You've probably seen plenty of advertisements for free parental control software and wondered whether it could do the job as well as the software that you'd pay to download. The truth of the matter is that there's a lot of free parental control software out there that's either useless or the source of computer security problems. On the other hand, there are some high-quality download options for parents who want to monitor their children's Internet activity without spending a lot of money.
Parental Control Software Buying Guide
The main thing you need to know is that there are two types of free parental control software that you can download: toolbars that you use to block certain websites from your computer, and full software programs that let you monitor and block content. Most parents prefer the full software programs, although there are good toolbar programs if you just want to block certain sites. As for the software you pay for, you can spend about $30 a year or upwards of $100 a year. But you don't get more control or protection for these big bucks if you choose wisely from the cheap and free parental software that's available.
At this point you may be wondering how software companies can afford to give away reliable and effective free parental control software when other companies charge a hefty price. In some cases, as with Kidlogger, the software is open source; in others, such as K9 Web Protection, the company behind the software is a non-profit organization that receives funding from grants and contributions.
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Features Comparison Buying Guide continues below table
Parental Control Software Reviews
Regardless how much you pay, if anything at all, what you want is an array of useful features combined with parental control software reviews that indicate the software is safe to download. One critical feature to look for is automatic blocking of adult sites, as well as the ability to block and approve sites manually at your discretion. Other desirable features include the ability to record your child's online conversations and monitor social networking site activity. In addition, downloading should be simple and the software should not take up a lot of space on your hard drive. Updates should be automatic or prompted by the system.
Parental Control Software Site Blocking.The most basic feature of any parental control software is the ability to automatically block sites according to parameters that you set. An obvious example is software that prevents all "adult" sites from coming up. K9 Web Protection software, a free download, does a fine job of this by dividing web content into a large number of categories and letting you block entire categories as you see fit. Net Nanny (starting at $27.17 a year) likewise lets you block specific sites as well as general types of sites depending on the features you choose when setting up the system. With Net Nanny you can also block specified types of sites during certain times -- for example, no game sites during homework hours -- which may be one reason to choose this parental control software despite its cost. In a parental control software review, PC Magazine notes that CyberSitter (starting at $29) also blocks categories but recently lowered that number to 12 from 30, making the product much less attractive from a parent's point of view.
Parental Control Software Site Approval.One of the biggest drawbacks of cheap or free parental control software is that it often blocks sites that are totally clean. The best programs provide some method of approving acceptable sites on a case-by-case basis. Depending on the parental control software you're using, you may either need to be online to approve the sites or you'll receive email notification that sites were blocked, giving you the option of overriding the block during or after your child has tried to access the site. K9 Web Protection handles this task by letting you manually approve entire categories of content as well as individual sites. The Parental Control Bar (free to download) does the most thorough job in this arena because it blocks nearly all sites and asks for site-by-site manual approval from parents.
Parental Control Software Downloading.Your parental control software must be easy to download and should sit in a small corner of your hard drive. Just as important, it shouldn't cause any security problems. All the free and cheap parental control software products on our list are easy and safe to download. By way of example, expert reviews at Internet Content Filtering give ParentalControl Bar a 10 out of 10 for easy installation. Downloading K9 Web Protection is a bit more complicated only because it requires you to register on the website to receive a free activation code for the download. All of the other cheap or free parental control software programs we recommend download easily either from their own sites or from third-party approved sites, such as CNET.
Social Network Monitoring.Whichever parental control software you choose, it should enable up-to-date monitoring of email, instant message chats, and social networking sites like Facebook. Note that cheap or free programs do not always monitor this Web 2.0 technology, so check carefully before making your selection.
