Cell Phone Parental Control Software Review
When Is Cell Phone Parental Control Legal?
Editor's Note: Because wiretap laws vary by state, we do not advocate using cell phone parental control software to record phone calls, other audio or video. For example, some states require consent from all parties in a recording, and it may not be feasible to prevent your child from contacting someone living in one of those states. Although some of the software in our review can perform these functions, we did not test them or factor them in our scoring.
Since cell phone parental control software lets you spy on a smartphone, it's only legal when you own the target device and your child is still a minor. If you're monitoring an adult or any other person, they need to know beforehand that monitoring software is on the device and that you can see their text messages and other actions. You may also need them to sign a consent form, depending on where you both live.
Why Use Cell Phone Parental Control Software?
The top performers in our review are PhoneSheriff, the Gold Award winner; Mobile Spy, the Silver Award winner; and Mobistealth, the Bronze Award winner. Here's more on choosing cell phone parental control software to meet your needs, along with detail on how we arrived at our ranking of 10 products.
Smartphones are a great way to stay connected with your kids. However, children don’t always display good judgment in regards to the sites they visit, and they may not yet know how to stay safe online. Whether your kids have their own cell phones or use yours to play games, cell phone parental controls can help you teach them safe habits and protect them from inappropriate content.
The best cell phone parental control software for your family has the right mix of functionality and is in your budget. There are plenty of options, no matter how much you’re willing to pay. In general, inexpensive apps monitor just the most relevant data you might want to see, such as browser history and installed apps, but don't track as much information as more expensive programs.
You should check the number of devices the software license covers before you make a purchase. It is common for companies to only allow one target device per license. Still, there are a few options, like Qustodio and Net Nanny, that allow up to five target devices on a single license, and both PhoneSheriff and Mobile Spy let you monitor up to three target devices.
The software you choose needs to be compatible with the target device. All of the programs in our review are compatible with Android and iOS smartphones, but not all are available on BlackBerry. For more information on smartphone parental controls, among other topics, check out our articles on privacy software.
Why You Shouldn't Root or Jailbreak Your Smartphone
Many cell phone parental control software providers require you to root your Android phone or jailbreak your iPhone to access certain features. There are many risks associated with either of these processes, so we do not advocate doing so. As such, we did not test features that required us to root our Android test phones.
Google and Apple must approve apps sold in Google Play and the App Store. This minimizes security hazards and keeps malware off most smartphones. Jailbreaking or rooting your device to install unauthorized software or apps bypasses this process and increases the chances you'll download malware on your phone.
Beyond the security risks, jailbreaking or rooting your device can prevent vital operating system updates and void the warranty. Any mistakes during the jailbreak process may destroy the device's ability to function at all.
Cell Phone Parental Control Software: What We Evaluated, What We Found
As we tested the software, we looked at what you can track on target cell phones. We also evaluated how easy each program is to install and the variety of remote functions it has. In addition, we looked at the restrictions you can place and what alerts you receive, along with how easy the reporting functions are to use.
Tracking & Reporting
The best cell phone parental control programs let you track most communications on the target device, including phone calls, text messages and emails. However, most of these products require you to root your Android smartphone to view Gmail and chat apps such as Hangouts, Viber, Skype and WhatsApp.
Using this type of software, you can view your child's internet search history, along with pages they bookmark. Furthermore, some apps let you track deleted content and information in incognito browser windows. You can also view the device's current location through GPS, and some programs let you track the location over time so you know your child is where they said they would be.
Alerts & Restrictions
Many products in our review let you block apps, websites and the use of certain keywords. Depending on the software, you can flag or block content by specific URLs or by categories such as alcohol or pornography. A few products, including Witigo, block access to other browsers such as Google Chrome. You can also choose software that sends notifications when your child uses inappropriate words or websites.
To help your child focus on productive activities, you can use mobile parental control software to limit how much time they spend using their phone. Depending on the app, you can create an allowance of hours per day or set up a schedule that only lets your teen use certain apps during certain hours. You can also receive alerts if someone tries to remove the software or the device's SIM card.
For the most part, tracking, reporting and creating restrictions can be done remotely, but you must have physical access to the target phone and an active internet connection to install the parental control software on the device. This type of software is easy to install and is either downloaded through the Google Play Store, App Store or via a direct URL. Each product has a simple online installation guide with pictures that show you how to get started, and you can start surveillance soon after installation.
While all of the programs we reviewed are functional on non-rooted Android devices, many of them require you to make these modifications for full functionality. Rooting requirements are common in some premium apps that let you view the target device's screen remotely.
Half of the applications in our review run invisibly and are undetectable on your child's smartphone, while the others are visible to all users. In addition, some let you remotely lock or wipe the target device.
Help & Support
The best cell phone parental control software comes with a variety of direct and indirect customer support resources. You can often contact the companies directly via phone, email, live chat or some combination thereof. To troubleshoot on your own, developers provide resources like tutorials and knowledgebase articles on their websites.
Our hands-on testing is designed to simulate normal, real-world experiences with parental controls for cell phones. We obtained the software in our comparison through retail purchase. The developers had no input on our testing methodology, and we did not share our rankings with them prior to publication.
Cell Phone Parental Control Software: Our Verdict & Recommendations
Three parental control apps for cell phones – PhoneSheriff, Mobile Spy and Mobistealth – rose above the rest in our comparison because of their extensive remote functions, the quantity and quality of the data they can monitor, and the limits and alerts you can set. These are the most important factors in our rankings.
PhoneSheriff, our Gold Award winner, has powerful restrictions that give you complete control over time limits and website blocking, and it can send you useful keyword and tamper alerts. Our Silver Award winner, Mobile Spy, has the most extensive surveillance and reporting abilities and was the top performer in our usability, ease of installation and ease of reporting tests. Mobistealth, our Bronze Award winner, is both visually appealing and easy to use, with terrific reporting capacity.
Cell phone parental control software can be a great way to protect and watch over your children. Whether you use it to see that your kids made it to school safely or to monitor their texts and internet use, it’s a tool that can encourage them to develop safe, productive smartphone habits.