The Best Parental Control Devices for Safe Internet Browsing

Protecting your kids on the internet can be exhausting. Here are some easy-to-install parental control routers and other devices to put your worries at ease.

It may start slowly ⏤ an episode of Peppa Pig on Saturday morning, a few rounds of Beat the Clock on a plane ⏤ but eventually, your children will use electronic devices. It’s inevitable. And when they do, they need protection: first, from unsavory websites; second, from themselves. Self-control is a bitch, and nobody wants to raise a kid who throws a fit every time their tablet is taken away. Obviously, active parenting is the first line of defense, but you can’t keep an eye on them 24-7. Devices like the Circle with Disney act as digital parental controls, overseeing kids’ screen time and, when needed, locking down the world wide web. They’re all about the tough love. There are a few different options and, though there are some definitely commonalities, they all operate a little bit differently.

READ MORE: The Fatherly Guide to Keeping Kids Safe Online

While some routers come with parent controls built-in, the gadgets in this guide connect to your existing router, so you can use them even if you change your internet service provider. They all create a digital forcefield around your home that lets you monitor and control what your kids are up to online, from playing Minecraft to streaming some Netflix. Some are one-time purchases (either for the download or the hardware), and others charge monthly subscription fees. All provide you with the ability to block naughty sites while letting others through, set time limits on device usage, track online activity, pause or turn the internet off, and set custom schedules so there’s no device use after bedtime or during dinner.

The Circle with Disney is a standalone three-inch cube that easily pairs with your wireless router. It automatically works with every device on your network. Simply create profiles for each family member, match their devices to those profiles, and set an age-appropriate filter from pre-K, kid, teen, and adult options. You can also set bedtimes, temporarily pause the internet, and even establish limits on specific websites.

Pros: Because it connects to the router that all of the devices in the house connect to, you don’t have to go device by device to set anything up. You can create time limits for specific websites and apps if, for instance, you don’t want your kid to spend all day on Instagram. There’s also a gameified feature that lets you reward your kids with things like extra time or a later bed time if they do something right. An internal battery means that kids can unplug it, but it’ll keep on working much to their chagrin.

Cons: Not all routers are compatible, so make sure you check the list on Circle’s website before you take the plunge. And because it is router-based, the Circle can’t do anything for the cellular connections on phones unless you upgrade to the Circle Go service which, you guessed it, comes with a monthly fee.

Like the Circle, the KoalaSafe is a small device that connects to your router, though it uses an ethernet cable instead of a wifi connection. But instead of limiting what happens on your home network it creates an additional one; it's essentially a mini-router that gives kids their own network. But don't worry: you can still create profiles, set schedules, block sites, and track your kids' usage.

Pros: KoalaSafe comes with a companion app that makes it easy and intuitive to set and adjust your kids’ internet settings. There are preset filters built around categories — shopping, gaming, file sharing — that you may want to limit your kids’ time with. There’s no monthly fee, and we think the grid-based scheduler is one of the more intuitive ways to see and alter your kid’s internet time at a glance.

Cons: There’s no way to control your kids’ cellular devices, so if they’re old enough to have their own phones you’ll want to look elsewhere. You’ll also need to make sure that your kids don’t get their hands on the main wifi network’s password. If that happens, they can simply go around the Koala and get the unfiltered Internet experience you’re trying to prevent.

Cujo is an all-in-one internet safety device that includes a robust set of features that parents will find particularly useful. It's essentially a standalone firewall device that uses artificial intelligence to lock down your wireless network. It's oddly cute-looking with light-up eyes on the side of the otherwise austere white unit.

Pros: Cujo has typical parental control features — website and platform filtering, schedules, and time limits — but its artificial intelligence does so much more. It monitors your traffic and can detect if your kids are being cyberbullied or even if they’re approached by a predator. You’ll get an email alert the minute something like that happens so you can take care of the situation before it’s too late.

Cons: The Cujo doesn’t work with every router, including popular options like Google Wifi Mesh. Because it monitors all of the traffic going in and out of your network, it doesn’t support more advanced setups. So if you have some kind of super custom network this may not be the device for you.

The uncreatively named Router Limits is another white box that plugs into your router with an ethernet cable and limits what your kids can do with it. Once it's plugged in, it automatically discovers all of the devices on your network.

Pros: Device-by-device browsing history includes every site your kids visit and every site the try to visit and are blocked from. There’s also a long list of filters that are both category-based — games, social media, porn — and pegged to specific websites and apps — Snapchat, Netflix, Facebook. Router Limits can also filter search results in Google, Bing, and YouTube to ensure your kids don’t stumble across something questionable in a search. There’s also a mobile companion app that you can install on devices to duplicate the protection that’s in place on the home network on mobile connections or other wifi networks.

Cons: If you share your wifi information with guests, you’ll have to tell them you can monitor their traffic, which is kind of awkward. The mobile companion app is nice to have, but costs at least $10 per month.

The Fingbox is the hardware companion to Fing, a popular wireless network monitoring tool. It plugs into routers via ethernet, and does a great job monitoring what's happening on your network in terms of devices connecting and disconnecting and how much bandwidth is being used by each one.

Pros: The Fingbox has plenty of useful diagnostic tools. It has a sweet spot finder that can help you find the best places to connect to an otherwise unreliable wifi network. It sends you a push alert when someone joins or leaves the work and lets you turn off internet access by device remotely. It also keeps a log of what’s happened on your network so you can see how often your kids are online. And there’s no monthly subscription to worry about or pay for. It’s definitely the best tool if you’re an advanced user and you want to get into the nuts and bolts of the wireless network.

Cons: If you only concerns are with the amount of internet usage, the Fingbox is great. If you’re worried about content restrictions, it’s not. There’s no content-based filtering feature to speak of and the Fingbox doesn’t record which sites your kids attempt to visit as similar devices do. The standard schedule and on-off features are all there, but it would be nice if the Fingbox gave you more control than a simple switch.