Net Nanny is the most low-cost and with-it product in terms of Web 2.0 technology, according to parental control software reviews at Computer Shopper. In addition to providing the controls noted above, Net Nanny also helps to block proxy sites that smart teens sometimes use to access social networking sites without being monitored. KidLogger (free to download) and ChatShield (free to download) efficiently monitor chat functions only. ChatShield is useful for kids who chat on Windows Live Messenger, while KidLogger is better at monitoring a range of different chat sites. Notably, however, both of these free programs are incapable of monitoring some of the more popular Web 2.0 sites and services, like Skype. K9 Web Protection and Parental Control Toolbar can't deal with the social networking phenomenon. If you have younger children who aren't active on Web 2.0 sites, then these two products may be adequate; alternatively, you could combine one or the other with a secondary program, such as KidLogger, for stricter monitoring.
Parental Control Software Remote Access.With many cheap parental control software programs you can access the logs and information stored by the software from any computer. This feature makes monitoring online activities a lot more convenient, but could cost you real dollars. Net Nanny wins praise from expert reviewers at Internet Filter Review who say the remote reporting and remote management are among Net Nanny's best features. CyberSitter likewise gives you access from afar. Free parental control software doesn't provide this feature, but enterprising third parties have developed methods for allowing remote access on some free programs. For example, users posting on the K9 Web Protection forum created proxy software that accomplishes the goal. But because such software comes from an unknown third party, with all the attendant risks, be cautious about installing it on your child's computer.
Best Parental Control Software
Overall Performance.There's no need to lay out hefty sums for parental control software when there are so many good cheap and free parental control programs whose overall performance rivals that of the high-priced competition.
One caveat, however, pertains to security for your computer. As we all know, some downloads can wreak havoc on a system, so if you're obsessive about these matters, you may want to spring for a program that comes designed specifically for your operating system; one example is the Microsoft product that works exclusively with Windows Vista and costs about $100 a year. Attracted by a free 21-day trial, many parents have installed ChildProtector Internet Filter (starts at $29.95 a year) only to discover that it doesn't work properly, and according to reviews by users on CNET, is nearly impossible to entirely scrub from the computer.
Security concerns aside, the performance of free and cheap downloadable parental control software often exceeds parents' expectations. In a review on Agoosa.com, one parent notes she's been using K9 Web Protection for a year and knows it works because her kids hate it. Net Nanny earns loud applause from parents for its ability to block categories of sites while allowing parental override for specific sites; expert reviews at All Internet Security say this ability to block or allow sites at will really empowers parents.
Parents who prefer to control every little bit of their child's online activity favor ParentalControl Bar for its near-total blocking power. They also seem willing to tolerate the tedium of unblocking sites they deem acceptable, according to reviews on CNET. KidLogger, on the other hand, monitors activities but doesn't let you block or approve sites; a blogger at DKSZone describes Kidlogger as a passive program that lets you snoop but not intrude. The best thing about Kidlogger is how effective it is at monitoring Web 2.0 sites (chats, social networking, etc.), so even though it doesn't allow you to block programs it does give you a really good picture of what your child is doing online. One parent writing a review on Keylogger.com says he was initially skeptical about using free software, downloaded it nonetheless, and has been thrilled with its performance thus far.
Parental Control Software Installation.Safe and easy installation is critical with monitoring programs. You don't want to compromise the guts of your computer by downloading corrupted programs, so always choose software that expert reviews deem safe, or software that can be downloaded directly from the product site or from a reputable third-party site, such as CNET.
Some programs may take a few extra minutes to install but reviewers say it's worth the trouble. For example, experts at ParentalSoftware.org warn that setting up Net Nanny requires working through more steps than is needed for other programs. A review at BrightHub gives Net Nanny a 5 out of 5 for ease of use owing to the simple setup wizard it uses. (Note that Net Nanny and CyberSitter can be ordered as CDs and installed that way, with updates downloaded when you get a prompt from the program.) ParentalControl Bar is a simple toolbar download that's a lot like the experience of downloading Google Toolbar or Yahoo Toolbar. Parents using K9 Web Protection write in reviews on CNET that installation is trouble-free. And parental control software reviews on RateItAll note that installing KidLogger is a breeze.