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 PhoneSheriff ($49.95 a year for three devices with coupon code: SAVE40) delivered on the most important features, with extensive tools for monitoring apps, texting and location. PhoneSheriff's mix of features gives it the edge over Qustodio, which is ideal for monitoring devices on multiple platforms, and Net Nanny for Android, which is a good, low-cost alternative for parents interested in placing controls on a lone device.

How We Tested and Rated

Evaluation Criteria

We focused our testing on five 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. 

To test each service, I used a Sharp Aquos Crystal phone, running Android 4.4 KitKat. 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.

I concentrated testing these services on Android, because all of them don't fully work with iOS, due to Apple-imposed limits on what third-party apps can control. Both Phone Sheriff and Mobile Spy require you to jailbreak your iPhone to use their services in iOS; jailbreaking can void your warranty, so we don't recommend it. Parents of kids with iOS devices would be well-advised to familiarize themselves with the parental-control options available in iOS 8'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.

PhoneSheriff: Best Overall Parental-Control App

Of all parental-control services we tested for Android devices, PhoneSheriff came out on top. 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 the most 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

Qustodio for Families Premium: Best Multidevice Monitor

While it can't match the robust feature set of PhoneSheriff, Qustodio is a worthwhile alternative, especially if you live in a multidevice household. Qustodio costs $45 a year, and it lets you monitor up to five devices, including Macs and PCs. It also has the most fully featured iOS offering: a downloadable browser for the iPhone that sets time limits on surfing. In short, it's an ideal monitoring option if you have multiple devices running on multiple platforms.

Update (11/23/15): Qustodio updated its iOS tool to add more monitoring tools for iOS devices. Qustodio Parental Control for iPhone and iPad replaces the limited Qustodio Safe Browser that let you set time limits on Web browsing, but little else. The new iOS version of Qustodio allows for browsing in Safari instead of just a standalone app; you're able to filter pages and get reports on web activity and searches. The Qustodio app also features time controls and lets you manage some — though not all — apps. We're in the process of testing this new iOS app and will update our review shortly.

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 Value

Of the services I tested, Net Nanny fared best at filtering Web content. It 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.

MORE: Net Nanny Parental Control Software FULL REVIEW

My Mobile Watchdog

PhoneSheriff, Qustodio or Net Nanny 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

Mobile Spy Basic Version 7

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

New & Notable

Since our original review of parental control software, several companies have debuted new products aimed at letting parents exert more control over their kids' mobile devices. Lock2Learn, an Android app, takes a different approach to managing screen time on your kids' devices. Rather than set time limits for when your kids can use their phone or tablet, Lock2Learn serves up periodic quizzes; your kids will have to correctly answer questions on either math or English before they can resume using their device.

The app can be configured to quiz children from kindergarten through the eighth grade, with 50 questions for each grade level available for free. You buy $2 packs of additional questions via in-app purchase. You set how frequently the quizzes pop up and how many questions your kids have to answer.

The focus of Lock2Learn may be on making children earn their screen time, but it offers some management features, too. You can control which apps your children are able to access. Lock2Learn also provides a report on which apps children launched and how long they spent on each one.

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    Your comment
  • You should mention that PhoneSheriff also requires a jailbroken iPhone and only supports the ancient version 6.1.2 or prior OS version. From the PhoneSheriff compatability page:

    For "iPhone (Version 6.1.3 and higher are not compatible)"

    "Any cell phone monitoring software requires iPhones and iPads to be jailbroken in order to be used."
  • PhoneSheriff is not stealthy.
    Really unstable (4.4.2 rooted lg g2), crashes all the time.
    They have already lost all the info for 2 times. Don't trust them.
  • Phone sheriff does not work. I made sure with Phone Sheriff that my phones were compatible before buying. Software causes all kinds of problems with phones, it does not do what they say it will, you will never reach them by phone, chat support is useless and they will not refund your money even though the software does not work. It is a scam, they are con artists based overseas. Run, don't walk away from Phone Sheriff! Do not buy unless you like con artist scammers.
  • Quote:
    Phone sheriff does not work. I made sure with Phone Sheriff that my phones were compatible before buying. Software causes all kinds of problems with phones, it does not do what they say it will, you will never reach them by phone, chat support is useless and they will not refund your money even though the software does not work. It is a scam, they are con artists based overseas. Run, don't walk away from Phone Sheriff! Do not buy unless you like con artist scammers.

    I am not sure if you are serious. I had no such problems with the service or support.
  • Quote:
    I'm a licensed PI and for the average adult who is concerned about the fidelity of their spouse I find there is NOTHING better than cellphone apps allowing tracking, monitoring/recording of calls to and from, and best if available the Surroundings Recording option.

    I would urge readers to be *very* careful re laws and lawsuits if you ever consider this.
  • Note that this article was updated on April 17 with in-depth reviews of five parental control products.
  • I have had nothing but problems with phonesheriff. I had another program that worked but changed to phonesheriff when my term with another company ended. Even though my phone is compatible with phonesheriff, the program does not work. It is a faulty program but they will say it has to do with some app your child must have installed, never mind that you set the controls immediately after installing phonesheriff that wouldn't allow my child to download or install apps. When contacting support they pressure you into agreeing to use one of their other programs instead of just issuing a refund. After fighting for 2 weeks, the program working for only 3 days of that time, I am considering legal action for fraudulent practices.
  • As a tech savvy parent, I've found that these "web" based platforms do not offer the restrictions and guidelines I want to have in-place with my children. A recent study has shown that most device use is through apps (80%) not through safari or web (20%). I could certainly see these "solutions" becoming obsolete.

    I've researched each of these solutions myself and I would like to say thank you for the honesty in set up and installation for each of these apps as well. Its really good to know this information in advance prior to purchasing.

    In my efforts I found an awesome app that blocks internet AND apps using time limits. For me, it's all about screen time with my kids. I'm conscious about how much time they are allowed each day and what hours are appropriate. It's very easy for kids to lost track of time in social media and games. This app restricts those completely. It's called OurPact and right now I can only find it in the iOS app store, which is fine because we are an Apple family. I hope some parents can find this helpful. Thanks Tom'sGuide.
  • These two apps on google play are awesome for tracking your kids. The apps work even if kids wonder about somewhere where there is no internet. The kid’s app can also be used for them to let you know where they are in case you have to pick them up from an unfamiliar location.

    Here’s a link to the apps:

    These are the developers:
  • I have two preteen kods with android phones. I am looking for an app that limits time, shows the texts and filters the internet. I dont care about stealth mode. Can you run more than one of these programs on a single phone? Such as phone sherriff and net nanny?
  • I am using Norton family for protecting my kids. It too has multi device monitoring, location monitoring and others..etc. Not sure why it is not reviewed??