Parental Control Apps | Privacy analysis and URL filtering

It is clear that unlimited internet access can pose many risks for young people, especially now that more than half of children own a smartphone.[1] From adult sites and grooming to health misinformation and other potentially radicalizing content, it’s no wonder parents are worried about what their kids are being exposed to online.

Parental control apps market themselves as a quick tech fix. Installed on both parent and child devices, this software allows parents to monitor their child’s internet activity and claims to filter out inappropriate online content.

Internet filters are inherently intrusive and restrictive. For many people, however, this is a price to pay for keeping children safe online.

But do parental control apps really work as well as they claim? Or are children’s privacy sacrificed for little real benefit?

We decided to find out by testing the effectiveness of the 12 most popular parental control apps in the Google Play Store, which have over 14 million installs between them.

We particularly focused on how apps blocked access to websites featuring content related to extreme ideologies, including racist and misogynistic content; misinformation and conspiracy theories; and platforms known for adult content.

In 70% of our testsapps have failed to filter out this type of high-risk online content.

We also looked at whether parental control apps were overblocking, i.e. inadvertently filtering out content that should have been allowed. Our testing in this area focused on government-recommended websites on educational topics such as safer sex, addiction, and mental health support.

In 20% of our testsparental control apps blocked access, which could have potentially devastating consequences for a young person seeking reliable information.

How did we test the proper functioning of the applications?

After installing each app on a pair of Android smartphones, we tested the effectiveness of their internet filters by trying to visit a hand-picked list of 23 risky websites. We selected the sites based on their potential real-world appeal and impact on young people.

See the full list of high-risk websites and our test results.

To determine whether applications were content overblockingwe tried to access 38 UK and US government recommended websites.

In addition to internet filtering, some parental control apps offer additional ways to monitor and control internet activity.

More than a third of children watch YouTube regularly,[2] despite concerns about extreme content on the platform.[3] So we wanted to test the effectiveness of parental control apps in filtering content on YouTube.

Only two apps, FamiSafe and Kaspersky SafeKids, offered dedicated YouTube alert/blocking features beyond the standard Google SafeSearch protections. We tested both apps using a list of inappropriate search terms.

Given parents’ understandable fears about sexting[4], we also tested the “suspicious text detection” features. Only two of the top 12 apps offered this highly intrusive feature: FamiSafe and MMGuardian. Our tests used a similar list of keywords to the YouTube test.

Why did we do this research?

Our mission is to defend against intrusions into digital privacy and defend freedom on the Internet. As such, we believe that decisions to censor Internet content or intrude on individuals’ digital privacy should never be taken lightly and require very careful consideration in possession of all the facts.

This is especially true when it comes to keeping children safe online. The strict monitoring and control of children’s Internet activity using technology normalizes such behavior and does little to prepare them for responsible Internet use as adults.

By providing evidence of the ineffectiveness of many of these parental control apps in blocking anything unrelated to nudity and the unintended side effects of their content filtering, we hope parents can make a choice. knowledgeable about using these apps or other practical ways to keep their children safe online.

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