Supports Windows, Mac, Android. Web-based configuration and reporting. Powerful filtering. Cross-platform internet time allowance. App control for Android.
No new updates. Expensive. No location tracking. Lacks advanced time management control. Limited iOS support.
- Bottom Line
Net Nanny's web-centric and multi-platform approach to parental control makes it a useful option for the modern world, but it hasn't been updated substantially in years.
Modern parents wishing to keep an eye on their children's online activities need to deal with the proliferation of connected devices. These days a parental control tool that can't impose rules on every piece of hardware your kids use to go online is not worth your money. ContentWatch Net Nanny is one of the few tools that does track and protect your kids across all your Windows, Mac, Android, and (to a limited extent) iPhones and iPads. It also has good web filtering abilities and internet time scheduling functionality. However, the software has not received significant updates in years and is really starting to show its age. Net Nanny was our Editors' Choice for many years, but these days we recommend Qustodio all for your parental control needs.
Pricing and Options
Net Nanny's pricing is straightforward, if expensive. $39.99 gets you a single license for Windows or Mac. The next step up is the five-license Family Pass, which costs $74.99 per year. This tier adds support for monitoring on Android and the internet filter on iOS. Note that an iOS installation doesn't count against your total number of licenses. If you want to monitor even more hardware, you can subscribe to a 10-license Family Pass for $119.99 per year. For Macs users, Net Nanny (version 3) requires at least macOS 10.7. It supports any mobile devices that run on at least Android Android 2.3 or iOS 8.
For comparison, Norton Family only costs $49.99 and includes an unlimited number of licenses. Qustodio costs $54.95 for five licenses, which can be used across Android, iOS, Mac, and Windows devices.
It's worth noting that the related service Net Nanny Social is currently unavailable for purchase. In the past, you could track your child's activity across a number of social media sites with this feature, but according to the company, Net Nanny Social is not available because it is working on new updates. This explanation is odd, given that it previously existed and was included with the 10-license Family Pass. Apps are seldom withdrawn from availability pending an update.
Net Nanny still offers a Password Account Manager, which is aimed at adults who have trouble avoiding harmful sites, such as those centered on pornography or gambling. With this service, Net Nanny takes control of your account settings and changes your password every day to prevent you from regaining access and making changes. The price varies depending on whether you want unlimited email/phone access ($49.99 per year) or just unlimited email access ($29.99 per year). A less drastic solution is to install a service like RescueTime, which can help you get a handle on how much time you spend on various activities across all your PCs, phones, and tablets.
All of Net Nanny's configuration and reporting occurs online, and it enforces rules via a local client on each PC, phone, or tablet on which you install it. On a PC, all you see locally is a system tray icon with a minimal menu. Most parental control services operate this way. When you install the Windows client, it prompts you to log into your Net Nanny account, or create one. During the process of creating the account, you can name one or more users (children). You also have the option to add users later.
For each child, Net Nanny automatically configures settings to match the profile you select: Child, Pre-Teen, Teen, or Adult, and you can further customize these settings later. If multiple children will be using the same Windows account, you should create a password for each account. You can also include the child's email address and a photo.
Where some parental control systems require that you associate each child with a Windows account, Net Nanny gives you choices. As noted, you can require each child to log in before going online. However, if the children do use separate accounts, you can set it so that after the first login under a given Windows account, the Net Nanny account stays logged in. It's very flexible.
Almost every parental control system offers some kind of web content filtering. At the most basic level, the filter uses a database to identify and block websites that match certain unwanted categories. That doesn't help when a site hasn't been categorized or has added objectionable material since the database was last updated, however.
Better content filters analyze page content to determine if a site is undesirable. Net Nanny performs this analysis in real time on a page-by-page basis, when appropriate. For example, we found that it allowed access to an article about sports on CNN.com, but blocked an article about nude celebrity photos. On a short story website, it blocked only erotic stories.
Net Nanny matches up sites with 17 potentially objectionable categories. Parents who aren't sure precisely what each category contains can click to replace the buttons with descriptions. For young children, all the problem categories are blocked by default. For older children, some categories such as Sexual Health and Weapons aren't blocked. Instead, the child gets a warning upon trying to visit sites in these categories. If the child chooses to proceed regardless, parents receive notification. Other parental control services such as Norton Family and Boomerang offer a much wider range of categories.
