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As a parent in the digital age, you probably have concerns about how your children use technology. While you can teach them good principles, it’s impossible to keep them away from every possible internet scam and all explicit content online on your own.
That’s where parental controls come in. If you’ve never taken advantage of these tools, you’ve got a lot to catch up on. Read on to find out everything you could want to know about parental controls. We’ll cover a bit about how they work, how to use the controls on specific devices, and offer some recommendations.
Table of Contents
First, let’s discuss a bit about parental controls in general and what they’re used for. In essence, parental controls exist to limit what children can do with an electronic device. This is pretty vague, and as you’ll see, different forms of parental controls accomplish this in certain ways.
— Xzamn (@Xzamn) April 19, 2016
Some parental control methods let you stop children from using a computer after a certain time, or limit their daily screen time. Others restrict video or game content based on their ratings. And further forms of parental controls outright block websites or content that you specify. You might prefer to set up monitoring so you can review what your children are doing on their devices. No matter your parenting style, you’ll find a control that works for you.
We’ll cover this later, but it’s important to note that parental controls are not foolproof. While a toddler probably won’t be able to circumvent what you’ve set up, it’s not impossible for a tech-savvy teenager to figure out a way to get around blockages.
1.1 The Need for Parental Controls
If you’re not at all familiar with the internet-connected world, you might not know how much online isn’t friendly for children. Music with explicit lyrics, violent video games, untold forms of sexual content, and many other adult-oriented forms of media are only a few clicks away.
Just learned a friend's 9 yr old granddaughter has been watching porn since she was 6. No parental controls on tech. This is child neglect.
— Karen Swallow Prior (@KSPrior) July 7, 2017
The gatekeepers to much of this, like Google, have done a lot better at filtering out the worst in recent years. But it’s not a stretch to assume that a child could end up accessing something you’d rather they not see, even accidentally. We’re not here to tell you how to parent, but we are happy to show you the controls at your disposal to use as you see fit.
No matter if you’re pretty technical or only use a computer occasionally, we’ll explain the ways you can filter inappropriate content out for your kids.
Now that we’ve discussed the basic abstract function of parental controls, let’s dive into specific methods to enable them. Different “levels” of control exist, so you can use more than one of these at a time in most cases.
2.1 Smartphone Parental Options
Let’s start with a relevant method. Children today know how to operate a smartphone before they can even tie their shoes. If you’re handing them your phone so they can play a game for a bit, you definitely don’t want them to access certain apps or browse the web freely.
On Android, you can set up a second account for your children to use (or just enable the below features on your own account). Combined with disabling Google Play or adding parental controls for downloading apps, you can restrict the apps they use. Head to Settings > Users and tap Add user. Go through the steps to create the second account, and when asked to set up a Google account, choose Skip if you don’t want them to use Google Play.
If you do add an account for them, you can restrict use of the Play Store. Open the Google Play app on their account, slide out the left menu, and tap Settings. Slide down to Parental Controls and create a PIN first. Then, you can set restrictions based on category.
For instance, you can choose which films they can view based on MPAA rating (in the US) or filter apps/games based on ESRB (USA) or PEGI (Europe) rating. If you only want them to play games rated E (Everyone) or E10+, you can check E10+ to allow up to that. Anything above this rating, like Teen, won’t work.
This is only part of the equation for Android — while restricting games is important, your kids aren’t going to purchase movies from the Play Store unless you’ve added a credit or gift card. What’s more important is kid-friendly apps, like YouTube Kids. This modified version of YouTube is filtered to only show kid-friendly content.
After this, check out the best parental control apps for Android to block access to certain apps and more.
iOS calls parental controls Restrictions, and they’re easy to access. Open Settings on your iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch, and then visit General > Restrictions. Tap Enable Restrictions to start using them, then make a passcode. You’ll need to enter this later to change these options. Don’t lose this code, or you’ll have to reset your device.
After you’ve made a code, take a look at the list of apps and features you can turn off. Examples include Safari, FaceTime, iTunes Store, Installing apps, and more. If the slider is on, anyone on your device can use it. When something is off, nobody can use it. Like Android, you can also block content on the iTunes and App Stores based on ratings.
