Guide to Parental Controls

SafeWise is an independent review site. We may earn money when you click links on our site. Learn more.

With parental control software, parents can guide their children toward healthy internet usage and screen time habits. One version of the software is downloaded onto the child’s device and another version is downloaded to the parent’s device, allowing parents to remotely control their child’s phone or computer activity.

We’ll explain the different features available in parental control apps and help you find one that matches your wishlist.



Video: Bark app review

Play Video

Subscribe to our YouTube channel and learn how to protect your home, loved ones and, belongings.


Don’t fall behind on the latest in kids safety!
Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get the latest family safety tips and product reviews on gadgets like kids smartwatches, phones, and car seats.

By signing up, you agree to our Terms and Conditions and Privacy Policy.

Content filtering

Content filtering is one of the main features found in all parental control software. You’ll see a list of topics you can mark as inappropriate, and the parental control software prevents your child from accessing sites related to those topics.

Here’s what to look for when comparing content filters:

  • Filterable topics: Make sure the app lets you block all of the topics you’re concerned about. For example, the Boomerang app lists about 40 topics whereas the Bark app lists 17.
  • Filtering levels: For teenagers, it’s good to have a middle ground between unfettered access and a total blockade. Filter levels let you display warnings, block only the most severe content, and/or alert you to your child’s activity.
  • Few workarounds: If the content filter only works on a specific web browser, it’s way too easy for your kid to get around it.
  • Photo filters: Some parental controls screen images for nudity and other mature content, replacing them with blurred or blank squares.
  • Parent alerts: The app should let you know if your child tried to access filtered content. You might want to have a conversation about it.

Website blocking

Content filtering includes website blocking, but there’s a little more to it. A good parental control app lets you block specific websites or create exceptions to content filters.

Most parental control apps give parents full access to their child’s browser history too. Others—notably Bark—only show web and search history if it triggers a content filter.

Message monitoring

Message monitoring is a weak spot in most parental control apps, but it’s critical if you have concerns about cyberbullying, predation, or other inappropriate activity.

Unless you choose Bark—our pick for comprehensive message monitoring—look for a parental control app that lets you do the following:

  • Block social media and messaging apps
  • Set up content filters for text messages or read every text
  • Control who’s on your child’s contact list

Text message monitoring

Text message monitoring is becoming more common in parental control apps but still isn’t a universal feature.

There are two schools of thought regarding text message monitoring:

  • Kids deserve some privacy, so parental controls should only alert parents to concerning snippets of text. Choose Bark or FamiSafe if this clicks with your parenting style.
  • Kids need protection more than privacy, so parental controls should show parents the full content of all texts. Choose Qustodio, FamilyTime, or MMGuardian (among others) if this sounds like the better option.

Social media message monitoring

Be careful here—some parental control apps claim to offer social media monitoring when all they really do is tell you how much time your child spent on Text message monitoring is becoming more common in parental control apps but still isn’t a universal feature.

There are two schools of thought regarding text message monitoring:

  • Kids deserve some privacy, so parental controls should only alert parents to concerning snippets of text. Choose Bark or FamiSafe if this clicks with your parenting style.
  • Kids need protection more than privacy, so parental controls should show parents the full content of all texts. Choose Qustodio, FamilyTime, or MMGuardian (among others) if this sounds like the better option.

What you really want is social media message monitoring. Feed, comment, and photo monitoring are important too since cyberbullying can erupt anywhere.

If your child uses an iPhone, pay special attention to parental control compatibility since there are fewer social media monitoring options for iOS vs. Android.

Email monitoring

Bark is the only parental control app that monitors popular email platforms like Gmail or Yahoo! Mail. Here are your other options:

  • Block all email apps and websites
  • Set up a kid-friendly email account through a provider like ZillaMail or KidsEmail for built-in supervision
  • Use a parental control app with a keylogger

Doc-sharing app monitoring

Once again, Bark is the only option that scans doc-sharing apps for anything that defies your content filters.

As your child gets older and starts using doc-sharing apps for school, blocking them outright is tricky. The only other option is to read all content captured by a keylogger.

App approvals and monitoring

App management is a universal feature for parental control apps. You’ll see a list of all the apps on your child’s phone and can delete them with a single swipe.

But if that’s the only thing a parental control offers for app management, keep looking. Here’s what you really want:

  • Notifications when your child downloads a new app
  • The ability to approve all new apps before your child can use them
  • Content filters that work on apps
  • Screen time management for apps
  • Detailed app usage reports
  • The ability to proactively block popular but inappropriate apps before your child can even think about downloading them

MMGuardian, ScreenTime, and Google Family Link have outstanding app management tools.

Location tracking and geofencing

Location tracking adds a layer of physical safety to your child’s digital safety. Due to Apple’s privacy policies, location tracking works best if your child uses an Android vs. iOS device.

Every parental control software we’ve come across offers location tracking, but they don’t all approach it the same way. For example, Bark doesn’t show your child’s location on demand—you have to ask your child to share it.

