The digital age can be particularly challenging for parents of kids who have smartphones loaded with messaging apps such as Snapchat, TikTok or Kik. Your kids may really believe that their texts, tweets or viral videos can't wait until the following morning.
The best parental-control apps for smartphones can help you track your kids, see whom they are communicating with, block kids from viewing objectionable or dangerous websites, and even help kids understand the value of limits while preventing them from accessing adult content or communicating with strangers.
No single parental-control service we tested is perfect, but Zift (now Net Nanny) delivered the best mix of web filtering, location tracking and app management on both Android and iOS devices. (All of these apps can do more on Android than on iOS, due to Apple's tight restrictions.)
Norton Family Premier was a close runner-up for best parental-control app. Unlike Zift, Norton's service offers text-message logging and monitoring, but only on Android devices. Norton Family Premier also lets you monitor Windows PCs.
Parents on tight budgets should consider Kaspersky Safe Kids. Its free tier includes web monitoring, time limits and app management, and its full-featured, paid plan is just $15 per year for an unlimited number of devices, including PCs and Macs.
Best overall and great for iOS
Zift/Net Nanny has excellent web-filtering technology and a modern, intuitive design. Among all the parental-control apps we tried, it comes closest to having feature parity between its iOS and Android versions. Its iOS abilities don't seem to have been affected by recent Apple policy changes.
Net Nanny can track your child's location, display their location history, and set time allowances and schedules equally well on both platforms. The iOS version lets you block several dozen apps on your kid's phone; the Android one lets you block them all.
The only thing Net Nanny can't do on a smartphone is monitor calls or texts. No apps we tested can do that on iOS, but several do on Android.
Read our full Net Nanny Parental Control review.
Top pick for Android
Norton Family Premier's power and features are ideal for Android (and Windows) households with many children, offering nearly every feature a parent could want.
This service's location-tracking, time-scheduling, and web-filtering and -monitoring capabilities work on both iOS and Android, but time allowances are for only Windows and Android. App management and text-message monitoring don't work on iOS at all. There's no geofencing on either platform.
Norton Family Premier comes free if you spring for Norton's most expensive antivirus suite, Norton Security Premium, which is often discounted to as little as $55. At that price, getting Norton Family Premier along with Norton's excellent antivirus protection is a no-brainer.
Read our full Norton Family Premier review.
Great parental control bargain
Like Qustodio, Kaspersky Safe Kids lets you monitor your kids' activities on PCs and Macs, as well as on smartphones. But Kaspersky's paid tier is only $15 per year, and its free plan lets you set time limits, filter websites and manage other apps.
Location tracking and geofencing work in both iOS and Android, as do web monitoring and device scheduling, but app management is limited on iOS, and the iOS app can't monitor calls or texts at all. But if you don't need to read your kids' text messages, then Kaspersky Safe Kids is well worth considering.
In March 2019, Kaspersky Lab filed an antitrust complaint against Apple for allegedly forcing the removal of some features from Kaspersky Safe Kids. Apple hinted in June 2019 that it might relax some of its tighter restrictions on iOS parental-control apps with iOS 13, but we'll have to wait to see how that pans out.
Read our full Kaspersky Safe Kids review.
Best multiplatform support
Qustodio has software for Macs, PCs. iOS and Android devices and Amazon Fire tablets, and it lets you set time limits for individual apps and individual devices.
This service's limited location tracking works on both iOS and Android, although there's no geofencing option. You can manage only a few dozen apps on iOS, as opposed to all Android apps. Web filtering is more powerful on iOS, while monitoring texts and calls works on only Android.
The one big drawback is that Qustodio can get darn expensive, costing up to $138 per year for 15 devices. In early 2019, Qustodio experimented with offering a much cheaper three-device plan for $40 per year, but that unfortunately did not last.
Read our full Qustodio review.
Gets kids involved
Once the most powerful parental-control app for iPhones, OurPact was hobbled by an Apple rule change in late 2018 that nixed the service's geofencing, location tracking and time allowances on iOS. In early 2019, Apple quietly expelled OurPact from the App Store, but in July, after Apple eased up on its restrictions, OurPact was reinstated.
