Yes, you might need one of the best parental control apps to keep a eye on your adorable young moppets, or even your surly teenagers, are doing online.
Just ask yourself: Do your kids have Snapchat, TikTok or WhatsApp installed on their smartphones or tablets? How about Facebook Messenger? Do you know what those are?
Or do your children quickly tuck their screens out of sight when you walk into the room? If so, then they may be hiding something. Read on to find out how you can find out.
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- The best (and worst) antivirus software for parents
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The best parental control apps for smartphones and tablets can help you keep an eye on your offspring both online and offline. They're essential if you want to find out what your kids are doing on the internet.
These parental-control apps can track your kids' physical locations, see with whom they're communicating, set limits on their amount of daily screen time and block objectionable websites. Some of these apps log calls and texts, and a few even can give you the content of text messages and other message platforms.
However, the best parental control apps can't do everything for you. They work best when they're part of a comprehensive approach to having your kids behave responsibly online.
That means you need to talk to your kids about what they should and shouldn't do online, explain how you expect them to act, and make clear that you will be monitoring their phones and tablets.
In that light, we do not review parental-control apps that can run in stealth mode on a child's device so that the child can't tell the app is installed. Some parental-control products have this capability, and a few even advertise it.
But the sad truth is that many people use such "stealth" apps not to monitor their kids, but to spy on their spouses or other adults. This so-called "stalkerware" is often a factor in domestic abuse.
In addition, we do not consider apps that can record a child's phone conversations. That's illegal in many U.S. states.
What are the best parental control apps?
No parental-control service is perfect, but Net Nanny 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 support Google Play.
Norton Family was a close runner-up. Unlike Net Nanny, it offers text-message logging and monitoring, but only on Android devices. It 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.
Many antivirus products have parental controls built in. To see how well those stack up against the stand-alone services, please see our overview of the best (and worst) antivirus software for parents.
All these parental-control apps can do more on Android than on iOS, due to Apple's tighter app restrictions. A few of these apps were crippled by an Apple policy change in mid-2019, and while the apps later had some 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 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.
Parental-control-app news & updates
— Qustodio has added support for Chromebooks using Google Play and a browser extension.
— ESET Parental Control for Android is cutting its subscription rates for multiyear plans, with two years of service going for $45 and three years for $60, representing discounts of 25% and 33%, respectively.
— MMGuardian has added monitoring of SMS text messages and instant messages on iOS devices.
The best parental control app you can get
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.)
Net Nanny recently added content screening that works within social media apps and services, including Instagram, TikTok and YouTube, instead of blocking or allowing them entirely.
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.
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.
Read our full Norton Family review.
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 (there's a 7-day free trial) 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 on Windows, iOS and Android, including the YouTube Android app -- but not on Macs.
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 features from Kaspersky Safe Kids, part of a crackdown on parental-control apps. Apple in June 2019 relaxed some of those restrictions, but the Kaspersky case continued. In August 2020, the Russian antitrust authorities ordered Apple to reverse its changes. We'll have to wait and see what Apple does.
Read our full Kaspersky Safe Kids review.
Qustodio has software for Macs, PCs, iOS and Android devices, Amazon Fire tablets, and, as of February 2021, Chromebooks. It also 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. (Tom's Guide readers get a 10% discount.) 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.
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.
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.
Read our full Screen Time review.
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 14-day free trial, plus steep discounts for multiyear plans.) 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.
MMGuardian has nearly every parental-control feature you might want on Android phones, but its abilities are somewhat 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 now has 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. However, it recently added SMS and instant-message monitoring via a desktop app connected via Wi-Fi to a child's iPhone.
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||Yes||Android only||None||Android only||None||None|
|Text content||None||None||Yes||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.