Internet-connected devices make it easy for kids to hang with friends or learn new things, but they also offer a way to access inappropriate content. With a parental control app, however, you can limit usage times and block unwanted content.
What to Look for in a Parental Control App
While the screen time and digital well-being features built into Android and iOS devices help you be mindful of internet- and device-usage habits, the apps outlined here offer a wider scope of helpful tools aimed at preventing your kids from accessing improper apps and websites in addition to restricting time online. Here are the features we think are the most important for parental control apps to have:
- Easy to Use: These apps are meant to help you, so it stands to reason they should also be easy to install and use. You can look up the mobile apps in the Apple App Store or Google Play Store, and install them just like you would any other app. Desktop protection varies by product: some have you download a client to your desktop, while others run in the browser. The parent’s portal on the company website should also be easy to use, with clearly labeled tools and features, easy-to-read reports, and quick access to account and billing information.
- Web Filters: These apps let you filter and restrict web content both by general categories (usually as an option you’ll toggle on or off in the parent’s portal, like pornography or drugs) or by specific URLs (like Facebook or Snapchat). The best parental control apps also log every attempt to access restricted content and store it in a report along with what time the attempt was made and on which device. This often makes it easier to talk to your child about it or to see if they feel a site was mistakenly blocked by the filter. Having a capable web filter can also make it easier for you to discover if your child is self-harming, sexting, or participating in other behaviors you don’t approve of.
- App Blocking: Just as it is important to block certain websites, good parental control apps should also give you the option to block a specific app from being downloaded if you deem it inappropriate. This is usually done on a per-case basis, and there aren’t usually broad category toggles like for web filtering, though this feature can vary by company.
- Location Tracking: Straight-up location tracking pushes up against a privacy gray area, especially if you don’t tell your kids these apps have that capability. However, if you’re upfront about this feature, your kids may understand that it’s an easy way for parents to verify their child is where they should be, like at school or at a friend’s house, without bugging them via text or chat. Geofencing works similarly within these apps, letting parents receive alerts when their child enters or exits a designated area, like your home or school, using the device’s GPS.
- Time Management: The time spent on devices adds up over the course of a day and eventually it becomes time to take a break for homework or family time. Good parental control apps keep track of how much time is spent online each day, which gives you a jumping-off point for talking to your kids about better managing this time. The apps also allow for time limits to be set for daily device usage.
- Detailed Reports: These apps track screen time and internet usage, then put this information in an easy-to-digest report for parents. Reports vary by app but should provide a breakdown by day, week, or month, and by device, so you can review what each child does on their device each day. These reports should have simple charts and easy to understand wording simple enough for adults and kids alike to understand.
Privacy and Discussions
Some parental control apps don’t prioritize transparency or personal privacy and are designed to work like spyware, running invisibly on a device without the user’s knowledge or permission. This is a common factor in domestic abuse. There are also apps that can record phone calls, which can be a legality issue, as single- and two-party consent laws for recording calls vary by state (and country). As such, we did not consider any app that would run invisibly on devices or offer the ability to record calls.
The apps in this piece are intended to be a way for you to ensure your child won’t be able to access any inappropriate or harmful content on internet-connected devices. They are also great for facilitating an ongoing discussion with your kids about safe responsible internet usage. Letting your kids know you’ll be installing this kind of software on their phone, rather than sneakily installing an invisible spyware-type app, is a way for you to help you set clear expectations and rules for them when they use their devices without betraying their trust.
Strongest Enforcement: Net Nanny
If you’re looking for tons of features and extensive reports, Net Nanny (starts at $39.99/year) gives you just that. It is designed to monitor, limit, and protect your kids, and offers extremely thorough and granular monitoring of apps, websites, and activities, leaving no stone unturned. From Net Nanny’s Family Feed, you can browse chronological events for all or individual users, which shows you every activity, from web searches to what apps were opened and when. It shows attempted blocked searches and those suspected of falling under restricted categories. You can even see a brief synopsis of an app underneath a notification stating it was used, like what type of an app it is (social media, for example) and what kind of activities can be done within the app (like chat and photo sharing).
The service allows for setting screen time limits and will send a pop-up notification to your child’s device once they reach their allotted screen time. You can block websites and apps by category or individually, and filter internet content for each family member. Net Nanny tracks the location of a device via its GPS with the app, which is helpful if you want to see where your kid is currently at. If your child searches for something inappropriate or dangerous online, Net Nanny sends you a real-time alert, and it can help you identify red flags and patterns in searches that may point out cyberbullying, risky behavior, self-harm, and other potential issues before they go too far. It can also mask swearing, which is great to have for younger kids.
Net Nanny’s basic plan is $39.99/year but only covers a single desktop device. You’ll have to upgrade to the 5 Device plan for $54.99/year, or the 20 Device plan for $89.99/year for additional device coverage (including mobile iOS, Android, and Kindle devices). Whichever plan you choose, rest assured you’ll receive extensive reports for all activity, helping you keep a close eye on searches, apps, location, and screen time.
