Best parental control software to set device limits without confiscating your kid’s phone

girl sitting on couch looking at tablet

Screen time is arguably one of the hottest parenting topics of the past 20 years. The arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic that closed schools and caused kids to be home at all times forced the topic into the spotlight even further. Youngsters spent more time online than ever before, due in part to the switch to virtual school and their parents' need to get work done while WFH.

It's natural for parents to freak out every time a new study about children and devices comes out, but here's our advice: Don't. The evidence between screen time and cognitive or behavior development isn't super strong. Plus, parents cannot blame themselves for handing a kid a tablet when it's time for a Zoom meeting, dinner prep, or a nap, especially when it's high-quality content like an educational show or interactive learning game.

That said, it would be naive to assume that kids are always soaking in high-quality content when they're on the internet. Though modern kids are scarily adept with technology and social media (TikTok is basically run by teenagers), it doesn't mean that parameters for web use aren't necessary. Keeping kids safe by monitoring their online activity (and setting reasonable limits) is just another task modern parents have to juggle. 

Minecraft may be distracting them from their school work, or maybe you'd just feel more comfortable about this increase in screen time if you knew that your child wasn't landing on any inappropriate sites or scrolling through Instagram at 3 a.m. Maybe you want them to engage more in family time together, sans screens. Whatever your reason, parental control software offers a solution to managing your child’s screen time.

How does parental control software work?

The short answer is that parental control software lets you monitor your child's device — phone, tablet, or computer — remotely. The corresponding apps let parents monitor internet searches and browsing history, block inappropriate apps (or block distracting apps during homework hours), or limit screen time altogether. It's a less invasive and more respectful method than physically going through their phone or computer — and when kids know that their activity is being watched or managed, cyber safety habits might stick better. While much parental control software requires a monthly or annual fee, there is some free parental control software available.

Is geofencing worthwhile?

Parental control software can also help keep tabs on your kid when they're not at home. Though most have GPS and some sort of basic "Where's my child?" function, only a select few software options offer geofencing, which is a big help for parents juggling the schedules of multiple children. This location-based service lets you set up virtual boundaries around where a child should or shouldn't be, as well as a specific time that the child should (or shouldn't) be there. Let's say that your child goes straight from school to a sports practice three times a week. The geofencing feature will monitor their phone's location and will alert you if your child doesn't show up to the scheduled area on time. Teenagers may even enjoy the functionality of geofencing as it means not being bombarded with "Where are you?" texts.

Geofencing can also be used to monitor web time when your child is in a designated location. For instance, many parents like to disable games or social media apps during school.

What is the best parental control software?

Every parental control software (even free parental control apps) can put limits on screen time, show browsing history, and block sites. Got it. But some features might apply more to your family's needs than others.

Households with a lot of devices in the mix will need to look at device limits. Some software allows unlimited accounts while others work like cell phone plans: More devices, more money. If you have three or four kids who all have a phone and a laptop, the unlimited route will be the best value. Families that share a device will need to ensure that their software doesn't have a "one account per device" rule, which pretty much locks parents into dealing with kid settings (or vice versa, but that kind of defeats the purpose of the software in the first place).

Some software gives kids more autonomy than others. If you're worried about smothering them, consider an option that provides warnings about screen time instead of immediately locking the device, or an option that lets them request extra time or access to a site that they feel is wrongfully blocked. Things may go smoother when older kids feel like they can have a say in the limits being set.

What should I consider before choosing parental control software?

There are a few different things to keep in mind when searching for the best parental control software for your family’s needs. First, consider the age of your child(ren). Younger kiddos will need more stringent parent control features than tweens and teens. You may also want to block out more devices for the younger set than you would for older kids. 

As mentioned above, you’ll also want to do the math as to how many devices should be included in any parental control subscription. If you have too few devices included then you may not be fully keeping tabs on all of the screens your kiddo may have access to. Too many devices on your subscription and you may be paying for more coverage and control than you need. 

You’ll also want to consider whether or not you need any parental controls to work at home or while they’re out and about. If your kids can get around any limits you set by simply leaving home, then the software isn’t ideal. However, if you have older kids and don’t worry about what they access while at school (maybe their phone doesn’t have data?) then you might not need features that work outside your family’s WiFi network. 

Finally, consider using any built-in parental control options your device might already have. For example, use the passcode or password feature on cell phones, tablets, and laptops, to ensure little ones aren’t logging on without your knowledge. There are also several free browser plugins that will block specific websites with inappropriate content. On iOS devices, you can set screen time limits, block certain apps and websites, or restrict new downloads or things with an explicit content rating altogether. Your modem or router may also offer the ability for you to access parental controls that set limits on when specific devices can access WiFi. 

With the above information in mind, here are our top choices for the best parental control apps and software for 2022:

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