Final Word: If you let your child use your smartphone (or they’re old enough to have their own), there’s no reason to forgo using these controls. They don’t lock down every aspect of the device, and they might be annoying if you use them on your own account (like restricting Safari on your own iPhone). But they’re a good first step.
2.2 Browser Controls
It might surprise you to learn that most internet browsers don’t have built-in parental controls. Some of the below methods influence what you can access through a browser, but you won’t find a parental controls section in Chrome. However, you can still set up some restrictions using other tools.
In any browser, you can turn on a few safety controls for major websites. Head to Google and click Settings in the bottom-right corner, then choose Search Settings. At the top of the page, you’ll see a box to Turn on SafeSearch. SafeSearch isn’t perfect, but it does filter out a lot of explicit images and search results.
To prevent someone from simply turning it off, click Lock SafeSearch next to it. You’ll need to sign in with a Google account, then confirm that you want to lock the feature. This sets a cookie in your browser to keep SafeSearch on, even if you sign out of your Google account. Of course, this won’t prevent a tech-savvy child from clearing the cookies or simply using another search engine. Plus, you’ll have to do this in every browser individually.
On YouTube, you can enable Restricted Mode, which performs a similar function. Scroll down to the bottom of any YouTube page, and click the Restricted Mode button. Choose On and click Save to filter explicit results. If you sign in, you can lock it, too.
The other half of browser parental controls are add-ons. A search in the extension library for Chrome and Firefox will bring up hundreds of results for these. Most automatically block inappropriate content and allow you to set keywords that block access to websites. We’ve listed a few below:
Aside from the lack of parental control extensions in Microsoft Edge and Safari, the above all have a common problem: a knowledgeable user can easily uninstall these just like any other extension.
Verdict: Using website-specific controls and filtering browser extensions isn’t the most reliable method of parental control. A child with a bit of knowledge can use another browser or search engine, or just uninstall the filtering extension. These are only useful for protecting younger kids who wouldn’t know how to clear cookies or uninstall browser add-ons.
2.3 Desktop Operating System Controls
It took a while, but both Windows and macOS have built-in parental controls now. Unlike the browser methods above, they’re reliable because there’s no way for kids to easily disable them. We won’t cover Linux because of the variety of flavors available, though some would argue that Linux is great for kids.
We’ve written extensively about parental controls in Windows, so we’ll summarize here. In Windows 10, you should create a locked-down account using the Child Account feature. This lets you restrict access to apps in the Windows Store, review what your children are doing on the computer, and limit screen time.
Some of the tools don’t work outside of Microsoft Edge and Internet Explorer, though, so you should supplement this with a third-party parental control app.
Protecting your kids on a Mac is made easy thanks to built-in controls. To get started, head to Apple Menu > System Preferences and choose the Parental Controls option. If you get a message that there aren’t any users to manage, choose Create a new user account with parental controls and follow the steps. You’ll select your child’s age group during this (4+, 9+, 12+, 17+).
For existing accounts, you can also select the User & Groups option in System Preferences, then choose a standard user and select Enable parental controls to convert it to a managed account. See our guide to managing Mac accounts if you need more help.
Back in the Parental Controls page, click the lock to make changes and enter your username and password. Select the user you want to manage, and click Enable Parental Controls. From here, you have a variety of ways to restrict your child’s use of your Mac.
On the Apps page, you can check Use Simple Finder to make browsing files on your machine much easier. Limit Applications lets you specify a specific list of apps that the child can open.
The Web page is important, as it lets you pick between three levels of web filtering. Allow unrestricted access filters nothing, while Try to limit access will do its best to block any adult content. The most restrictive option is Allow access to only these websites, which lets you approve a set list of pages.
Check the Time Limits tab to prevent kids from using the computer at certain times. Finally, click the Logs… button to review everything your child has done on your Mac. This shows websites they’ve visited, websites Safari blocked, and what apps they used.
Worth It? These operating system (OS) level parental controls are a great line of defense. The ability to restrict which applications your child opens and specify a list of approved websites without installing extra software is really handy.
