Parents looking to retain some control over a child's Android phone would do well to turn to Net Nanny, an excellent monitoring service that includes age-based profiles, a specialized browser that can mask swear words and some images, and probably the best web tool for managing and blocking smartphone apps. You can get all of these features for $60 a year to monitor five devices.
Those age-based profiles, which assign default levels of protection based on the age of your kids, make Net Nanny ideal for parents of preteens. Say you have a 10-year-old child: Net Nanny has a profile that can quickly establish web content filters for you without requiring a lot of fiddling. That ease of use is typical of Net Nanny, which is a snap to install on a phone, provided you buy the app through Google Play.
Net Nanny's admin panel makes reviewing and blocking apps a cinch, providing a list of all the apps on your child's phone; simply click on a link to either allow it or block it. You can also unblock an app directly on the device by entering your ID to give your child 30 minutes of access. That's helpful for monitoring app usage, since Net Nanny won't let you restrict the time your kids can spend on a particular app. However, you can set overall time limits for the device.
Among the products I tested, Net Nanny handled content filtering the best, though it's not something any of these services is particularly good at. Chalk it up to the Web being so big and changing so fast, turning filtering into a blunt tool in an age of infinite granularity.
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In Net Nanny's case, the service comes with its own browser that reliably masks profanity and blocks inappropriate sites and images. You set the filters in the admin panel, which lets you easily "block" or "mask" mature content. You can also set a content filter to "warn" instead of block, which lets children access content only after a Net Nanny pop-up reminds them of the warning.
It's a nice way of reinforcing to your child that you care and are mindful of the sites they visit. Since our initial review, Net Nanny has added a feature that prevents other browsers from launching, making it harder to get around those filters you've set up.
If there are specific URLs you want to block, you can, though it's not as easy to do as setting content filters. For iOS device owners, a $5 web browser app (opens in new tab) provides many of the same filtering features, along with the same limitation, but no other monitoring tools.
Net Nanny makes it easy to review your child's web activity, though I had a problem accessing a site's actual content from within the admin panel. Instead, I had to copy the link and open it in my browser to see if it was appropriate or not. Both Qustodio and PhoneSheriff let you click on a visited link for an instant view of what your child was reading.
Despite Net Nanny's many excellent features, look elsewhere if you're interested in location tracking or monitoring. There is no way to set a geofence that disables the device or alerts the parent whenever the child uses the device beyond a designated area. You can't remotely lock the device, either. Net Nanny also doesn't offer much help in monitoring texting. You can't know who your child is texting (or calling) or read their texts.
Net Nanny lets you peer into your child's social media accounts after they give you their usernames and passwords, making it easy to scan multiple social media activities from one screen.
Net Nanny is child-centric, not device-centric, so you can apply settings to multiple devices. Other services require you to customize settings on each device, so Net Nanny takes the more convenient approach.
I had some frustrations: I wish I could limit usage on a per-app or per-function basis, and setting weekly time allowances can be confusing. Still, Net Nanny's approach to content filtering and the ease with which you can set up age-specific profiles make this service an ideal choice, especially if you're managing the mobile activity of a preteen.