Best Parental-Control and Monitoring Apps
It’s not simply that danger is everywhere in the mobile age. It’s that everywhere never goes to sleep or stops demanding our attention. This is particularly challenging for kids armed with smartphones, apps and instant Web access who may really believe that the next text, that next tweet or the latest viral video cannot wait until tomorrow. Parental-control apps for cell phones can help kids understand the value of limits in a digital world while also preventing them from accessing adult Web content or texting with strangers.
No one parental-control service is perfect, but our testing found that Norton Family Premier ($50 a year for up to 10 devices) delivers the best mix of Web filtering, location tracking and app management, particularly on Android devices. (The iPhone version of Norton Family Premier is limited by comparison, but still offers just enough Web filtering to make it worthwhile.) Norton’s parental control program beats out PhoneSheriff ($89 a year), which is a good alternative on Android, particularly for monitoring texting. And parents with a lot of devices to manage might appreciate the simple setup of ESET Parental Control for Android ($30 a year), which lets you control an unlimited number of devices.
How We Tested and Rated
We focused our testing on apps that place an emphasis where we think it should be with parental control-software — setting up filters and limits before your child uses the phone instead of just tracking activities after the fact. In evaluating these products, we took the following criteria into account:
- Installation: How easy is it to install and set up each app on a smartphone?
- App Management:Since most of the time spent on smartphones is within an app and not a browser, which program lets you review all the apps on a device and block or limit app usage?
- Filtering: What tools does each app offer and how well did they do at restricting access to inappropriate content online?
- Texting Management: With kids doing most of their communicating through texts these days, we looked at the features for monitoring messaging. Do the apps let you review the content of your child’s texts? Can you block a contact and be alerted when your child adds a new contact? Can you block messaging apps altogether?
- Location tracking: Does the app keep a log of where your child has been — and more importantly — give you the ability to locate your child in an emergency?
- Price: How much will the service cost annually? How many devices can you control?
We also looked into whether these services allow users to monitor activity on social media, though in most cases, the features we found were pretty limited. You either need to “root” a device — which we do not recommend — or have your child hand over his or her username and password.
I tested Android features on either a Sharp Aquos Crystal or an LG Optimus Exceed 2, both of which ran Android 4.4 KitKat. For iOS versions, I used an iPhone 6 Plus running iOS 9. I tested each app twice, from installation to testing to uninstall. I monitored activity and managed settings on a MacBook Pro, and used an HTC One M8 and iPhone 6 Plus to send texts or call the Android device I was monitoring.
Both Norton Family Premier and Qustodio for Families Premium feature iOS versions, which we tested and rated separately from their Android counterparts. Apple imposes limits on what third-party apps are able to control, and while some of those restrictions have been eased since iOS 9’s release, the Android platform still enables far more robust parental monitoring controls. None of the services tested for iPhone were able to effectively limit how much time a child could spend on their iPhone; we also couldn’t monitor texts or block specific contacts. You can monitor more on the iPhone than you could a year ago, but Android remains a better platform if you want more control over how your children are using their mobile devices. Parents of kids with iOS devices would be well-advised to familiarize themselves with the parental-control options available in iOS 9’s Settings app.
What We Didn’t Include
Parental-control apps for mobile devices work best when they’re part of a comprehensive approach to teaching your kids about behaving responsibly online. That means talking to your kids about what they should and shouldn’t do with their mobile devices and clearly communicating how you expect them to act. For that reason, we avoided testing apps that only run in stealth mode on your child’s phone. Products such as WebWatcher and mSpy both tout this capability. We also did not consider apps that offered the ability to record phone conversations, since state laws vary on the legality of recording someone without his or her consent.
Norton Family Premier (Android): Best Overall Parental-Control App
Norton Family Premier (Android)
- Great location tracking features
- Easy-to-configure restrictions and profiles
- Ability to block individual apps
- Limited message monitoring
- Can't place time limits on specific apps
Norton's excellent parental-monitoring service offers good filtering tools, helpful location-tracking features and informative reports about what your children are up to on their mobile devices.
Norton Family Premier packs just about any feature a parent could ask for into its mobile-device-management offering, giving you control over multiple features on multiple devices. You won’t be able to monitor every aspect of how your kids are using their Android phones, but with the Web-filtering, app-monitoring and location-tracking features, you’ll have enough control to remind them to responsibly use their mobile devices.
