2020 Parental Control Testing from Protect Young Eyes
There are so many parental control software solutions on the market today, making it difficult for caring adults to pick the right one.
We know this because the PYE team receives weekly emails, chats, and DMs from overwhelmed parents asking a steady stream of parental control questions.
Do you remember the first Incredibles movie? There’s a scene where an alarm is tripped while Mr. Incredible is in the enemy lair, and all he has to do is run across this bridge in order to escape. Seems simple enough – he’s Mr. Incredible! But cannons start shooting black, expanding balls. Pelting him over and over until they overtake and paralyze him.
I think parents can relate. “I just need something that monitors social media – that’s all!” And you start across the bridge. Googling. Searching. Asking in a forum. But there are so many choices and suggestions, it can feel like you’re being pelted with black, expanding balls until you just. can’t. move.
Here’s what we did.
Our team spent two weeks and over 40 hours testing 14 parental control software solutions. We didn’t test router-based solutions, which include Gryphon, EERO, Circle, and Asus AC3100. Don’t worry, those are in process and are coming next! (Teaser – it’s going to be really tough to beat Gryphon.)
The solutions we tested, in no particular order: CleanBrowsing. Mobicip. Bark. Qustodio. MM Guardian. SaferKids. Boomerang. OurPact. NetSanity. Screen Time (iOS). Family Link (Android). Net Nanny (formerly called Zift). Kaspersky Safe Kids. Norton Family Premier.
We tried really hard to beat them. Thinking like a motivated, hormonal, tech-savvy, social media addicted, 13-year-old teen who wants to evade all blockades that “the parentals” have put in place. Keyword searches. Circumvention. Backdoors. Even though we believe that 90% of kids aren’t like this, we know that “10% kid” pretty well.
We called customer service with questions to see if we could get to a real human. We read app store reviews. We tested refund policies. We looked for mission alignment and true care for families, like yours.
We’re confident you won’t find a more comprehensive and caring analysis than what we’ve done. And for the spreadsheet lovers out there, you’ll find our “Testing Details” section below with screenshots for future reference.
The Best Parental Control isn’t an App.
The #1 impact on how well kids use technology actually comes from you. Your example. Your words. Parental controls don’t eliminate the need to parent. There’s no such thing as “set it and forget it” in the digital age.
If you’re not looking your kids in the eyes and talking to them about all of the awkward things that no one talked to you about when you were a kid, then parental controls will only partially help.
Intentional, curious, consistent, caring conversations about everything, including technology, are the most effective parental controls you could ever use.
Admit it. No matter what technical solution you implement, given the right motivation, they’re always going to find a way to beat it. Relationships are the great offset. Your kids need to know that no matter what they do or what someone does to them in the digital realm, they can land softly and safely with you.
Results from our 2020 Parental Control Testing: Bark is Tops
Bark has two services – one called “Bark Jr.” that locks in SafeSearch and lets you manage screen time. Another Bark service is the “full Bark,” which is everything in Bark Jr. + all of their unique social media monitoring.
If your child uses social media, then you have to use Bark. It’s almost not even fair to test them alongside the other apps because they do what no one else does – monitor conversations for concerning phrases. They’ve prevented school violence. They’ve rescued kids from self-harm. In a time when mental health awareness is at an all-time high, they’re the only ones doing anything.
- Mental health monitoring.
- Social media monitoring for >30 popular apps.
- YouTube channel monitoring.
- iMessage and text message monitoring.
- **New April 2020 – manage screen time with Bark Jr.
- **New April 2020 – filter websites with Bark Jr.
- **New April 2020 – location tracking with Bark Jr.
- Outstanding customer support (email, phone, chat).
- Good coverage on devices kids use (Chromebooks, Kindle, Android, iPhone).
- Their machine learning service can sometimes be quirky on iOS because it’s iOS and trying to monitor iPhones is complex. But they’ll do their best to try and fix any issues you have because they have outstanding customer support.
- For the newer blocking service, it depends on the VPN to work, which can be toggled off very easily on iOS. A way to overcome the VPN weakness is to layer Bark with Apple’s Screen Time or Android’s Family Link.
Here’s how to set-up iOS Screen Time: iOS 13 Parental Controls Guide.
