If you intend to monitor your children’s device activity in the modern age, you need a parental control service that works well on mobile platforms, in addition to the desktop. Kids can get into all sorts of mischief on their mobile phones (or tablets), either on purpose or by accident. Maybe they spend too much time every day staring at a screen or use age-inappropriate sites and apps. In any case, a good parental control app can restore your sense of control and help you keep a cautious eye out for anything that can harm them.
Be sure to have open and ongoing conversations with your children about the importance of responsible device usage, so they don’t immediately scheme to get rid of whatever app you install or find some clever workarounds. Check out our article on what parents of connected kids need to know if you don’t know where to begin.
How to Monitor Your Kids’ Mobile Devices
Parental control apps can help you maintain control in a variety of ways. Some of the most common types of monitoring include web content filtering, app blocking, time management, and location tracking. We dive into more detail about these top features below. Keep in mind that some of the products we highlight are mobile-only solutions, meaning that they cannot monitor your child’s activities on Macs or PCs. If these platforms are your greatest concern, make sure to check out our roundup of the best parental control software.
Most parental control services work similarly. You install a monitoring app on every device you want to keep tabs on and manage settings and restrictions from either a web desktop or parent-focused mobile app. Changes you make on any devices take effect immediately. We appreciate those services that offer flexible device management.
Pricing and Platforms
Most parental control apps require you to pay for an annual subscription based on the number of devices you monitor. Prices range anywhere from $10 to $30 for monitoring one or two devices and go all the way up to over $100 in some cases if you want 10 or more licenses. Circle Home Plus requires a hardware device and, eventually, a premium subscription to get its full capabilities. That said, there are some exceptions. Some services, like Locategy, operate on a freemium model, albeit with some limitations that don’t apply to the premium edition. Others, like Kaspersky Safe Kids and Norton Family, do not restrict the number of devices that you can monitor.
Parental control software tends to be more powerful on Android than on iOS, since Apple locks down app permissions and device access. Most parental control apps for iPhones require you to install a mobile device management (MDM) profile for all of the features (especially those related to app management and time restrictions) to function correctly.
For monitoring iOS devices, consider using Apple’s Screen Time tools, which rival the for-pay offerings of standalone competitors. Apple’s built-in (and free) solution is account-based, meaning that it keeps track of data across all of a child’s Apple devices. Apple already included a good range of app-blocking and web-filtering options within the Restrictions section of its main settings app. Microsoft (Family Safety) and Google (Family Link) also offer first-party parental management solutions, which we cover in more detail in our guide on how to manage kids’ screen time. We also have a feature on how to manage parental control settings on every game console.
The hallmark feature of any parental control app is its ability to prevent kids from accessing inappropriate or dangerous websites. Many apps bundle a proprietary browser that makes it easier for the services to manage, track, and control browsing activity. This makes more sense than trying to reverse engineer support for every conceivable mobile browser. As such, most of these apps instruct you to block every other browser or restrict your child from installing any other apps at all.
Some parental control utilities don’t force your child to use a proprietary browser. Rather, they leverage VPN technology, running internet connections through a local app to enable content filtering. You’ll see the VPN icon when such a utility is active. The presence of this icon doesn’t mean the child’s connection is secured by a full-scale virtual private network, nor that the device’s IP address is masked.
Most of these browsers operate similarly in that they block access to websites that fall under banned categories, including all the biggest offenders, such as file sharing, gambling, pornography, and violence. The best examples have no trouble picking up on HTTPS-encrypted traffic and blocking access to anonymizing proxies. Some apps, such as Net Nanny, let you create custom web-filtering categories, and the vast majority let you add specific rules for custom domains. Others can lock Safe Search settings and block profanity. The quality of web history reporting also varies from service to service.
App Monitoring, Messaging, and Time Restrictions
One area in which most mobile parental control solutions excel is in their ability to prevent children from using certain apps. This can come in handy for parents looking to prevent their kids from using social media apps, messaging services that are difficult to monitor, or browsers that get around the defined web filters. Still, it can be difficult to keep track of every new app that your child installs. Better yet are those services, such as Boomerang, that automatically block new apps your child installs until you explicitly approve them. Mobicip gives you the option to whitelist only the apps you want your child to be able to use.
App blocking works differently on iOS. You can block access to system apps such as Safari, Camera, and Siri, if you wish. You can also disable the iTunes Store and App Store and ban in-app purchases. Some parental control apps can ever remove app icons completely from the home screen, so there’s no chance your kid can access them.
One thing you won’t be able to do with most parental control apps is monitor calls or SMS, MMS, and encrypted messages. You can block secure messaging apps, but Boomerang and Qustodio are the only options we tested that allow you to monitor SMS messages and call data. This capability is only for Android devices and is not built-in to the app versions on the Google Play store; instead, you have to sideload a custom version of the app.
Time restrictions are another major feature of parental control apps. Some services, like Norton Family Premier and FamilyTime, let you specify how many total hours (or minutes) a day your child can spend on any given device as well as a schedule for when they can use it. Qustodio lets you set up schedules for specific apps and device usage, as well as specifying a total time allotment for your child that applies across every piece of hardware they use to access the internet.
A mobile parental control app should at the very least be able to keep track of a child’s current location and some historical location data, too. It’s also important for them to offer some level of control over notifications and the frequency of location reporting, to avoid bombarding the parent with useless data. Both Qustodio and Norton Family offer these features.
Some services, including Locategy, Boomerang, and FamilyTime, go one step further, letting you construct geofences around a location. For the uninitiated, geofences are digital boundaries around a physical location that help parents keep track of when a child arrives at or leaves a given location. Kaspersky Safe Kids even lets you add a dimension of time to a geofence, so you can easily make sure a child stays where they are supposed to be throughout the day. Boomerang offers a unique feature that lets you draw custom geofences on a map; other apps just create a circular radius around a point you define. Android and iOS themselves also let you track your kid’s location.
Talk to Your Kids
Although the range of features that parental control software supports is impressive, no system is perfect. If your children want to get around the limitations you impose, they will likely be able to do so either by using unmonitored devices or finding ways to wipe their devices clean of the controlling apps. Thus, it’s worthwhile to take the time to talk with your child about why you have installed monitoring software in the first place. After all, digital safety and security are worthwhile topics for everyone. It’s better to approach these conversations honestly, rather than have them find out on their own and stop trusting you. Especially for older children, it’s also important to listen to your child’s specific privacy concerns, rather than just setting rules and restrictions that may otherwise be seen as arbitrary.