Skip to main content

Best parental software: rest easy when your kids are online

Best parental software

We have been reviewing parental control software for eight years. Recently we spent more than 120 hours testing 19 different programs looking for the best software on the market, and we landed on Qustodio

Editor's Choice: Qustodio

Qustodio makes the internet safer for your children with tools that help you keep tabs on what they look at, who they interact with and how much time they spend online.VIEW DEAL ON Qustodio

Qustodio has all the tools you need to monitor and control your child’s internet usage on computers, cell phones and tablets. 

It has 26 filter categories, like pornography, gambling and religion, and it will automatically block sites that fall under the filter or alert you when they are accessed. The time controls manage when your child can be online and for how long.

Because wiretap laws vary by state, we do not advocate using parental control software to record phone calls, either audio or video. For example, some states require consent from all parties in a recording, and it may not be feasible to prevent your child from contacting someone living in one of those states.

How we found the best parental control software

To test parental control software, we downloaded programs onto our home computers and children’s laptops. In this way we were able to see how the programs functioned in the real world. We got reactions from disappointed and frustrated children who were unable to access favorite websites with questionable material and were locked out when their allotted computer time was up. We also downloaded the programs onto our office computers and ran tests on it in a lab environment.

Our testing allowed us to see how easy it is to install and use each program to monitor activity on various devices. We could test to see how quickly each program notifies us of flagged activity and the amount of lag time on the host computer. This helped us narrow the 19 programs we tested to the best 10. We confidently recommend all of the programs in our lineup as powerful tools for keeping your children safe online.

Best overall


Compatible with both computers and cell phones
Doesn’t send text alerts

Qustodio monitors your child’s internet usage over several devices and is compatible with Mac and Windows computers, and Android and iOS cell phones. Qustodio also works on Kindle and Nook devices. With 29 preset filters, Qustodio blocks your child’s access to topics like pornography, gambling, violence, drugs, alcohol and religion. You can also choose to block social media webpages and online gaming sites. Qustodio monitors social media accounts not only for what your child posts, but also for what their friends are sharing on their own and your child’s accounts.

Enabling the file-sharing filter keeps you child from uploading any files, including photographs, to social media posts, in chats or as email attachments. You can also screen your files before your child receives or opens them. An online gaming tracker monitors the types of games you child can download and play. Qustodio also tracks if your child shares personal information with other gamers. This parental control software runs invisibly on your child’s computer or phone, and it gives you the ability to lock your child’s devices remotely. Some features not included with Qustodio are keylogging, surround recording and video monitoring.

Best profanity masking

Net Nanny

Covers swear words in online content
Not a good option for cell phone control

Net Nanny has a unique profanity masker that covers over swear words so they can’t be seen in online content, and it also doesn’t let your child type them out in texts or chat messages. There are 18 preset filters, including one for gaming sites. Enabling this filter blocks online games based on their specific content and the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) rating. You can filter or block chat activity using Net Nanny, too, and even block in-program message boards and chat applications. This means your child can play a game online but can’t respond to messages sent to them through the game.

The pornography blockers restrict your children from accessing X-rated sites, and they also block pages that have inappropriate ads. Net Nanny even monitors rotating ads, and if there is one that falls under the pornography category, your child will be blocked from that site until the offensive ads is pulled from the rotation. While testing Net Nanny we found it doesn’t track well enough on cell phones, so we don’t recommend it for cell phone monitoring. It doesn’t have GPS tracking or provide text transcripts. Also note, it doesn’t include keylogging or screenshot logs, tools we feel are important for controlling online content on kids’ cell phones. But Net Nanny is great for home computer use and includes time controls so you can limit when and how long your kids are online.  

Best for Mac

Content Barrier

Monitors keywords and phrases on Mac computers
Doesn’t record email messages

ContentBarrier is the only parental control program we reviewed that is exclusively designed to work on Mac computers. It includes 23 filter categories that make it easy for you quickly block inappropriate online content. Filters include those for pornography, violence, gambling and racism. You can also create customer categories. And if you add specific websites to a blacklist, ContentBarrier will block them.

ContentBarrier also lets you set key words and phrases for the software to monitor. If your child types them, or if someone else uses them in an email or chat message, ContentBarrier blocks them, suspends the chat and alerts you. Some of these phrases include “are you alone,” “can I see you,” “ don’t tell,” and “I take you.” Other phrases include asking for personal information, and you can add your own words for ContentBarrier to watch out for. This program also comes with time controls that help manage what times of day your child can be online. And once they are online, ContentBarrier lets you set a time limit on each internet session.

Standout features in Parental Control Software

One of the biggest threats online today is cyberbullying. Most of the time, it happens through private messaging or on social media. You can use parental software to view messages your child receives and the sender’s contact information. This is helpful, but it may take days to find out about it through a message or by checking the browser or chat history in your parent portal.

Surfie by PureSight has features specifically designed to recognize, stop and block cyberbullying. Surfie quickly runs a virtual background check on your child’s contacts to screen for cyberbullying history. When it detects that someone has threatened or demeaned your child, it automatically ends the interaction and notifies you. You can then review the data and communicate with your child to decide what steps to take from there. It’s a powerful feature that stops potential cyberbullying quickly.

How much does parental software cost?

Approximately half of the parental software programs we reviewed require a yearly subscription and the other half are a one-time purchase. The subscription-only options cost around $50 per year, while the other programs are on average $50 period. The number of devices you can monitor at that price varies, but the best parental control programs come with a minimum of three and don’t require a separate license for the parent portal or monitoring app.

How do I set parental controls on the internet?

Several internet browsers, including Mozilla Firefox, Google Chrome and Apple’s Safari, have some settings that allow you to block specific websites by adding the URL to a black list. You can also set the security to low, medium or high and the browser will automatically block websites that fall into those general categories. However, parental software is much more effective and easier to use to filter internet content.

Good parental software includes internet filters that make it easy to block websites and content you deem inappropriate. You can block websites in categories such as pornography, drugs and alcohol, and violence. The program will not allow your child to access any website that falls under the categories you select. The best parental control programs have additional filter categories for online games, social media sites and instant messenger programs.

Can you put parental controls on YouTube?

The quick answer is yes! There are several parental control programs that let you block YouTube entirely so your child can’t watch videos on the site. This is done by either selecting a preset filter category for video or social media pages, or by adding the YouTube URL to a blacklist within the program.

Other programs, like Norton Family, let you block chat applications, even within social media pages. This lets your child watch videos but not see or comment on them. Net Nanny has a profanity masking feature that blocks out vulgar connect, even in videos, so your child can’t see or hear them. There are a handful of parental control apps that set content blockers based on your child’s age. These programs, like Surfie, allow your child to watch age appropriate videos on YouTube while blocking the mature ones.