It's conceivable that your child might have a legitimate need to access a blocked site. Perhaps a school report requires information about weapons or gambling. In that case, the child can click a link to request an exception. You receive an email notification. If the request has merit, you can log in to the online console and create an exception that will take effect right away.
Notification rules can apply to the entire family or to just one child. When you approve a child's request to remove a given site from a particular category, that exception is also family-wide. You can also add category exceptions directly. Note that a site with a category exception can still be blocked due to matching a different category.
There's a place to enter always-allowed or always-blocked websites for each child, but you can also create a whitelist and blacklist for the whole family. If there's a conflict, the child's individual list prevails. There's also an option to create a custom category, with its own list of included sites. The advantage of this approach is that you can give different access levels to the children, perhaps blocking for one, warning for another, and allowing for a third.
One category, Profanity, is slightly different from the rest. It offers four choices: Allow, Warn, Block, and Mask. Choosing Mask means that profanity on a page will be replaced with punctuation. Why? Without this option, a perfectly valid page could be blocked by Net Nanny's real-time analysis due to profanity in the comments. Smart!
Like Qustodio, Net Nanny can identify and block unwanted sites even when they use a secure HTTPS connection. Both are better implemented than Norton Family Premier, which fails to block HTTPS traffic in many cases. But Net Nanny does even more. It can actually filter HTTPS traffic. Suppose you block porn but allow access to secure anonymizing proxy sites. If your child tries to surf to a porn site using a secure anonymizing proxy, Net Nanny will still block it. We tried it. It works.
Net Nanny still enforces Safe Search on popular search sites, but it doesn't monitor search terms. Norton Family does both.
Internet Time Scheduling
Net Nanny gives you two ways to control your children's internet use. A weekly grid lets you define when each child is allowed to use the internet, in half-hour increments. Blocking out midnight to 6 a.m. every day is as simple as dragging a rectangle with the mouse.
Instead of, or in addition to, the weekly schedule, you can give each child an Internet time allowance. It's possible to set an allowance for the whole week in one-hour increments. However, it's probably more practical to set an allowance for each day of the week in 15-minute increments.
A child whose Windows account has Administrator privileges could try to subvert the internet scheduler by resetting the system clock. It wouldn't have any effect, as Net Nanny doesn't rely on the system clock. And the time allowance applies across all devices associated with the child.
Other parental control software handles time scheduling differently. Locategy lets you set up usage schedules for individual mobile apps, while others, like Boomerang and Qustodio, let you set up schedules to restrict usage altogether.
Net Nanny comes configured with two types of email notification enabled. As mentioned, if your child requests a blocking exception for a specific website, you get a notification immediately. It also sends a weekly activity summary. This is fine, but many mobile-centric parental control apps such as Locategy and FamilyTime Premium can push notifications to parental devices. Others offer SMS notification as an option. We prefer to have multiple options available, so you can stay on top of your child's activity from any device.
If you wish, you can create any number of additional notifications, each based on its own rule. You can list the email addresses that should receive the notification, and you can choose to be notified immediately when the event happens or just receive a summary on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis. The notification rule can apply to the whole family or to just one child.
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As for just what triggers the notification, you have many choices. You can get notifications every time the child hits a blocked site, continues after a warning, or requests a status change for a blocked site. Trying to go online during a time when internet use isn't allowed can trigger a notification. You can even set it to trigger when it detects an attempt to disable the parental control system.
You can view Net Nanny's activity reports from any computer by logging in to the online console. The summary report offers several ways to slice and dice the data. You can view activity for the whole family, or for just one user. You can choose just today's activity, or view activity for the last week, or the last month. Logs over 30 days old vanish, which should be no problem if you're paying attention to your children's online activities.
At the summary level, a pie chart shows the prevalence of various blocked content types. It's not cluttered with numbers or percentages, but pointing the mouse at any pie slice reveals the number of incidents in that category. An adjacent bar chart breaks down the activity into sites blocked, warnings displayed, and sites where profanity was masked.
Clicking any pie slice or bar in the chart brings up a detailed list of the websites involved, along with the action taken for each, the device from which access was attempted, and the number of attempts. Clicking any item goes deeper, displaying the page title, user, date/time stamp, and device for each visit to the particular URL. Finally, clicking a URL at this deepest level will take you to the site, with a warning that Net Nanny isn't responsible for the content.
We are impressed with the reporting system. You can get every level of detail, from a thousand-foot overview to a list of every visit to a particular unwanted site. Qustodio offer similar levels of detail in its reports and uses a pie chart as well to visualize the monitoring data.
