Or do the kids act as if they can't wait until the morning to message their friends? Do they duck their phone screens out of sight when you walk into the room?
If so, then it may be time to look into getting one of the best parental control apps.
- Best GPS trackers for kids: Keep track of the little ones at all times
- The best (and worst) antivirus software for parents
- Best Android apps for kids
The best parental control apps for smartphones can help you track your kids physically, see with whom they're communicating online, block them from viewing objectionable or dangerous websites, and even help kids understand limits while preventing them from seeing adult content or chatting with creeps.
However, you can't just spy on your kids, and we don't recommend that you do. Instead, these apps 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.
News & Updates
-- Net Nanny has updated its Android apps so that they run on Chromebooks that can access the Google Play store.
-- Norton Family has responded to the coronavirus crisis by offering 6 months for free if you sign up by Sept. 30, 2020.
-- Kaspersky Safe Kids now blocks "bad" YouTube searches in Android and Windows browsers and the Android YouTube app. Paid users can review kids' YouTube search histories.
For that reason, we do not test apps that can run in stealth mode on a child's phone, so that the child isn't aware that the app is there.
There are many products that tout this capability, but some people use these apps not to monitor their kids, but instead to spy on their spouses or on other adults. This sort of "stalkerware" is often a factor in domestic abuse.
In addition, we do not consider apps that offer the ability to record a child's phone conversations. State laws vary on the legality of recording someone you're talking to without his or her consent, and no states allow the recording of phone calls without either party's consent.
What are the best parental control apps?
No single parental-control service we tested is perfect, but Net Nanny (formerly Zift) delivered the best mix of web filtering, location tracking and app management on both Android and iOS devices. It also works on Amazon Kindle Fire tablets, on Windows and Mac and on Chrome OS devices that can support Google Play apps.
Norton Family was a close runner-up for the best parental control app. Unlike Net Nanny, Norton's service offers text-message logging and monitoring, but only on Android devices. Norton Family also lets you monitor Windows PCs, but not Macs.
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.
Norton, Kaspersky and ESET 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 see our overview of the best (and worst) antivirus software for parents.
All of these apps can do more on Android than they can on iOS, due to Apple's tight restrictions. A couple of the apps were in fact crippled by Apple in mid-2019, and although they later had much of their functionality restored, Apple could yank the rug out from them again at any time.
So if you're really serious about keeping tabs on what your kids are doing and to whom they're talking online, get them Android phones. Just be wary of any parental control app that you have to sideload -- there's usually a reason it isn't in the official Google Play store.
The best parental control app you can get
1. Net Nanny Parental Control
The best parental control app overall, and great for iOS
Zift/Net Nanny, which we consider to be the best parental control app, 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. (Tom's Guide readers save $10 off each of Net Nanny's plans.)
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.
2. Norton Family
The best parental control app for Android
Norton Family's power and features are ideal for Android (and Windows) households with many children, offering nearly every feature a parent could want from one of the best parental control apps.
This service's location-tracking, time-scheduling, and web-filtering and -monitoring capabilities work on both iOS and Android, but Norton's time allowances are only for its Windows and Android software. App management and text-message monitoring don't work in the iOS app at all. There's no geofencing on either mobile platform.
Norton Family comes free if you spring for one of Norton's more expensive antivirus suites, such as Norton 360 Deluxe, which is often discounted to as little as $50 per year. At that price, getting Norton Family along with Norton's excellent antivirus protection is a no-brainer, unless your kids use Macs instead of Windows PCs. (Norton Family is also offering 6 months free if you sign up before Sept. 30, 2020.)
Read our full Norton Family review.
3. Kaspersky Safe Kids
The best bargain among the best parental control apps
Like Qustodio, Kaspersky Safe Kids lets you monitor your kids' activities on PCs and Macs as well as on smartphones. Even better, Kaspersky's paid tier is only $15 per year and its free plan lets you set time limits, filter websites and manage other apps.
Kaspersky's location tracking and geofencing work in both iOS and Android, as do its web monitoring and device scheduling. But app management is limited on iOS, and the iOS app can't monitor calls or texts at all.
Likewise, a new feature that lets you block specific kinds of YouTube searches, and review YouTube search history if you're a paid user, works only on Windows and Android, including the YouTube Android app. Still, if you don't feel a 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 haven't yet seen anything different and Kaspersky's complaint is ongoing.
Read our full Kaspersky Safe Kids review.
The best multi-platform support among the best parental control apps
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, and Qustodio finally added a geofencing option in the fall of 2019. A Family Locator feature that shows you where all your kids are at once was added in September 2019.
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 did not last.
Read our full Qustodio review.
The best parental control app to get 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.
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.
6. Screen Time
Does one thing very well
Screen Time -- not to be confused with the "Screen Time" feature in iOS -- does an excellent job of managing and scheduling kids' device access. Unfortunately, it doesn't do a whole lot else, at least on iOS devices. App management and web filtering are for Android only.
