There are plenty of subscription-based parental control services on the market, but there are also powerful features for concerned parents built right into the operating systems on the Apple and Microsoft devices your child likely uses every day. Google, on the other hand, offers a free app you can install. If you want to take control over screen time, filter media, or keep family members from racking up big bills on games and movies, you can do so with free tools. The question is, which one is right for your family?
First, Talk To Your Kids
The most important takeaway from all our research into built-in parental control tools (or even premium parental control apps) is that you shouldn’t rely on any of them as a total solution you can simply impose on kids without getting at least some buy-in from them.
Instead, you’ll want to talk to your children about why you’re limiting their internet usage, as focusing on cooperation tends to yield better results than exacting total control. All of the parental control measures mentioned in this article work best when combined with talking to your kids about taking personal responsibility, and they also require a degree of trust, because a non-compliant tech-savvy child will eventually get around them, whether by actually outsmarting the software or simply by borrowing a friend’s unprotected device.
If you’re looking for iron-clad rule enforcement and you’re willing to pay for it, you may want to put your faith and dollars into a paid parental control app like our Editors’ Choice pick, Qustodio.
Getting Started With Parental Controls
Once you’ve had “The Talk” with your child about using the internet responsibly, it’s time to put some house rules in place. Maybe your kids can only stay glued to their screens for a few hours per day. Maybe they have more freedom regarding time limits, but they can only access certain sites during certain times of the day or night.
You can use the operating system’s parental controls to establish limits on screen time so certain apps aren’t accessible during homework or school time hours, and you can filter out adult content on certain browsers and search engines. Check out our guide to kicking your kids off the home Wi-Fi if you get really desperate to limit screen time and enforce rules.
Recommended by Our Editors
Apple, Google, or Microsoft: Who Wins?
The right parental control plan depends on the devices your kids are using. These apps work best (or even exclusively) on the devices they were created to protect. You could combine two programs, like Google Family Link and Microsoft Family Safety, and get protection across both Edge and Chrome browsing, but that seems like more trouble than it’s worth. Just block other browsers on Android, and use the program that appeals to you.
Screen Time is the best parental control app of the three solutions we’ve tested here, though it’s only available for Apple’s iOS and MacOS devices. Parents can control who is talking to their children on phone or via Messages. It’s also an effective tool for parents who want to establish flexible screen time limits around going to school and bedtime. Screen Time is not the best option for keeping tabs on your child’s location, but Apple’s built-in location features elsewhere on its devices should suffice in that area. Read on to learn more about the specific features of the very capable (and free!) parental control apps from the big three.
What It Does
As the adult, you make a passcode to secure the settings on, for example, your child’s iOS device, so they stay in control of the changes made on the device, but you don’t install any additional software or apps on your child’s device. On a Mac, you have to set up Family Sharing or log in to the family member’s Mac user account and set up App Limits from the Screen Time menu in System Preferences. With Screen Time, you track usage over time, and also set limits using the Downtime, App Limits and Communication Limits features.
Downtime lets you schedule time when your child can use only the subset of apps you choose for them. With App Limits, you determine how long you child can use both specific apps and whole app categories. Communication Limits lets you control who your child can chat with on the phone, FaceTime, Messages, and via iCloud. It’s worth noting that Screen Time is the only software that can limit messaging on iOS devices without undertaking drastic measures, such as jailbreaking.
You can also filter content, restrict purchases and downloads, and configure privacy settings with Screen Time. If your child tries to visit a blocked website using any browser, they will be greeted by a message saying the website is not accessible. You, as the parent, can remotely enter the Screen Time password to allow access to the website, however.
One handy feature of Screen Time is the ability to remotely approve requests from your child to extend screen, communication, or app time. You can add on an extra 15 minutes, allow another hour, or give them all-day access. There’s also an Ask to Buy option, which gives kids the chance to make their own choices when it comes to paid apps and games, while you stay in control of the spending.
What It Can’t Do
Screen Time does not have built-in location settings. If you want to know where your kids and their devices are going, you can ask them to turn on their location sharing settings in the Privacy menu in Settings. Ask your child to share their location with you via Messages and the Find My feature to keep track of their comings and goings.
Screen Time also lacks any sort of monitoring ability. If you feel the need to actually track what your kids are doing online, this isn’t the tool for you.
Who It’s Best for
Apple’s Screen Time is best for parents who want to have flexibility when it comes to setting limits on how much time kids spend in front of their screens each day. Screen Time allows parents to set and lift restrictions remotely with ease, making it a good option for parents who aren’t interested in actually monitoring their child’s online activity but who care about establishing limits on the kind of sites and apps their child visits and uses.
What It Does
Parents need to sign their kids up for an email address so they can add them to Microsoft Family. Once that’s done, the child’s account is controlled from the parent’s dashboard. The Screen Time feature is for Windows 10, Xbox, or Android devices. You can create a schedule for all devices or set a limit for individual devices. Once you connect a device to your child’s account, all of the apps on that device are also under your control. You decide when your child can use apps and games and for how long.
If you want to keep track of what websites your little ones are frequenting, you should turn on Activity Reporting. There you see your child’s searches and web activity. Turn on Content Filters to protect your children from mature content online.
Another feature with Microsoft Family Safety is the Spending dashboard, which lets you add money to your child’s Microsoft account so they can buy what they want. You can put restrictions on their purchases in the settings, to make sure they aren’t buying adult content. You also view the child’s purchase history from the Spending dashboard, determine whether they need approval to buy things, and set up email alerts for their purchases.
There are a few features of the Microsoft Family Safety plan that require extra components. With a Microsoft 365 subscription and the Microsoft Family Safety app installed on your child’s mobile device, you can view your child’s location. There’s also a link to make changes to your family’s Xbox settings from the Microsoft Family dashboard. Controlling Xbox settings requires parental approval, and children can’t change the settings without knowing a parent’s email address and password. Lockable settings include accepting friend requests, voice data collection, downloading and playing explicit music and video content, video communication, and much more. By default, kids can play games online and only share their status, voice, and text updates with their approved friends.
What It Can’t Do
The browsing Content Filters only work with Microsoft Edge, and when you turn on this setting, all other browsers are blocked and only Edge is allowed to run on the computer. Bing’s SafeSearch also turns on when you enable Content Filters, and you can keep your child from accessing other search sites by blocking them using the filter settings. In contrast, Apple’s Screen Time blocks sites across many browsers and doesn’t limit your child to just one browser choice.
Who It’s Best for
Microsoft Family Safety is the best option for Windows users who also own Android mobile devices. Parents can watch activity from the dashboard and set limits accordingly. If you have a young gamer in the house, the time limiting feature for XBox is a must-have to make sure those long nights playing Call of Duty don’t extend past bedtime.