Here’s how to set up Android Family Link: Android Parental Controls Guide.
Second, but still great: Boomerang
A second option with even tighter content controls is Boomerang but without the social media monitoring. It’s really difficult to remove (avoiding that VPN issue described above) and priced very low (only $30.99/year which is a steal for what you get). You can still layer with Screen Time (iPhone) or Family Link (Android).
- Feature value – their price is really low, but you get many features parents want, like screen time control, YouTube Restricted Mode control, device shut-off, and more.
- We tried everything we know, trying to beat their SPIN safe browser – it’s bullet proof.
- It’s run by dads who care and love family.
- It doesn’t use a VPN and therefore, layers well with other solutions like Bark.
- The child and parent apps have a family messenger feature, which is neat.
- Customer support could be strengthened with a chat option. We spoke with their founders who told us this is coming soon.
- It’s for mobile only – iPhones and Android. If you have Chromebooks, you’ll need to use Family Link, which is free.
Go here to add Family Link to the Chromebook: Chromebook Parental Controls Guide.
Best free option: CleanBrowsing
CleanBrowsing blocks known porn domains, certain mixed content sites (like Tumblr and Reddit, which have a mix of good and explicit), and and lock in YouTube Restricted Mode. It does this by telling your device to only go looking for information in clean digital phone books through a system referred to as the Domain Name System. You don’t know it, but you use DNS every single time you get online!
There are 2 ways to use CleanBrowsing – either by manually changing the DNS settings on your phone or by using their Apple or Android app. Many parents opt for the App because it’s so much easier than changing the settings. But, since the app uses the VPN, then CleanBrowsing can’t be layered with anything else.
- It’s free.
- They provide more SafeSearch coverage on major browsers than any other clean DNS.
- It’s run by awesome parents who care about family.
Here’s how to use CleanBrowsing on every device: How to Block Porn on Every Device for Free.
- It’s easy to disable. If you change the DNS settings, then anyone can change them back. If you use the Apple of Android CleanBrowsing apps, the VPN can be toggled off. This is why it’s necessary to only use this with kids who have proven trustworthy and who have caring adults filling in the gaps with intentional conversations.
This age-solution grid summarizes our comments above:
Testing Details. We Love Spreadsheets!
If you want more details behind how we arrived at the decisions above, please continue reading. This section is for all left-brained analytics, like our founder, Chris.
This grid shows which software covers each of the major devices.
This grid took quite a bit of time to prepare. A general rule is if the software uses a Virtual Private Network (VPN), then it won’t play nicely with other solutions. Another general rule is that if it uses Mobile Device Management (MDM), then it can’t share a device with another MDM solution – there’s only room for one MDM profile per device. This is another reason why Bark works as a great layering solution, since it generally works well with most other solutions.
Explicit Content Testing
Again, we tried to think like a motivated teen when looking for weaknesses. This grid shows the types of searches that were performed and the results:
Glossary of terms:
- Blocked = typing in “reddit.com” produced a screen of some kind saying the site was blocked.
- Changeable = although the search engine starts in SafeSearch, it can be toggled off in Settings or Preferences.
- FB = Facebook; VK = Russian Facebook (Kaspersky is based in Moscow).
- Monitored = Both Bark and SaferKid say “monitored.” Bark is yellow, while SaferKid is red. Although Bark doesn’t block anything, their algorithm will warn you after the fact on what to be concerned about – yellow. Contrast this with SaferKid, which doesn’t block, and it expects parents to sift through everything looking for trouble – red.
- Open = all searches possible without restriction.
- SafeSearch = if the search engine has a SafeSearch feature, it is locked in and can’t be changed.
- Some block = these solutions recognize certain appropriate keywords, like sex, naked, etc., and blocks them, but there are many sneaky ways to use other seemingly innocent keywords to get to inappropriate content in seconds.
- URL’s = if you search for an inappropriate term, the search engine results show links to inappropriate pages, even if you can’t click through to them.
Summary of Features for each Software
Parents tell us what features they want, and so we tried to capture them here and test each software solution against them. On the bottom of the grid, you’ll notice details about a trial period, cost, and number of covered devices at that cost:
A Few Notes About Each Parental Control Software:
[Those that we haven’t mentioned already]
- Still a really strong player. Their browser is right there with Boomerang’s. For young kids and even middle school, a really strong solution.