Screen Time also has baffling upcharges for location tracking and web filters, both of which are arguably essentials and come standard with other parental-control apps. (You can get both features in the 14-day Screen Time premium trial.)
We did like how Screen Time lets you dole out additional, yup, screen time to kids who perform chores or good deeds. But you can't block apps on iOS, and there's no call or text monitoring at all, although geofencing and location history were recently added -- for Android phones only.
Read our full Screen Time review.
7. ESET Parental Control for Android
Leaves room for improvement
ESET Parental Control for Android sticks to a single platform, but it doesn't shine even there, lacking text-message- and call-monitoring (and number blocking) features and implementing clunky controls on what it does have.
The app management and time management you receive with the free version of ESET Parental Control for Android do work well, as do the location tracking and geofencing you'll get if you pay for a subscription. (There's a 30-day free trial.) And we liked the feature that lets a kid send an SOS message to designated phones with a single tap.
Still, the $30 yearly plan is not worth shelling out for unless you get it bundled with ESET Smart Security Premium. That's because Kaspersky Safe Kids does more than ESET Parental Control for Android on four times as many platforms and 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 on Android phones, but its abilities are severely limited on iOS and the user interfaces are outdated and frustrating on both platforms.
The iOS and Android smartphone apps offer location tracking and excellent web filtering, and MMGuardian recently added an artificial-intelligence component to spot nudity in saved images.
On an Android phone, the parent can use MMGuardian to read every text and block any number. Unfortunately, time management and screen-time scheduling are Android-only, and the separate MMGuardian app for Android tablets has no location tracking.
On iOS, MMGuardian's app management is primitive, and there is no call and SMS blocking, text-message monitoring or alerts. Even by the lowered expectations of what an iOS parental control app can do, MMGuardian doesn't offer a lot for iPhone users.
Read our full MMGuardian review.
How to choose the best parental control app for you
What you need from a parental-control service mainly depends on how old your kids are. If you're the parent of children under 12, you absolutely want to be able to block objectionable websites, but you might also consider an app that's available on Amazon Fire tablets.
If you've got teenagers, you might want to let them have a look at objectionable things online, but only if you're aware of it. You might also want to see whom your teens are talking to in messenger apps, and to see where they are late on a Friday night. And you might want to consider a service that monitors your kids' Windows and Mac devices as well as their smartphones.
The best parental control apps will offer, at a minimum, a website filter, location tracking, screen-time limits including a scheduler, and an app blocker that works at least on Android.
Useful extra features include geofencing, which alerts you if a child's phone leaves a designated "safe" area like school or a relative's house. Some of these apps let you block and log the calls and texts a child makes and receives, but only on Android.
A couple even let you read a child's text messages, but none lets you listen in on call, because that's illegal. And most let you monitor your child's phone from a desktop computer web interface as well as your own smartphone.
See the chart below for what each of our reviewed parental control apps offers.
Feature comparison chart
(bold = free)
|ESET Parental Control for Android||Kaspersky Safe Kids||MMGuardian||Norton Family||OurPact||Qustodio||Screen Time||Net Nanny/Zift|
|Price||Free to $30/year||Free to $15/year||Up to $70/year||$50/year||Free to $84/year||Free to $138/year||Free to $40/year||Free to $90/year|
|Number of devices||Unlimited||Unlimited||1 to 5||Unlimited||1 to 20||1 to 15||1 to 5||1 to 20|
|Platforms||Android||Android, iOS, Windows, Mac||Android, iOS||Android, iOS, Windows||Android, iOS||Android, iOS, Kindle Fire, Windows, Mac||Android, iOS||Android, iOS, Kindle Fire, Windows|
|Web portal for parents||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Call logging||None||Android only||None||None||None||Android only||None||None|
|Text logging||None||Android only||Android only||Android only||None||Android only||None||None|
|Text content||None||None||Android only||Android only||None||Android only||None||None|
|Call blocking||None||None||Android only||None||None||Android only||None||None|
|Text blocking||None||None||Android only||Android only||None||Android only||None||None|
|Geofencing||Android only||Yes||None||None||Yes||Yes||Yes, extra fee||None|
|Location tracking||Android only||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes, extra fee||Yes|
|Location history||Android only||None||Android only||Yes||None||Yes||Yes, extra fee||Yes|
|Web monitoring||Android only||Yes||Yes||Yes||None||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Web filter||Android only||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Extra fee, Android only||Yes|
|Time limits||Android only||Yes||Android only||Android only||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Scheduling||Android only||Yes||Yes (limited on iOS)||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|App management||Android only||Yes (limited on iOS)||Android only||Android only||Yes||Yes||Yes, Android only||Yes (limited on iOS)|
|App blocker||Android only||Yes (limited on iOS)||Yes (limited on iOS)||Yes||Yes||Android only||Yes|
How we test and rate the best parental control apps
We focus on parental control apps that emphasize proactively setting up filters and limits before your child uses the phone rather than merely tracking activities after the fact. We take 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.
The best 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 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.
Photo credit: Tom's Guide. Brian S. Hall and Sean Riley contributed to this report.