2.4 Child-Specific Sites
In conjunction with other tools, you’ll find many tools geared towards children. These sites are designed to let them enjoy the web while staying safe. In the past there were entire web browsers built for kids, but most of these have unfortunately died off.
Instead of Google, you can set your child’s homepage to Kiddle. Not affiliated with Google, this search engine specifically caters to kids. SafeSearch is always on, and orders the search results based on how useful they are to kids. The first few are hand-picked by editors, while the later results are easy to understand even if they’re not specifically for children.
Zoodles is a service that provides hundreds of free games, videos, books, and other kid-friendly content. These come from various sites that don’t feature any inappropriate content. It’s a free service but you can upgrade to the Premium version for extra features.
If your kids want to catch up on the news, check out the best kid-friendly news sites.
Value: Child-friendly sites are a great way to introduce kids to the internet without exposing them to all the crap out there. You’ll probably need to let them access more sites than just these, but they make good homepages.
2.5 Third-Party Security Suites
Most of the other tools on this list don’t cost anything. But if you want to invest in a complete security suite to protect your kids, we’ve covered seven of the best. These solutions, such as Net Nanny, allow you to install their software on all devices your kids use and block inappropriate sites, monitor their usage, and more.
You can achieve most of the same results using the other methods here, but if you need a ready-made solution, these suites do the job well.
Worth Trying? Paying for a security suite really isn’t worth it. You can get home-wide protection free using other methods, and configuring the paid suite will take at least as long as those.
2.6 Router Protection
Depending on your router, you have a number of tools available for filtering internet usage at the network level. Because your router handles all the traffic leaving your family’s devices, controls you set on it work regardless of the device or browser your child is using.
Most routers let you log in via a web panel — or sometimes an app — and manage your settings. We’ve covered the most important settings to adjust for parental controls. From blocking certain websites to logging their traffic, you can do a lot through your router.
Verdict: If your router supports them, certainly take a few moments to enable parental controls. Keep a strong password on your router and your kids won’t have an easy way to get around what you’ve set up.
2.7 Child-Friendly DNS
Similar to adjusting router settings is changing your DNS provider. If you didn’t know, DNS stands for Domain Name System and translates website names (like google.com) into IP addresses (like 123.456.7.8) that your browser can access. By default DNS is handled by your ISP, but you can override this with a third-party service. Alternate DNS is already more secure than the standard, but there are special DNS providers designed for keeping kids safe.
One of the most popular is OpenDNS. They offer a free Family Shield service that’s per-configured to block inappropriate content. It’s super easy to use: click the Setup Guide under OpenDNS Family Shield and take note of the two IP addresses listed. It’s best to set up your router to use these DNS settings so that every device on your network uses them — else you’ll have to configure each device individually.
Follow the instructions for Home Routers and you’ll have OpenDNS configured to filter all the traffic on your network in minutes.
Value: Along with OS controls, this is probably the most powerful internet filtering option you have. Automatically filtering out thousands of inappropriate sites from five minutes of work is extremely useful.
2.8 Limiting Screen Time
Many of the methods discussed include an option to limit screen time. If you need a more powerful solution, we’ve covered the best tools to prevent kids from using the computer too much.
Our Take: If your kids have a problem with using devices too often, using one of these is worth a try.
2.9 Educate and Talk With Your Child
Even though everything above is useful, nothing can replace sitting down and having an honest chat with your children. Obviously what you discuss will depend on their age, but being honest is important. Talk about how awesome the internet is and how it lets you do so much. But also let them know that just like the “real world” there are lots of bad and unsafe places online that they shouldn’t go.
— Benoy Ittyavirah (@benittyavirah) October 4, 2016
Reassure your children that they can come to you anytime they see something online that makes them uncomfortable. Share with them your expected boundaries and limits on screen time. With the tools in place to back up — not blindly demand — the rules you’ve discussed, your kids are less likely to resent them.
Final Word: No technical control can replace an honest talk with your kids.
The above methods will allow you to exercise control on nearly any desktop/laptop computer or smartphone. But what about protecting your children (or your own game saves) on the multitude of other devices? Let’s take a look at some of the most popular.