- Their filtering of YouTube is unrivaled.
- Their device coverage is very good, including a Chrome extension for Chromebooks.
- Mobicip was our 2019 Best Parental Control solution, and it’s still strong, but their customer service, and level of digital culture acumen in blog posts and UI need to improve (example, Google+ is still in their UI, which no longer exists). When talking to parents, they struggle with finding support answers. Other, similar organizations have actual people to call with problems, which is something we’d like to see in Mobicip.
- Qustodio has all of the features, but from reading reviews and talking to parents, it’s an unstable app. It works for a while and then stops. This is frustrating.
- As you can see on the Content Testing grid, their filtering and reporting is horrible. Any moderately motivated teen can hide inappropriate behavior.
- Their browser is really slow and struggled with non-traditional search engines like Yandex, DuckDuckGo, Dogpile, and AOL.
- Although reasonably priced, it lacks other YouTube and app-level control that is so strong in Boomerang.
- If your only goals are to control screen time and have the ability to quickly shut off a device, then OurPact is your winner. Millions of parents love it for that.
- But it’s really bad at content control. And, it’s really, really hard to get their service off your device if you choose to try something else. The iPhone used for testing STILL has a note in Settings saying “This iPhone is supervised and managed by Eturi Corporation” (the parent company). Which means I have to contact customer service for help.
- I love their mission to give free porn blocking to as many families as possible.
- But, their content filtering failed most of our tests and it’s really expensive when compared to Mobicip or Boomerang ($99/year for only two devices).
- The user experience in the app is clunky.
- They’ve really bounced back after floundering a bit as “Zift,” which is a brand that really never caught on.
- It’s a strong service, and was only edged out by Boomerang due to the lack of Android text monitoring and some gaps in their content control. But, overall very solid.
Kaspersky Labs (Safe Kids):
- It’s a really strong service, all the way to having real humans on the phone who answered a few questions and their support articles are the best we found – very nicely organized and easy to follow.
- It’s headquartered in Moscow, Russia. We can’t overlook that.
- It lacks controls over YouTube.
- With Bark, the only one that monitors iMessage on iPhones.
- Very nice user experience in a very nicely-organized parent app.
- It’s really expensive for what you get at $199.99/year. It’s content filtering doesn’t block anything, it lacks controls over YouTube, and customer service isn’t strong (we’re still waiting for a refund).
Norton Family Premier:
- This one came highly recommended by multiple families, but we were disappointed.
- Content control was not good and it lacks some features that parents seem to want. And since it uses a VPN, it’s difficult to layer with another solution.
1 – Parental control software definitions:
- Filtering – blocking the junk through content categories, a blacklist, clean DNS, or a combination of both.
- Monitoring – keeping track of digital behavior and reporting it to someone else. Often used synonymously with accountability, although accountability is more often connected with adults.
- Mobile Device Management (MDM) – this is used by some parental control companies in order to exert greater control over the device. It means loading a “profile” onto the phone in order to dig a little deeper.
- Virtual Private Network (VPN) – also used by some parental control companies, and even more invasive than MDM. Some parents are familiar with VPNs because their teen tried to tell you that having one makes their phone faster – nice try! If you want more details, please read our VPN post.
2 – Our CEO and founder, Chris McKenna also does Marketing for Covenant Eyes (CE). After a battle against pornography, long before working for CE, Chris used CE software to find lasting freedom. It’s personal to him. CE’s longevity, amazing customer service, partnership with CleanBrowsing, first-to-market screen capture AI, and strong faith base make them a fantastic solution for teens and adults trying to live porn-free. If you or someone you love struggles with compulsive porn use, then get the issue into the light and consider using Covenant Eyes.
3 – There are affiliate links in this post. That’s because we like recommending things that work. The affiliate relationship does nothing to what you might pay, if you decide to purchase. We truly hope our work is helpful. A few affiliate dollars keep our content free for you!
4 – We’ve probably missed something. This is a detailed blog post, and we invite any and all feedback! Please comment below and share this with your friends.