Restricting children from accessing harmful content and monitoring what they do online can be useful tools to help parents protect their children online.
However, over-reliance on parental controls can lead to overprotective parenting, with mistrust on both sides if parents and children don't agree.
On balance, an approach which uses parental controls as a basis for education and honest conversations can be an effective way of protecting children when they're browsing, communicating or playing games online.
What can parental control software do?
Parental control software offers several key functions. These vary depending on the type of software parents use, with the controls offered by anti-virus specialists like Norton providing more advanced features to parents.
There are some key areas we'd expect quality parental software to cover though. We'll look at some of these in turn.
Restrict harmful sites
Parental control software can block access to harmful websites either through a category system (see below) or a block/allow list of specific websites outside of the category system.
This allows parents to restrict access to individual sites they may have concerns about without having to set up restrictions for whole swathes of the internet. On the other side of the coin, parents can allow sites that might otherwise be restricted by ISP level parental controls. This is useful given legitimate sites sometimes get caught up in age-related restrictions.
Block inappropriate apps
Some parental control software (usually not the ISP-based options) enables parents to block access to specific apps or games.
This function is useful if parents are concerned about their child downloading and using apps that are for adults or older children, and it could include social networking sites where kids could otherwise try to circumvent the age restrictions (read more about kids and social media).
Allow category filtering
ISP-level parental controls (covered in more detail here) were designed to allow parents to block specific categories of content.
For example, parents can block access to sites categorised as providing pornography or adult entertainment. Similarly, they can block access to gambling websites or similar age-inappropriate content.
There are options for category filters to be managed by time or sometimes by device (with more advanced software or by accessing controls on the devices themselves), ensuring parents can still access content they want to while still keeping the blocks active for children.
Limit multiplayer gaming
Online multiplayer gaming has exploded in recent years with the success of games like Fortnite bringing more kids into contact with mass multiplayer games. While these games have a place, parents are often worried about the people their kids are coming into contact with online and want to restrict access.
Operating system level controls like those on the Mac OS can give parents the power to disable multiplayer games or allow them only with people nearby.
Offer time supervision
With more homework being done online than ever before, it isn't as straightforward as turning the internet off to make sure kids are carrying on with their studies as they should be on evenings and at weekends.
Some parental control options do allow parents to block access to the internet at certain times. This is ideal if parents need to enforce a bedtime or want to make sure a child isn't spending all their time in front of a screen.
However, some time control software allows for greater oversight of what children are doing when they're supposed to be doing their homework, giving parents the information they need to start conversations about work.
Provide activity reports
Activity reports may be provided by parental control software.
Depending on the specific software, these reports can be detailed and send information right to the inbox of the parent. Alternatively, they can be managed by some sort of app or portal, which can be a more user-friendly way of understanding the time a child spends online and what they're doing.
What are the limitations of parental control software?
Even though parental control software can be useful and its proponents are often vocal about what it can do, it's true there are some caveats and loopholes to be aware of.
Let's look at some of the main problems.
While ISP-level parental controls have been available since 2013 via the major ISPs, there's a huge caveat to using them: they only work on devices attached to the network.
So, if a child has a smartphone with 4G, what they do on the phone through their data rather than the wi-fi won't be subject to the ISP-level controls a household sets up.
This doesn't mean there aren't options for controls on mobile networks (all the major and several smaller operators do offer them), but it's another layer of controls to be aware of and manage as a parent.
Learn more about choosing a mobile phone for your child.
Working by ID or browser
Some parental control functions will only work when children are signed into devices using specific IDs or usernames.
For example, Microsoft's operating system parental controls will only work if a child is logged in with their Microsoft ID, so this could limit the control parents have while out of the house.
Similarly, there's another caveat in terms of browser usage: Microsoft's controls will only work on their Edge browser (or their older Internet Explorer browser). Children can be blocked from using other browsers but, again, that deterrent only works when they're in the house and using their laptop or computer.
Not a catch-all
It's tempting to see parental controls as an easy solution to the difficult problem of keeping kids safe online.
Yet, as we mentioned above, some ISP-level blocks will restrict access to websites but not games. BT, for example, points out parents must enter a URL to block a site, something that isn't possible with apps or app-based games.