Only ESET Parental Control and Qustodio approach Norton’s ability to help you monitor multiple devices and multiple children. It’s easy to set up age-appropriate profiles on Norton Family Premier, and even easier to port them across multiple devices.
The Web filters in Norton Family Premier can keep your child away from questionable websites, and it’s easy to set times for when it’s OK to use an Android phone. (One complaint: Norton’s offering would be more powerful if it let you block out times for specific apps.) But Norton’s best feature may be its location-tracking capabilities, which give you a fairly accurate picture of where your children (and their phones) happen to be.
Don’t expect to be able to block specific callers and texters with Norton Family Premier, and the app’s text-monitoring features are a little overbearing. Still, the overall mix of features makes this the best choice for parents who want to stay on top of what their kids are doing with their smartphones.
MORE: Norton Family Premier for Android Parental Control Software FULL REVIEW
PhoneSheriff for Android
- Granular time-limit controls
- Extensive browsing and texting logs
- Strong location features, including geofencing and a panic button for alerting contacts to a child's whereabouts.
- Difficult to install
- Blocking websites is cumbersome and filters can be hit-or-miss.
Extensive controls – particularly for app management, text monitoring, and location tracking – make this a great choice for parents who want some control over their child’s mobile activity.
Totally worth it
$89.97 Purch Marketplace
Of all parental-control services we tested for Android devices, PhoneSheriff came out near the top, bested only by the Android version of Norton Family Premier. For $89 a year ($49.95 with coupon code: SAVE40), it provides the tools you need to manage how your child uses up to three mobile devices while also logging a wealth of information — perhaps even too much — about what your kid is doing on that phone. While it’s one of the tougher programs to install, PhoneSheriff offers a robust set of features and makes them relatively easy to use. It’s an effective way to monitor all age groups, though its features come in particularly handy when it comes to preteens.
PhoneSheriff has a great suite of features. You can review apps installed on your child’s phone and block the ones that don’t pass muster. You can set time limits both via the PhoneSheriff admin panel and on the device itself. PhoneSheriff reveals every text your child sends, and you’re able to block people, setting up both whitelists and blacklists of phone numbers. The service also logs your child’s location, and a geofencing feature will alert you should your child leave a specified area.
PhoneSheriff does just an adequate job at monitoring Web browsing, and it doesn’t offer social-media monitoring. The services it does provide, however, are stellar and provide an easy way to make sure that your child’s texting and app use are aboveboard. Smart features like a panic button that lets your child send you an alert with his or her location will add to your peace of mind.
MORE: PhoneSheriff Parental Control Software FULL REVIEW
ESET Parental Control for Android: Best Value
ESET Parental Control for Android
- Easy-to-set-up web filters and time limits
- Strong app-management tools
- Support for unlimited Android devices
- Fast location tracking
- Doesn’t log location history
- No tools for monitoring social networks or contacts
- Time limits lack precise control over individual apps
ESET Parental Control is a capable parental-control app at an affordable price that’s particularly appealing for its easy setup as well as its filtering and time-limit features.
Parents concerned with how much time their kids spend on Android devices and the apps and websites they’re using may want to consider ESET Parental Control. This parental-control app prizes simplicity and easy setup, though you give away some of the more precise control you’d enjoy with the Android version of Norton Family Premier and PhoneSheriff.
When you configure ESET, you can automatically set web filters based on subjects, which are easy to adjust with a thumbs-up/thumbs-down interface in the app’s parent portal. Adding websites that might otherwise be blocked is a little less intuitive, though you can easily OK emailed requests from your kids. Time limits, too, are easy to institute whether it’s a limit on how long kids can use their Android phones or how much time they can spend on apps that you slap with a Fun & Games label, though that time limit applies to all Fun & Games apps — you can’t place different limits on different apps. ESET is particularly strong when it comes to letting you quickly review and approve which apps are installed on your child’s phone.
ESET can track a phone’s location, though it lacks pinpoint accuracy and a location log. You’ll also want to look elsewhere if you want to manage your child’s social network activity or phone calls, since the app doesn’t offer those features. Still, ESET offers a valuable app-usage report, and supports an unlimited number of Android devices. If you want a straightforward parental-monitoring tool for multiple devices, ESET’s approach to setting up web filters and time limits has some appeal.
MORE: ESET Parental Control for Android FULL REVIEW
Qustodio for Families Premium: Good for Multidevice Homes
Qustodio for Families Premium
- Easy to manage multiple users
- Per-app time limits
- Detailed text and call logs.
- No geofencing futures
- Poor Web-filtering performance.
