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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.