While apps may be caught by other software, that brings up the possibility that different types of control or security software may interact badly with each other.
For instance, BT specifically says their BT Parental Controls cannot be used in conjunction with other software covering all devices such as Open DNS, Metacert and Norton Connectsafe.
Another thing to note about some ISP-level restrictions is that they are a catch-all in the sense they apply to all devices on the network rather than being tailored to individual devices. Again, software is out there to manage each device, but it can add layers of complexity to the process of setting up and managing parental controls.
There's no denying that setting up parental controls for the first time or managing them on an ongoing basis can be time-consuming.
Part of the agreement between the Government and major ISPs was to make their controls straightforward to set-up and prompt parents to set them up during the set-up process for their broadband account.
Sky took this one step further with their Sky Broadband Shield by turning their controls on by default in 2016.
Yet the idea of managing categories and time filters (which may also impact adult browsing too) doesn't appeal to all parents, even before we think about the granular level of control offered by more advanced parental control software.
Parents may think there are better ways to spend their time when it comes to keeping their kids safe online.
Do parental controls have unintended consequences?
Some critics of parental controls say they're used as a replacement for good parenting and are vocal about saying such software shouldn't be used.
For us, that view's simplistic and disregards the fact that parents are constantly weighing up risks to their children, whether that's allowing them to go to a friend's house after school or working out whether they're old enough to ride a certain rollercoaster at a theme park.
Understanding the risks posed to children online and mitigating them is part of parenting, and parental controls are a big part of that.
However, there are some factors to bear in mind. Let's look at some of the major ones.
Parental controls give parents the power to manage what their child sees online and that's a positive thing, yet critics say this can slide into overprotective parenting without parents really being aware of it.
For example, the weekly reporting features we discussed above are a great way for parents to get a handle on what their kids are doing online, but it's easy to see how this could become granular monitoring of every site they visit and every minute they spend online.
Questioning why children are visiting specific sites can give them the feeling of being watched over constantly. For younger children who don't know their way around the internet, this may be understandable, but older children may chafe at the vigilance.
Mistrust between parents and kids
If parents restrict what content their children can access without explaining their decisions to them, it can lead to mistrust building. Similarly, if children think they're being unfairly watched in everything they do online, this can increase trust problems within the family.
At best, this mistrust can strain relationships, but there's also the possibility it will cause the child to rebel against the restrictions put in place by parents.
As we've mentioned, there are ways of getting around some parental controls, and it's usually impossible to govern what they come into contact with at friends' houses unless their parents are as savvy with parental control software.
Trust issues that lead to children keeping secrets about what they're doing online is exactly the kind of behaviour parents should be working to prevent.
In a similar vein, many parents restrict screen time or internet usage as a result of bad behaviour.
While this is fine in moderation, excessive use of punishments (especially if a child perceives them to be unfair) can further break down trust between parents and children, leading to secretive behaviour.
Part of a bigger picture
One final criticism of parental controls is that they foster a sense of complacency, with parents putting controls in place and then assuming they don't need to do anything else.
Part of the problem with this is that threats evolve all the time, so websites that were unheard of last week need to be added to the block list if parents want to continue protecting their children from online threats.
This links back to the point we made above about effective parental controls being time-consuming. It's an ongoing process, and parents who do use control software need to be aware of that.
Conclusion: is education more effective than parental controls?
Those who argue against the effectiveness of parental controls say parents should concentrate on educating their children about the dangers of the internet.
Our view, however, is that parental controls should be used in tandem with frank conversations and parental education to foster positive internet usage.
Explaining decisions and asking children their opinion on different sites and categories can create a sense that the family's in this together, rather than controls simply being something imposed on children by their parents.
Official guidance on protecting kids online evolves as threats evolve. For instance, we now have music video age ratings when these weren't a feature before 2015 and an Age Appropriate Design Code to put children's privacy at the heart of web design came into force in 2020.
There's an ongoing debate about what the Government should do to keep children safe online and whether it's their responsibility.
Yet, for us, those higher-level debates disregard the conversations that should be going on within individual households as families discuss their boundaries and work out a balance between parental controls and internet education.