The ability to manage devices on multiple platforms and detailed app management features make Qustodio a worthwhile parental control option in households with many devices.
While it can’t match the robust feature set of Norton Family Premier or PhoneSheriff, Qustodio is a worthwhile alternative, especially if you live in a household where there’s more than just Android phones to manage. Qustodio costs $45 a year, and it lets you monitor up to five devices, including Macs and PCs. As part of that $45, Qustodio also offers a tool for iOS devices, which we reviewed separately because parental control capabilities are much more limited on the iPhone than they are on Android phones.
Qustodio is easy to set up, and managing filters for multiple users is a snap. The service really shines with its ability to set time limits for individual apps. It’s easy to monitor texts from Qustodio’s admin panel, and you can block texters and callers directly from the screen where you review text and call logs. Qustodio’s website-restriction and location-tracking features are limited, but overall it’s a good value.
MORE: Qustodio for Families Parental Control Software FULL REVIEW
Net Nanny for Android: Best for Single-Device Homes
Net Nanny for Android
- Intuitive user interface makes it easy to block apps and set time filters
- Age-based profiles speed up setup
- Mobile browser can mask profanity on nonrestricted sites
- No geofencing
- Can't set time limits on specific uses
Net Nanny offers the best Web filtering features of any parental control program, and it’s a bargain if you have only one Android device to control.
$12.99 Purch Marketplace
Of the services I tested, Net Nanny was one of the best at filtering Web content, right up there with ESET Parental Control. Net Nanny reliably masks profanity, blocks inappropriate sites and images, and gives you the option of warning your child about a site’s content instead of blocking it entirely. Reviewing and blocking apps is also handled with aplomb, and you can even temporarily unblock an app for a set period of time. I wish that Net Nanny let me limit usage on a per-app basis, but its management tools are otherwise solid.
You can’t set up a geofence, and you’re unable to remotely lock a device the way you can with PhoneSheriff. Net Nanny also doesn’t offer much insight into your child’s texting habits, and if you want to monitor social-media activity, you’ll need to pay up for the $60-a-year Family Protection Pass. However, if you’re just looking to monitor a single mobile device, Net Nanny is your best bet. It costs $13 a year — a bargain when you take into account the browsing and app-management features Net Nanny offers — and offers more than enough if you just need to monitor a single phone.
MORE: Net Nanny Parental Control Software FULL REVIEW
Norton Family Premier (iOS): Best iPhone Web Monitor
Norton Family Premier (iOS)
- Effective location tracking
- Robust Web content filters
- Age-based profiles that make creating Web filters a snap
- Can't place time limits or restrict app usage
- Can't block contacts
The iOS version of Norton's monitoring service is a robust, easy-to-set-up tool that keeps parents informed about what their kids are doing with their iPhones.
Because of the restrictions Apple puts on mobile device managers for iOS devices, finding a program that can monitor what your kids are doing on their iPhones can mean forgoing the features that are most important to you. If you’re primarily concerned about keeping your kids away from dubious content on the Web, the iOS edition of Norton Family Premier ($50 a year) is an excellent choice. Norton’s iOS offering provides robust filtering tools, whether you use the iPhone’s built-in Safari browser or Norton’s own browser. Age-based filters make it easy to get it up and running, and you can further customize filters or whitelist sites.
Norton’s iOS app offers other nice features as well, such as location-tracking tools that do a decent job of finding out where your child is.
It also provides daily and weekly reports on which sites your child visited, with links that make it easy for you to review just what your kids are up to when they surf on their iPhone.
However, Norton doesn’t allow you to set time limits, either for specific apps or overall. You can’t block or restrict which apps your child can use (unless you use the iPhone’s built-in restriction), and as on other iOS parental control apps, you can’t block specific contacts.
MORE: Norton Family Premier (iOS) Parental Control Software FULL REVIEW
Lock2Learn: Limited App Manager
- Affordable tool for restricting app access
- Challenges kids with English and math questions
- Ability to add profiles for different ages
- Nonexistent monitoring functionality
- No curfew feature to curb use after hours
- Requires a lot of personal data
If you're looking to simply control access to apps on Android devices, Lock2Learn offers a clever, low-cost option.
Lock2Learn stands out from the other products here, as it’s not strictly a monitoring product. But it does give you some control over your child’s mobile device, by letting you restrict app access and screen time. There’s also a promising educational twist: Lock2Learn will lock the device at intervals you select, and the only way your child regains access is to answer a series of questions about English or math.