3.1 3DS Parental Controls
The Nintendo 3DS’s portability and its amazing library of games make it a popular choice for young gamers. Using parental controls, you can block some features with a PIN. Select System Settings from the 3DS Home menu, then choose Parental Controls. Follow the prompts to create a parental controls PIN, set a backup question, and add an email address that can reset your PIN.
Once in place, 3DS parental controls can restrict games based on rating, block the internet browser and/or Miiverse, disable 3D images for applicable systems, and more. Enabling parental controls will also prevent some settings, like changing the internet options, from working.
3.2 Nintendo Switch
The Nintendo Switch (our review), provides a smartphone app for managing parental controls. You can initialize them on the system and then manage them later on your phone.
To start, go to the System Settings on the Switch menu, then scroll down to Parental Controls > Parental Controls Settings. Choose Use this Console and then Restriction Level. You can select a preset level based on your child’s age or change them by hand. It also supports restricting games based on rating and blocking communication with other players. Once done, select Save > OK and set a PIN to protect the controls.
After, you can download the Switch Parental Controls app for Android or iOS. Then follow Nintendo’s instructions to link the app to your Switch console.
The PS4 lets you restrict not only games, but also other features of the system such as playing Blu-Ray discs and using the web browser. To start, select Settings on the PS4’s home menu. Then visit Parental Controls > Restrict Use of PS4 Features. You’ll see a prompt to enter your parental controls passcode — the default is 0000. Make sure to click Change Passcode when you’re done so it’s not left as the default.
Here you can disable the features listed above, and prevent your child from logging into the PS4 with a new account. Select Games to adjust the rating of games your child can play. Sony uses a somewhat confusing “level” system for these — the higher the level, the less restrictive the control.
Scroll through these and find the best for your child’s age — for instance, Level 5: Age 12 or Older (Approximation) will allow games up to a Teen rating. Select Blu-ray Disc/DVD to set a similar restriction on movies.
To set a PIN on your own account so your child can’t log in as you, visit Settings > Users > Login Settings > Passcode Management and add a passcode to restrict your profile. Note that this is different from the parental controls code.
3.4 Xbox One
The Xbox One offers a similar set of controls. We covered the basics in our guide to useful Xbox One settings. Unlike the PS4, which uses console-wide controls, the Xbox One only allows you to enact restrictions on individual accounts. Thus you’ll need to add a child account to your system if you haven’t already.
If your child doesn’t already have their own Xbox One account, press the Xbox button on your controller to jump to the Home menu. Tap left to open the menu, then click the Settings gear. Choose All Settings, then visit the Account tab on the left. Click Family, then Add to Family.
Now, you can choose an existing account on your system to become a child account. If you don’t have any other accounts, click Add new. Have your child sign in with their existing Microsoft account, or create a new one if needed. Next, go through the standard setup process for a new Xbox Account. Select Add to Family to add it as a child account.
Once you’ve added the account, go to Settings > Family and click the appropriate account. You can manage Privacy & online safety to restrict communication features, Access to content to block certain games and apps, and Web filtering to block websites when using Edge.
Now, if your child tries to take a blocked action, you’ll have to enter your password to allow it.
3.5 Kindle Fire
We covered Android and iOS before, but the Kindle Fire is a bit different. While you may not want to buy a Fire for your kids to begin with, those who already have one can set up parental controls for these kid-friendly devices.
To start, swipe down from the top of the screen and tap Settings, then Parental Controls. Hit the switch to enable parental controls, then enter and confirm a password. Once you’ve done this, have a look at the available options. You can disable the web browser, camera, social sharing, and more. If you like, you can even disable connecting to Wi-Fi to really lock down the device.
An alternative on Fire tablets is setting up a unique profile for your child. Open Settings again and head to Profiles & Family Library. Tap Add a child profile and you can add a special account for a child (with a simplified interface) or a teen profile (with a standard interface). With these accounts, you can set up daily limits, require them to read before enjoying entertainment, or limit certain activities. Thus, the Fire is actually one of the best platforms for creating a special child-friendly profile.
