Internet use among children and adolescents is on the rise, with children coming online at a younger age. This paper from 2001 states that 59% of children and adolescents 5-17 use the internet in the United States. According to that same study, about 25% of 5-year-olds use the internet, rising to 50% by age nine.
Newer data from the NCES shows that 93% of children between the ages of 3 and 18 now have internet access. As you can see, internet use amongst young children has become an established reality in our society.
This makes the statistics on internet safety among young children even more disturbing:
56% of children aged 11-16 have seen explicit material online.
33% of children aged 12-15 have encountered sexist, discriminatory, or racist content online.
10% of children aged 8-11 have encountered something online that they describe as nasty, or worrying.
Cutting off a child’s internet access to avoid these issues is not practical. It can cause significant harm to your child’s social life and ability to function in an increasingly digitized workplace as an adult. Parental control software allows you to monitor your child’s browsing, block inappropriate content, and set time limits on online activity while allowing your child to continue to browse the internet.
A parental control app lets you monitor your child’s total online activity, actively blocks access to harmful websites, and even enables you to block apps during certain times of the day. Parental control apps are available for mobile and desktop devices. Most apps offer multiple versions, one for desktop and one compatible with an iOS or Android device.
A parental control app for mobile devices monitors app activity, not just internet browsing. You can use it to limit your child’s access to social media past certain hours or simply to see what apps your child frequents when they are online.
An effective parental control app also monitors social media activity. This is essential since the three most popular apps used by children after YouTube are the social media platforms TikTok, Instagram, and Snapchat.
While individual apps work slightly differently, all parental control apps involve installing the application on your child’s device, and your own. You can access the password protected application from your own device to view a dashboard. Depending on what functions your app has, this dashboard may allow you to view your child’s browsing history, block or unblock certain websites, or even to track the location of your child’s device.
For shared computers, you can place parental controls on a single account, allowing you and other adult family members to have full access, while your child’s account remains protected.
Keep in mind that parental control software is not a substitute for internet safety education and a dialogue with your child. It is still important to teach your child the basics of safe conduct online, and to maintain an open dialogue about your child’s online life.
The ability to view the entirety of another device’s browsing history, control its browsing activity, and track location is essential for protecting your child online. Some children may not be open or comfortable with this sort of monitoring. The best way to get around this resistance is to have a mature dialogue with your child about the importance of online safety.
Some parental control apps opt for a different strategy. These apps employ stealth software, essentially allowing you to view your child’s browsing activity without their knowledge or consent.
The problem with this technology is that it is essentially spyware. Since the program is designed to be installed without the main user’s knowledge, there is theoretically nothing stopping you from installing it on any device you have access to, whether it belongs to a a child, a spouse, or a co-worker.
Every parental control app is different, but they should all come with at least some of these key features.
A parental control app should allow you to filter the content your child can see online. Most filtering software is advanced and lets you choose what kind of content you wish to block. For instance, you can set the filter to block explicit content only or expand that to include suggestive or violent themes.
As a child who grew up with such a program on their computer, I have a personal aside: try not to set it too broadly if your child needs to use the computer for schoolwork. It is very difficult to write a term paper about Alexander the Great when your computer blocks every mention of violence, suggestive themes, or alcohol.
Humor aside, there are easy solutions to this problem built into the program. You can create a whitelist of websites, and some systems let you make exceptions academic content.
Most parental control apps allow you to control the time your child can access the internet. This can be as broad as a complete internet access shutdown between certain hours or as specific as blocking a specific social media app during particular hours.
While it is up to you how to use this application, consider that it might be best used for younger children and only to a limited extent. If your child is older, a complete internet block could be viewed as a severe punishment or humiliation by the child, incentivizing them to circumvent the application instead of working with you. It may also impede your child academically. In short, use carefully.
Monitoring a child’s messages is a feature some but not all parental control apps offer. This sort of control can blur the line between safety and invasion of privacy and is best used as a method of last resort. On the other hand, it can be invaluable if you suspect your child is communicating with a dangerous or exploitative individual online. We recommend leaving this feature off unless you have a specific reason to use it, such as if you suspect your child could be a victim of grooming or bullying online.
This feature may also be a potentially stealth feature, since the app will not notify your child that you are tracking their location. As with all parental control features, it is best to be upfront with your child about this feature. In any case, this feature is only really useful for mobile devices, and comes standard with most modern parental control systems.
Parental control apps range significantly in cost, from free applications to annual subscriptions worth multiple hundreds of dollars. How much you need to pay will depend on several factors, including the number of devices you need to protect, as well as the device type. For instance, software for a Windows PC typically starts at $40/month, while Google offers a free parental control service for up to 8 devices.
Your cheapest option for parental control software will depend greatly on the type of device(s) you want to secure. For instance, using Google Family Link, you can control up to 8 Android devices for free. However, if you want to secure a Windows PC or Mac, expect annual subscription fees starting at around $40. Dedicated phone monitoring software with text message monitoring and location tracking starts at around $15/month.
Most modern parental control software is easy to install. It is usually a simple matter of downloading the program or app onto every device that you want to monitor and every device you want to use for monitoring. Products like Intego that bundle parental controls with Antivirus software and other security features could take a little longer to install but also come with additional benefits.
Most parental control apps with mobile support offer at least some degree of app management. For best results, consider a service like Bark that actively scans texts and detects conversations that might be evidence of grooming or cyberbullying and sends you an alert.
If your child is messaging all day through multiple social media channels, actively monitoring their texts would be a full-time job, so having an AI handle the actual scanning significantly reduces your work as a parent.
Content filtering is one of the most important jobs of a parental control app, and most can do it adequately. You should look for an app with lots of options and controls when it comes to filtering since the default settings will likely be too restrictive, especially if your child is using the computer for school. Norton Family offers features specifically for computers used for academics and remote learning.
Nearly every parental control app offers time management features. You can use parental controls to restrict access to certain apps or to the internet itself during certain hours of the day.
Net Nanny has great time management features. You can set different internet timetables for different days of the week, override the schedule to apply immediate downtime if necessary, or offer unlimited usage just for the day if you so wish without interrupting the regular schedule.
Texting and messaging management is a premium feature frequently offered by mobile-dedicated parental control apps. These apps are usually a little more expensive but offer a robust range of mobile-specific features.
eyeZy is a great example of an app that has state-of-the-art parental control features while on the pricey side. These include key logging and AI alerts so that you do not have to monitor every communication manually.
Location tracking is another feature common to premium mobile dedicated parental control apps. If you are purely looking for a location tracking app, plenty of free solutions let you track your child’s location through their mobile device. Consider this feature a side benefit rather than the primary offering of a parental control app.
A parental control app, despite the name, is most effective when used in cooperation with your child, more as a form of education and protection than as a tool for direct control. Eventually, your child will grow up and will be exposed to the unguarded, uncontrolled internet. Consider parental control software equivalent to a bike's training wheels.
Let your child browse the net in a safe environment, but give them enough room to experience autonomy and exercise good judgment. As your child gets older, dial back the settings on the parental control software. Your child will have greater needs for privacy and autonomy as they get older.
Work with your child to select an app that works for both of you. Most apps offer a free trial. Use it to try out different programs until you find one you both like. Remember that even the best parental control app is not a stand-in for online safety education - use this software as part of a larger, collaborative learning experience that teaches your child about safe conduct online.