That said, there’s no way to limit the time kids can spend on specific apps or to disable the phone entirely at night. And I was uncomfortable with just how much personal data Lock2Learn requires. Still, this is a low-cost way to limit app usage — the Android app is free, and additional question packs cost $2.
MORE: Lock2Learn Parental Control Software FULL REVIEW
My Mobile Watchdog: Limited Control Features
My Mobile Watchdog
- Easy-to-review Web browsing history
- Simple installation process
- Temporary blocking feature.
- No geofencing
- Cumbersome app-management tools
- Cluttered activity log.
This solid program handles the basics of monitoring a child’s mobile phone, but rival services offer more extensive features.
$4.95/month My Mobile Watchdog
Norton Family Premier, PhoneSheriff or ESET offer more parental-control features than My Mobile Watchdog. Still, the reasonably priced $45-a-year service offers some appealing capabilities and lets you manage up to five devices.
App-management features in My Mobile Watchdog lag behind what you’ll find elsewhere, but there are nice little touches, like the ability to temporarily block an approved app, in case your child is spending too much time gaming when he or she should be concentrating on homework. You can also make sure that newly installed apps won’t open until you’ve OK’d them. My Mobile Watchdog does a good job with text monitoring, too, alerting you when a nonauthorized contact texts your child or if your child receives a texted image. Approving and blocking contacts is cumbersome, though.
I was disappointed with My Mobile Watchdog’s location features, with infrequently updated location-logging data and an inability to set up geofencing. Web-filtering tools are unrefined, and you can only block specific sites one by one instead of restricting entire categories of websites. Still, I do like the way My Mobile Watchdog breaks down a child’s mobile activities on its dashboard.
MORE: My Mobile Watchdog Parental Control Software FULL REVIEW
Qustodio Parental Control for iPhone and iPad: Expanded But Still Limited
Qustodio Parental Control for iPhone and iPad
- Excellent Web content filters
- Informative activity timeline
- Management tools limited to a handful of apps
- Cannot block calls or texts from apps other than Messages
- Inaccurate location-tracking features
Qustodio has added more features to its iOS parental control app, but you’re still pretty limited as to what you can monitor.
As solid as Qustodio’s parental control offerings are on other platforms, this app for monitoring iOS devices is pretty lackluster. In part, that reflects the restrictions Apple puts on third-party monitoring apps, but that doesn’t fully explain the flaws in Qustodio’s iOS offering. The app is difficult to install, and its location-tracking features aren’t as accurate as I’d like to see. I also would prefer text alerts about my child’s browsing activity, which would be timelier than the emails Qustodio’s app sends.
That said, the activity timeline gives you a fairly thorough look at your child’s online activity, at least for the apps Qustodio is able to monitor on iOS devices.
The Web-filtering tools are impressive, even if they only work for Qustodio’s own mobile browser. And Qustodio has added some time-management features to its iOS app, which, while limited, are still welcome.
There’s not enough functionality here to make this a worthwhile parental control option in iOS-exclusive homes, but if you’ve got multiple devices on multiple platforms to manage, this iOS offering broadens Qustodio’s reach.
MORE: Qustodio Parental Control for iPhone and iPad Software FULL REVIEW
Mobile Spy Basic Version 7: Focuses on Activity Logs
Mobile Spy Basic Version 7
- Extensive logging capabilities
- Alerts for when a particular number calls your child's phone or when the device leaves an approved area.
- Challenging installation process
- Can't block specific callers
- Can't set time limits on apps.
Despite detailed activity logs, Mobile Spy lacks the extensive controls to make it an effective program for managing how your child uses their phone.
$89.97 Purch Marketplace
Mobile Spy ($100 a year for up to three devices) takes a different tack from the other services reviewed here, with its most robust features focused on logging your child’s activity. That’s a fine approach if that’s what you’re looking for in parental-control software, but realize that you won’t have much say in how your child uses the mobile device. You can only block apps, not set time limits, and social-media monitoring only works on a rooted device. I was also unable to block callers, though I could set an alert for when a specified number contacted my child’s phone.
That said, Mobile Spy has robust location-tracking and geofencing features. You can receive alerts whenever the device goes past a distance you’ve set or if the device is used in the vicinity of locations you specify. To take advantage of those features, though, you’ll need to contend with a difficult installation process — easily the most frustrating among the services I tested.
MORE: Mobile Spy Parental Control Software FULL REVIEW