The best cell phone parental control software is more important than ever before. The combination of children spending more time on their smartphones and the threats becoming more intelligent and complex make protective software a must. As you're here, reading our guide to cell phone parental control software, you've probably already reached that conclusion. So, what now?
While many social media companies are increasingly unwilling to regulate toxic or harmful content on their platforms, it's important to get the best cell phone parental control software that not only monitors device usage, but also regulates it when needed. But it's not just about control - the top-rated protective apps will let you monitor your child's location too.
They can even be setup to send you alerts if your child moves outside a geographical zone you've agreed with them. So good cell phone parental control software can help you on many levels. Other useful features include the ability to limit screen-time, restrict certain websites, and block unsafe groups that push harmful material.
So the best cell phone parental control software can help to protect your child from different types of material online that you do not want them accessing. Not only do these apps work on phones, they're also available on home computers, which is great for tracking internet use across different devices.
Some cell phone parental control software will send you real-time reports, updated as often as you like, so it's easy to get a look at your child's daily, weekly or monthly usage of devices they have access to. You may also be interested in our guide to the best internet filter software. Let's take a look at the top-rated protective apps now...
Wiretap laws vary by state, and we do not advocate using parental software to record phone calls, either 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.
1. Qustodio: Best cell phone parental control app overall
Qustodio has in-depth monitoring options, loads of features for mobile devices and a slick interface. A free version of the app is available with basic protection if you’d like to sample the app, and the full product costs between $54 and $137 annually. It’s certainly not the cheapest parental control tool, but it offers fantastic abilities and impressive versatility – which is why it’s our favorite.
There aren’t many parental control tools that offer the power and versatility of Qustodio, which is our favorite overall pick when it comes to keeping tabs on your kids.
This tool works on Android, iOS and Kindle devices, so you can deploy its powerful features on virtually any mobile device, and parents can manage their accounts using those mobile platforms – and Windows and Mac OS, too. The apps and dashboards used to handle Qustodio’s features are clear and intuitive, and the apps installed on your children’s devices run invisibly.
The range of features is impressive. Qustodio can monitor posts on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, WhatsApp and YouTube, and its social media abilities go further – you can block access to certain sites, see what your children’s friends are sharing to your kids’ social feeds, check files before they’re uploaded or opened and see what they’re searching for on YouTube.
Elsewhere, Qustodio can restrict the amount of time your kids spend on apps and games, and it can be used to track calls and text messages on Android. It’s got real-time, pre-set filters that can block content in loads of different and problematic categories, and it uses GPS to show you a map of where your kids are – and it includes a panic button that your kids can use if they find themselves in trouble.
These features are managed using slick apps, and Qustodio serves up in-depth statistics on your children’s online activity for thirty days. You can use granular, detailed time controls and monitoring for up to fifteen devices with different profiles for different children.
2. Bark: Best for social media monitoring
Many parental control apps try to tackle every aspect of keeping kids safe online, but Bark takes a more focused approach, with a concentration on social media that other products just cannot match.
This app works with more than 25 of the biggest social media apps, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok, and it works with messaging tools as well – from WhatsApp to Skype. It’s also configured for the biggest email providers, and sites like YouTube, Reddit and Steam. It monitors conversations and content, including photos or videos they send and receive.
Bark has a broad set of features that can be used across those different apps – it monitors your children’s conversations on social media, messaging and email tools, and it uses algorithms and artificial intelligence to constantly stay alert for the threat of inappropriate content. Bark’s smart, AI-powered tools also detect new threats, and the app learns about context and behavior – so it can check for new trends, ongoing problematic patterns and changing situations.
This app can be configured to deliver alerts when it detects behavior around certain subjects or topics, and at different levels of severity, so you can be alerted to online behavior depending on how much freedom you want to give your kids.
Bark lets you know if your children download new apps or if they try to download blocked apps on different devices, and you can establish different profiles for different children. There are decent time controls, too, including the ability to control the amount of screen time your kids have and to set bedtimes and time-out periods. Bark works on unlimited devices, and you can get weekly reports about your kids’ behavior. Parents can access those reports and the dashboard on smartphone platforms as well as Chromebooks, Windows machines and Apple hardware, too.
This app does miss out on some features outside of the social media realm – and depending on how you configure the tool, the alerts can become overwhelming. It’s not cheap, either: its entry-level Junior product has fewer features and costs $49 annually, while the full package costs $99. But if your kids are social media fiends and you want to keep an eye on them, it’s an excellent option.
3. Kaspersky Safe Kids 2021: Best value software
Let’s get right to the point here: Kaspersky Safe Kids 2021 is our value choice for parental control because it costs just $15 a year. That price grants you one license, but that license can be used for up to 100 child profiles and up to 500 devices, so you’re hardly going to run out of room.
It’s one of the cheapest options around when it comes to parental control software, and that doesn’t mean that Kaspersky’s tool is lacking in features. It works on iOS and Android devices, and you can also use Windows and Mac hardware to manage and monitor your children. As usual, Kaspersky’s app works by installing the app on your children’s devices alongside a monitoring app on the parent hardware.