@amazon nailed it with the Kindle Fire kids edition. Parental controls, content filters, and usage limits are hugely important. Also, cheap!
— Andrew Miller (@AndrewCMiller) December 14, 2016
To switch accounts, pull down from the top of the screen and tap the profile icon in the top-right. Open the FreeTime app to view information about your child’s usage.
By this point, you’re aware of the various forms of parental control and how to enable them on all your devices. Before we close, let’s quickly discuss a few final points.
4.1 Parental Controls With Multiple Children
Once you’ve got parental controls set up, you may wonder about the best ways to manage them with multiple children, especially kids of different ages. Unfortunately, it’s a bit tricky to answer as it varies by device.
Some platforms, like Amazon’s Fire tablet, the Xbox One, and macOS let you manage individual profiles for each of your children. For these, we recommend setting up a unique account for each kid. Perhaps your 14-year-old can play games rated Teen on the Xbox, but you want to restrict a six-year-old to Everyone-rated games. You can tweak their profiles to match each person’s unique needs.
got two kindle fires for kids ages 6 and 9. aiming for more reading and less youtube. feel like I could write a thesis on parental controls
— garyorenstein (@garyorenstein) June 7, 2016
Other forms of parental control work system-wide, such as the PS4 or iOS. On those, once you set a restriction, everyone using the device has to live by the restriction or know the passcode to override it. In those cases, we recommend setting the control to protect the youngest person using the device, and overriding it when needed.
Suppose you have parental controls set on your PS4 so your six-year-old doesn’t play inappropriate games. You’re OK with your 14-year-old playing Teen-rated games, so you’ll have to trust him with the password or enter it for him when he wants to play.
In the end, parental controls aren’t always super convenient. But it’s more important to protect your kids.
4.2 Be Aware of Workarounds
We mentioned some pitfalls above, so it’s clear that smart kids can get around parental controls. Whether basic methods like uninstalling browser extensions or using a different device, or more devious methods such as going through a proxy server or resetting device options, they may find a way.
The best antidote to this potential issue is communication with your children. Obviously you don’t want to spell out how to defeat the controls, but let them know that you have them in place to keep them safe. Be open to their requests to unblock content. The less draconian you are, the less likely your kids are to try to sneak around parental controls.
4.3 Summary and Recommendations
We’ve offered hints and tips throughout the article, but in case you didn’t get through everything, here’s a summary of our recommendations for setting up parental controls:
- DNS filtering is easy, free, and blocks tons of inappropriate content with little effort. Everyone’s parenting strategy is different, but not many will object to blocking porn, gambling, and other dangerous sites from their homes. This is a good step for any family.
- Use the operating system controls that are best for you. After DNS filtering, the next best “level” is the OS control. Take advantage of the time limits, website blocking, and log-keeping functions of Windows and macOS. They don’t cost anything and aren’t easily defeated by kids.
- For other devices, use parental controls as needed. If your child regularly plays with your tablet when you’re not paying attention, you should probably configure the parental controls. But if your child doesn’t really play video games, there’s not much reason to annoy yourself with the parental controls on your PS4. Just hide the Mature-rated games.
- You don’t really need browser extensions or security suites. Browser extensions are too easy to remove, and full-featured software is expensive. Some do offer great features, but for most people they’re not worth paying for.
- What websites you allow and block is up to you. Some parents will want to create a list of approved website and block everything else, fearing that their kids could find explicit content even on a site like Wikipedia. Others want to block the worst offenders but don’t mind their kids surfing the web otherwise.
- Talk to your kids. With everything we’ve said here, being open and honest is key.
That’s all you need to know about parental controls! Now you’re ready to set up, configure, and enforce them as needed. Hopefully the controls on offer for the devices you use are useful for your family. Along with proper parenting, parental controls are awesome for letting kids enjoy the awesome devices we use every day while still keeping them safe. And they save you a lot of work!
For further reading, check out what teens don’t want parents to know they use their phones for, and ways you can educate yourself about video games.
What’s your parental control strategy? Did you know about all the methods we discussed? Parents, we want to hear what you think in the comments!