One major thing Net Nanny doesn't report is your child's location. Almost all modern parental control apps offer some form of location monitoring. Some, like Norton Family and Qustodio, stick with basic location reporting. Boomerang, Locategy, and FamilyTime Premium take this one step further with the ability to set up geofences, or digital geographic boundaries. These apps can notify the parent when a child either enters or leaves a designated zone, which is helpful for parents who want to make sure their child get to and from home and school safely.
Net Nanny on Android
Net Nanny's Mac and PC edition are completely aligned. We tested on a PC, but you should expect precisely the same behavior on a Mac. For Android devices, things are a bit different.
We loaded up the Android edition for a look at how it works. Getting started is simple; just install and launch the app and then log in to Net Nanny. Once you identify which user owns the device, Net Nanny loads the appropriate settings and goes to work.
The internet schedule you've defined applies to Android, too. And if you impose an internet time allowance, time spent on any device chips away at that allowance. Your child can't just switch to their Android after running out of time on the PC.
All browsing must go through the Net Nanny browser—that's how it manages to control and monitor access. In order to retain this control, Net Nanny blocks the use of all apps that make browser-related calls to the Android OS. It definitely gets the major browsers and should catch the oddballs, too. Other parental control services, including Norton Family and Boomerang, also require you to use proprietary browsers on Android and block everything else individually. Qustodio, Kaspersky Safe Kids, filter out objectionable content in other browsers as well.
Once you install it on one Android device, a new tab appears for each user in the online console, with the title Applications. This tab lists the applications found on the Android and lets you block specific apps. You can also block access to the Play Store, or subsets of the store, and prevent changing Settings. Cautious parents may want to turn on the option to block all new applications pending parental approval.
Net Nanny on iPhone
We also tested Net Nanny on an iPhone. It is worth noting that installing Net Nanny on iOS does not take up one of your device licenses. If you're already familiar with the full version of Net Nanny, getting started is simple. All you do is launch the app and log in to the web dashboard with your Net Nanny credentials. Installation requires a few extra steps, to accommodate Apple's stricter rules on device and app access. You should definitely disable other browsers, under the Restrictions tab. This forces children to use Net Nanny's safe browser. It's also a smart idea to disable the ability to install and delete apps, as well as to make in-app purchases. Finally, be sure to lock the Restrictions tab behind a password so kids can't undo the protection. Net Nanny details all of these steps in the app.
Mobile-specific features are limited in iPhone parental control apps in general, but, even by those standards, Net Nanny is lacking. It simply doesn't interact with other apps or services at all. Other parental control apps for the iPhone, offer features such as app blocking, time restrictions, and location tracking.
Communicating with strangers is also a huge source of potential danger, especially on mobile phones. Net Nanny does not offer any protection in this regard. To be fair, most parental control apps do not offer this capability either, but some, like Locategy can at least keep track of incoming and outgoing calls. In all, Net Nanny's iPhone app is really just the safe browser. It does keep kids away from banned websites, but that's pretty much it. If you try to use the parental online dashboard from a mobile phone, it redirects you to Net Nanny's web interface.
Net Nanny might have been well situated at the top of the parental control category a few years ago, but it's getting more and more out of date. It still has a flexible and comprehensive content filtering system, its internet time scheduler can't be fooled, and it can control what Android apps your kids can use. On the other hand, it's expensive, it has gone a long time without a significant update, lacks any sort of location tracking for mobile devices, and doesn't have robust time-management scheduling. You can forget about extras like watched video history or SMS logging, as some competitors offer. For all those features and more, check out our Editors' Choice pick for the category, Qustodio. We will revisit our review of Net Nanny when it gets an update.
Other ContentWatch Inc Parental Control & Monitoring
About the Author
Neil Rubenking served as vice president and president of the San Francisco PC User Group for three years when the IBM PC was brand new. He was present at the formation of the Association of Shareware Professionals, and served on its board of directors. In 1986, PC Magazine brought Neil on board to handle the torrent of Turbo Pascal tips submitted b… See Full Bio
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Ben Moore is a Junior Analyst for PCMag?s software team. He has previously written for Laptop Mag, Neowin.net, and Tom?s Guide on everything from hardware to business acquisitions across the tech industry. Ben holds a degree in New Media and Digital Design from Fordham University at Lincoln Center, where he served as the Editor-in-Chief of The Obse… See Full Bio
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