all aspects of your family's online activities. The best of these programs can even send you real-time alerts to notify you of the development of potentially dangerous situations. Additionally, internet filter software can be used to establish limits on how many hours your children spend online.
Educate yourself on all things internet safety related by reading our articles on internet filter software. If you're a Mac user, we also have a separate list of the best Mac internet filter software. If your kids spend more time on their mobile devices than the home computer, be sure to also get caught up on which are the best parental control apps for cell phones.
How It All Works
Internet filter software works by giving you the ability to create specific user IDs for every member of your family who uses a computer. This enables you to set restrictions for certain individuals based on their age or maturity level. With the software, you can block certain websites, allow access to a select few or any combination thereof.
You can also choose to block websites that have been flagged for certain content, such as drugs, alcohol, pornography or violence. These blockers decipher a site's content before it is displayed on your screen, and prevent access to content types you’ve deemed inappropriate. There are even profanity maskers that can block out profane text or render any website with profanities inaccessible. For older children, you can assign warnings that inform them their activity will be reported to you if they proceed to sites you have flagged as off-limits.
Additionally, internet filter software programs come with reporting features that provide you with detailed summaries of all online activity. Some of the best include the ability to capture screenshots, log chat conversations, and copy you on inbound and outbound emails so that you can review them. This kind of monitoring helps you ensure that your child is not being cyberbullied or approached by sexual predators.
When you buy web filtering software online, you don't have to wait for a box to arrive in the mail. You can download the software directly from the developer's website and begin setup within minutes. The vast majority charge a subscription fee, sometimes reflected as an annual cost. Some software developers give you the opportunity to pay for the program on a month-by-month basis, which lets you opt out if you find another program you would rather try instead.
Beyond the capabilities of the software to perform its job and deliver immediate notification alerting you to potential risks, ease of installation and setup are two other key considerations in deciding which internet safety program to buy. The software's effectiveness relies entirely on it being easy enough for any parent to operate but complex enough that no tech-savvy child can circumvent it. For these reasons, we gave serious consideration to a combination of security and ease of use features when picking our top choices.
Internet Filter Software: What We Tested, What We Found
We installed each of the software programs in our list on test computers and performed thorough comparative testing. By creating child user accounts, we were able to test the effectiveness of each software program to perform various functions.
Reporting & Notification Features
Tools that allow you to examine gathered data are critical. All of the internet filter software programs we reviewed share reporting and notification features that can be customized to your specifications, but only the best of the bunch give you options on when and how you are notified, such as receiving real-time emails or texts to alert you that your child is participating in questionable behavior you may want to put an immediate stop to.
Activity Recording Features
One thing that differentiates the best internet filter programs from those of lesser quality is the inclusion of activity recording features. The most effective programs store information about visited websites, online searches and even keystrokes to create a record of how your child is using the internet. Social network activity and email can also be tracked. Additionally, some offer the ability to capture screenshots, webcam and microphone activity to keep you fully informed of what your kids are up to when they're at the computer.
Filtering & Blocking Features
The value of internet filter software relies heavily on its dependability at blocking offensive websites and filtering content based on age-appropriate criteria. All of the software programs we reviewed have the ability to blacklist URLs and whitelist others, while some can also differentiate between websites that contain certain types of material, including pornography and violence. We also found that only some filter software has the ability to monitor social media platforms, like Facebook.
Most of the programs we tested have category filters that let you quickly designate specific content types to block rather than requiring you to type in every website URL you don’t want your child to access. Categories typically include pornography, violence, drug use, religion and other mature content. We were impressed to see that Familoop includes an impressive 77 filter categories when most average about 20.
Verity doesn’t have specified filter categories. Instead you have to type all blocked material and websites into the designated text fields. Covenant Eyes also doesn’t have specified categories, but it does have maturity levels with specific content automatically blocked based on the age level and the individual website ratings. For websites that are rated as E, or everyone, Covenant Eyes will allow access to all user accounts. On its highest level, the software allows access to any internet content except that on sites rated HM, or highly mature.
To create a level testing field in this area for each program, we came up with a list specific URLs and attempted to access them with filter and blocking controls engaged. The results of these tests are reflected in the individual product reviews. We also engaged the category filtering features and tested them against a set list of websites. All three of our top ranking software programs were able to differentiate between the different categories of sites; however, we found that some of the lower ranking software programs had difficulty identifying legitimately off-limit websites in some cases.
Installation & Support
A software program's usefulness is greatly dependent on your ability to operate it to the full extent of its abilities. Without that, even the most effective internet filter program in the world doesn’t do you a bit of good. For this reason, we paid special attention to factors like ease of installation and the presence of a keyword-searchable knowledgebase.
Internet filter software isn't always intuitive and may require the intervention of a support department to walk you through the complexities of establishing individual user accounts, setting up alert notifications and understanding the data that's reported to you. To ensure you have the most options for getting help when you need it, we ranked each program on the availability of telephone support, email support, live chat and informational databases.
Our testing was designed to simulate the experiences of a typical consumer. We obtained the software in our comparison through a combination of retail purchase and loan from the software developers. The developers had no input on our test methodology, and our rankings were not provided to them prior to publication.
What Else Is Important in Selecting Internet Filter Software?
Having web filtering software that is compatible with the greatest number of operating systems is important, but even more critical is finding a program that's going to stay functional as technology advances. Look at the designer's track record of offering support for multiple operating systems. Are they just now releasing an update for Windows 8 or are they already supporting Windows 10? Aside from giving indication that a software developer is evolving in step with the state of the art, paying attention to this detail may save you from having to learn a new program the next time you upgrade your computer.
Online monitoring software and pornography filters that work with both PC and Mac may also be useful to you if you own both or if you're considering doing so in the near future. There are internet safety software programs that work only on PCs or Macs, just as there are programs that work on both.
Although intended primarily to operate on desktop and laptop computers, many website blockers and filtering programs can be used on mobile platforms like smartphones and tablets. Considering that so many children access the internet from their phones, purchasing internet filter software that is compatible with mobile devices gives you the most comprehensive level of coverage for keeping an eye on the online activities of your child.
Our Verdict and Recommendations
Not all of the internet filter software programs we reviewed ranked high in every category. Some performed exceedingly well in certain areas but still lack the diversity of features that help keep your kids safe online. For example, although Net Nanny ranked high on our list for offering the greatest number of features, the standard software program provides only basic monitoring for social media on Facebook. If you want a more expansive view of what your child is doing across a variety of social networks including Twitter, Instagram, Google Plus and Tumblr, you have to add Net Nanny Social.
On the other hand, Net Nanny has the most comprehensive profanity filter available, including the ability to perform profanity masking. This is a feature not available with any other program we reviewed. All others take the approach of fully blocking sites with even marginally foul language, which may or may not be the methodology you want for your family.
In short, picking an internet filter software program depends greatly on what is ideal for you. Although we found Net Nanny, Qustodio and SpyAgent to be the overall best, you may find great value in a software program like Witigo, which offers great filtering and blocking options. Additionally, McAfee and Norton there are both established products with excellent reputations, even if they fall short of ranking among the top three.