At its peak, OurPact was the only parental-control app we tested that could manage or block any iOS app. It can still do so for Android devices. OurPact also gets kids involved in managing the daily allowance of screen time that you give them, and it does a good job of scheduling.
Yet, its website filtering simply blocks porn, and it can't monitor calls or texts at all, even on Android. However, you can block messaging apps, and OurPact remains a joy to use.
Read our full OurPact review.
Does one thing very well
Screen Time does an excellent job of managing and scheduling kids' device access. Unfortunately, this app doesn't do a whole lot else on iOS devices. And it has baffling upcharges for location tracking and web filters, both of which come standard with other parental-control apps.
We liked how this service doles out additional screen time for chores or good deeds. But you can't block apps on iOS, and there's no geofencing or call or text monitoring at all.
Read our full Screen Time review.
Leaves room for improvement
ESET Parental Control for Android sticks to one platform, but it doesn't shine even there, lacking text-message- and call-monitoring features. The free app management and time management do work well, as do the paid location tracking and geofencing.
Still, the yearly plan is not worth paying for unless you get it bundled with ESET Smart Security Premium. That's because Kaspersky Safe Kids does more at half the price.
Read our full ESET Parental Control for Android review.
Full-featured but frustrating
MMGuardian has nearly every parental-control feature you might want, especially on Android, but the user interfaces are outdated and frustrating.
Both the iOS and Android apps offer location tracking and excellent web filtering. App management is strong on Android but primitive on iOS. On Android, the parent can read every text and block any number. Time management and screen-time scheduling are also Android-only.
Read our full MMGuardian review.
Feature comparison chart
How We Test and Rate the Best Parental Control Apps
We focused on apps that emphasize proactively setting up filters and limits before your child uses the phone rather than merely tracking activities after the fact. We took the following criteria into account:
- Price: How much does the service cost annually? How many children and devices can you monitor or control?
- Installation: How easy is it to install and configure each app on a child's smartphone and a parent's phone? Are there cross-platform compatibility issues?
- App management: How well does the app monitor, block or restrict app usage? Does the app let you see all the other apps on the child's device?
- Filtering: What kind of filtering tools does each app offer, and how effectively do these tools restrict kids' access to content that you deem inappropriate ?
- Time management: What kind of tools does the app provide for restricting the amount of time your child spends on his or her device(s)?
- Texting and messaging management: Does the app let you review the content of your child's text messages? Can you create rules for or block specific contacts? Are you notified of new contacts? Do the features extend beyond the built-in messaging app? Can you block messaging apps altogether?
- Location tracking: Does the app let you locate your child in an emergency? Does it provide a continuous log of their previous locations? Does the app allow you to create geofenced areas for your child?
We tested each app on every platform it supported twice, from installation to testing to uninstall. We typically monitored activity from the MacBook Pro, but if apps offered control from a smartphone app, we tested those features as well. Calls and texts for monitoring purposes were made from a secondary Android device.
Android parental-control apps remain more robust than their iOS counterparts in most cases, especially with regard to call and text monitoring. But new additions to iOS have closed the gap somewhat. We will note areas in which there are discrepancies in the functionality offered on each platform, but we are not providing distinct ratings and reviews for the iOS versus the Android version of each 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, clearly communicating how you expect them to act, and making clear that you will be monitoring what they do with their phones.
For that reason, we avoided testing apps that can run in stealth mode on a child's phone. There are many products that tout this capability, but some people use such services to spy not on their children, but on their spouses or on other adults, which is illegal in most U.S. jurisdictions and is often a factor in domestic abuse.
In addition, we did not consider apps that offered the ability to record a child's phone conversations. State laws vary on the legality of recording someone without his or her consent, and no states allow the recording of phone calls without either party's consent.
Norton, Kaspersky and ESET, which has its own parental-control app for Android, also make antivirus software, and many antivirus products have parental controls built in. To see how well those controls stack up against the stand-alone services, please read The Best (and Worst) Antivirus Software for Parents.
Credit: Tom's Guide