Best for Social Media Monitoring: Bark
Bark (starts at $49/year) is a great service for ensuring your kids are protected on iOS and Android devices and on desktop computers, while keeping things fairly hands-off for you. The service offers two plans: Bark Jr ($49/year) and Bark ($99/year), and either work on unlimited devices. Bark Jr is ideal for younger kids, filtering which sites they can visit, helping you manage their screen time, and letting you track where your kids are with location check-ins.
The standard Bark plan is better for teens, as it offers all of that plus monitoring of emails, texts, and over 30 platforms and apps (like YouTube, Snapchat, Whatsapp, TikTok, Instagram, and more) for issues. It even sends you automatic email alerts when a problematic issue arises, like drug use, cyberbullying, and even suicidal ideation.
When the app’s algorithm detects an issue, it’ll provide you with details like a screenshot of a cyberbullying conversation on Instagram, for example. Where the app really shines, however, is the tips and recommendations it provides for handling these situations, which are created by expert child psychologists, youth advisors, law enforcement professionals, and digital media experts. This makes it easy for both you and your child to discuss and resolve problems.
You can filter web content—and set rules and exceptions—for problematic topics like adult content, social media, violence, gaming, and more quickly and easily from the dashboard. Parents and guardians can also set time limits, and kids can rest assured Bark won’t reveal all of their texts or activities to their parents, just the questionable ones. The app encourages proactive discussions between parents and kids, especially regarding social media, and because it was built by caring experts, it’s easy to recommend.
Most Robust Free and Paid Options: Qustodio
If you only have one child or one device to monitor, Qustodio (Free) is a great place to start, as it offers basic monitoring for your first device for free. Although it offers solid paid options as well, Qustodio’s free one-device option is a great app to begin with, complete with a powerful web filtering engine, reporting features, and customizable device screen time limit tools. Plus, you can easily view all activity at any time from the parent’s app or its online dashboard, including what apps they use, what they visit on the web, and more.
Qustodio’s premium paid plans (which start at $54.95/year) unlock all features, and really prove how impressive and capable the service is. The premium version of the app has every tool and feature you’d expect from one of these services, from YouTube monitoring to app blocking to thorough reports and a family locator tool. You can set time limits for individual devices, so, for example, you can allot less time for mobile devices, and more for the home computer so your kids can do research for homework without distractions. Qustodio’s extended reports are really where the app shines, though: it’ll send you a daily or weekly email with a detailed breakdown of device and internet activity.
You can view your child’s current location (as long as they are with their device) as well as their location history, so you’ll know whether they’re at school or on their way to practice. Qustodio also has an SOS button your child can push on the device when there’s trouble; this will send you a location-based alert for them. The premium upgrade also gets you priority customer support both for getting things set up, and for answering any questions you may have about Qustodio.
The only real downside to the app is that it doesn’t have the most comprehensive social media monitoring, like services such as Bark and Net Nanny do. It really only focuses on “Advanced Facebook Monitoring,” but that lets you see updates, photos, friends and other details for that particular site. Qustodio does also offer a separate version of the Android app (from the version offered on the Google Play store) that has SMS and call log monitoring, which we only recommend for the most extreme cases.
Best Supervision Tools: Norton Family
Norton makes software that’s well-known for keeping your computer protected from viruses and security threats, so it makes sense that it also offers software for keeping your kids protected when they are online. Norton Family ($49.99/year) is a solid all-around choice for monitoring your kids’ online activities across iOS and Android devices and on a computer.
Norton Family supervises websites, searches, videos, and mobile apps in a hands-off manner. It shows you what your kids are searching for or doing online, and lets you block content as needed, rather than starting off with huge in-situ filters and restrictions. Norton takes this kind of approach to parental control apps as a way to help facilitate discussions of responsible and appropriate internet use between you and your kids. You can review activities from the Parent Mobile App or from the Parent Portal, and opt to receive monthly or weekly reports as well as email alerts.
One of the app’s best features is it allows kids to send you a note within the app if they think an exception should be made for a particular site, or if they disagree with a rule you have set. The app also lets you supervise which apps are used, and how long each is used for, and set a time limit if needed. Norton Family has powerful protection options to keep your kids safe but also gives you the opportunity to simply supervise them to see what they normally do and build up protection as needed.
Best for Google Users: Google Family Link
If you and your family are big Google and Android users, Google Family Link (Free) may be the perfect solution as it can help you monitor your teen or younger child’s Google account. The app is designed to help you as the parent or guardian set ground rules that can help guide kids as they go online, and help them build healthy online habits and teach them responsible internet usage. It tracks screen time for apps, and lets you set a hard limit on daily screen time (which is great for carving out time for chores, family time, and homework, or for ensuring that bedtime actually happens). Similarly, you can also remotely lock a device when it’s time for a break.
Family Link gives you granular control over whether or not an app can be installed, including the option to hide apps on a device and manage in-app purchases. In addition to app-restriction features, the app also has teacher-recommended apps, like ones focusing on education and creativity, which are great for kids. Family Link also has a location feature, which shows you where your child is (if they are with their device) on a map. The only caveat to the mobile app is it only works on Android devices, though parents can monitor on their end on either an Android or iPhone. The service can also run on a Chromebook, making it a perfect choice for Google enthusiasts.