Geofencing—which alerts you when your child enters or exits specific locations—is a common feature too. However, some parental control companies don’t offer geofencing due to accuracy concerns.

Here are the location features we like to see in parental control apps

  • Real-time location tracking
  • Location history
  • Map showing all kids’ locations at once
  • Geofencing with customizable boundaries
  • The ability to turn location tracking on and off to preserve battery life

Screen time management

The best parental controls should also make it easy to manage your child’s screen time and help them build healthy habits. Here are some features to consider:

  • Screen time schedules let you lock down the device during school hours, bedtime, dinner, and any other time you want your child to focus on the physical world.
  • Total daily time limits permit your child to be on the device for a maximum amount of time each day.
  • Remote internet shutdown lets your child make phone calls and send text messages but prevents all online activity.
  • Remote device shutdown disables the entire device.
  • Device usage reports show you how your child spends their screen time, right down to the minute.

Contact management and call history

Contact management is an uncommon feature in parental control software. Those that offer it—including Qustodio, MMGuardian, and FamilyTime—let parents block specific numbers on their child’s behalf.

Call history reports can show you the following:

  • The other party’s number
  • Whether the caller was a known contact
  • Whether the call was incoming or outgoing
  • The date and time the call began
  • How long the phone call lasted

No parental control software records phone calls.

Uninstall protection

It’s pointless to pay for a parental control subscription if your child can uninstall it from their device or find other workarounds. The best parental control apps feature uninstall protection and other tamper-proof measures.

This usually means a password is required to uninstall the child’s version of the parental control software.

If uninstall protection is one of your top concerns, consider a Bark phone. It’s an internet-accessible phone with built-in Bark controls, so there’s nothing to uninstall.

Parent dashboards and alerts

Once you narrow down the options, we recommend taking advantage of any free trial periods to poke around on the parent app and online dashboard. Some are far easier to use than others. Make sure you’re comfortable with the app’s navigation and customization before you commit.

Alerts and reports

Choose parental control software that meets your expectations regarding alerts and timely reports. Ideally, you’d be able to sign up for email, text, and push notifications that alert you whenever your child sends or receives a concerning message or attempts to access inappropriate content.

Less common parental control features

Some parental controls include additional safety features:

  • A panic button for your child to tell you something’s wrong and to initiate live location tracking
  • Driving features like crash detection or speeding alerts

Finally, there are some rare parental control app features that aim to prevent workarounds:

  • Random screenshots of your child’s device
  • A keylogger to save everything that’s typed on the device
  • A photo logger to save every photo that’s taken on the device
  • A print logger to save every print job

Compare parental control app prices

Product
Best for
Annual starting price
Free version available
Maximum number of devices
Trial period
Learn more
Read review
Best overall
Icon No  LightNo
Unlimited7 days
Best contact management
Icon No  LightNo
514 days
Best free version
Icon Yes  LightYes
10*3 days
Best management tools
Icon Yes  LightYes
5 3 days
Best for full device access
Icon No  LightNo
Surcharge for every extra deviceNone

Info current as of post date. Offers and availability may vary by location and are subject to change.

*$137.95 per year for 15 devices

FAQ

How much do parental control apps cost?

Parental control apps typically cost between $30 and $150 a year. Expect to pay at least $50 to $100 a year for a good parental control app that covers multiple devices.

Is a parental control app enough?

Parental control software is just one level of protection. We also recommend using platform-specific parental controls, such as those built into iPhones, streaming platforms, gaming apps, and social media platforms.

Another option is to get a router-level parental control, which helps you apply consistent rules across all connected devices in your home. Check out Circle Plus to learn more.

Cathy Habas
Written by
Cathy Habas
With over eight years of experience as a content writer, Cathy has a knack for untangling complex information. Her natural curiosity and ability to empathize help Cathy offer insightful, friendly advice. She believes in empowering readers who may not feel confident about a purchase, project, or topic. Cathy earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in English from Indiana University Southeast and began her professional writing career immediately after graduation. She is a certified Safe Sleep Ambassador and has contributed to sites like Safety.com, Reviews.com, Hunker, and Thumbtack. Cathy’s pride and joy is her Appaloosa “Chacos.” She also likes to crochet while watching stand-up comedy specials on Netflix.

Recent Articles

padlock on computer keyboard
Best Identity Theft Protection in 2023
We researched the offerings of five leading identity theft protection services, tallying everything from antivirus...
Abode, Frontpoint, ADT Safestreets logos as alternatives for Vivint
Alternatives to Vivint
Vivint isn’t for everyone. We researched and found three other home security systems to better...
man pointing at smart home control app on a tablet
The Best Smart Home Security Systems
We’ve tested and researched smart home security systems to help you find the right DIY...
woman adjusting thermostat in bright home
10 Best Home Security Systems of 2023
After hundreds of hours of tests and research, plus a combined 50+ years of experience,...