Safe Kids can be used to monitor your children’s Facebook and YouTube activity, including their YouTube searches, and the app has more than a dozen filters that can be used to instantly block any inappropriate content on social networks, apps and websites. You can monitor and restrict how much time your kids spend on apps and devices, and you can set restrictions based on category and age – so your children can access certain tools while being restricted elsewhere.
This app has excellent scheduling options, and it has lots of smartphone-specific features – you can set safe areas and get alerts when your kids leave those geographic zones, use location tracking to see where they are and get a real-time warning if their phones are going to run out of battery.
This affordable app does have some limitations. While most of its features are the same on Android and iOS, you do get more features with Android. Also bear in mind that it doesn’t work on Instagram, TikTok and Snapchat, which is where some other apps do go further.
If you want solid parental control features without spending loads of cash, though, Kaspersky Safe Kids 2021 remains our best option thanks to solid core features and a low price.
4. Surfie: Best for cyber bullying
If you're concerned about cyber-bullying, Surfie is designed to help you cut this out, whether your child is the victim or the bully. It has powerful monitoring tools for many of the common chat apps, like Facebook Messenger, Instagram, and WhatsApp. The only notable omission here are actual text messages, sent via traditional messaging apps.
The keyword filtering is powerful and precise with Surfie. You can not only get alerts when conventional terms are accessed by your child, but also any of the additional keywords you choose to set. So, if your child is being bullied by a certain person, you can use their name as a keyword to trigger an alert.
Surfie is sadly let down when it comes to social media monitoring, as it doesn't have as comprehensive set of tools here as the likes of Bark. That's a shame, because for messaging, it's one of the top dogs.
5. OurPact: Best for involving your kids
OurPact is the best option if you want a tool with a slick, straightforward interface that isn’t going to prove overwhelming – ideal if you’re a parent who wants a good level of control without loads of tech knowledge. The slick interface looks fantastic, and the OurPact app for children’s devices is designed to look pixelated, like a video game – so they won’t be annoyed or intimidated either.
OurPact’s features revolved around restricting access to apps and excellent time management options. You can block apps permanently or restrict them to scheduled windows of time – handy if you only want the kids to access games when they’re not supposed to be doing homework, or if you want to prevent them from accessing apps at school. You can set up screen time allowances, and they’re able to budget their time as they see fit – which encourages them to be independent and sensible when it comes to their device usage. As usual, it’s possible for parents to block or allow their kids access manually, too.
This app works equally well on Android and iOS, and outside of its key app-access and time-window features you’ve got location tracking, geographic safe zones and website and text blocking options. You can also view your children’s online activity via a gallery of screenshots. OurPact has a filter for pornographic material, too, although it doesn’t have filters that apply to other categories of material – a weakness when compared to other apps. It’s also worth bearing in mind that OurPact doesn’t monitor calls or text messages, and that other apps do have more in-depth scheduling and reporting abilities. This app isn’t too cheap, either: its free version has few features and you’ll have to pay $83 or $119 annually depending on how many devices you want to secure.
Despite that, OurPact impresses with a fantastic interface, strong core features and a smart way to keep parents and kids working together, though – it’s the best option if you want a straightforward, kid-friendly option.
6. Net Nanny: Best for large families
Net Nanny is one of the most venerable names around when it comes to parental control. That hasn’t stopped the company embracing the modern world of smartphones and social media, though, and this is one of the areas where its software excels.
This app works on Android, iOS, Fire and Chromebook devices, and it can monitor, limit and block children’s access to Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr and TikTok – which makes it one of the only apps that can work to limit that latter network. Parents can block apps and limit usage, see searches on YouTube and give children specific online and offline hours so they’re not on their smartphones all day.
Net Nanny’s impressive social networking performance is bolstered by a feature called the Family Feed – a dedicated section in the parent app that functions like a social network and is used to quickly display exactly what your kids are up to.
Elsewhere, Net Nanny serves up real-time notifications of problematic search terms, and it has real-time pornography blocking, a broad selection of pre-configured filters and context-sensitive filtering that looks out for new trends. There are curfew options to lock apps at night, a location tracker and the option to use different profiles for different children.
Parent apps are available for the platforms we mentioned above alongside Windows and mac OS. Net Nanny has loads of detail when it comes to logging and reporting, and good feature parity between its Android and iOS apps – although bear in mind that it doesn’t monitor calls or text messages, and that it can be initially tricky to configure.
Outside of those limitations, though, Net Nanny is impressive – its powerful features match rivals and it has great social networking abilities and some smart additions. Its prices start at $39 and range up to $89 depending on how many devices you want to monitor, and Net Nanny remains an excellent option if you’ve got kids who are social media fiends.
7. Norton Family: Best for school-age kids
Norton is one of the biggest names in online security, so it’s no wonder that the firm has a superb parental control app. Its Family tool places a big emphasis on versatility and schoolwork, so it’s our favourite option if you want your children to focus on their studies.
One of Norton Family’s best features is the ability to allow your kids windows of time to complete their schoolwork – without that time cutting into their window of online leisure time. That means they can get their work done and still have their allotted device time afterwards, so they won’t be rushing their work or bugging their parents for more time. Good time controls are included elsewhere, including comprehensive scheduling options, and you can also allow your children to access certain sites while blocking access to others, so they can get work done without distractions.
As well as device usage limits, Norton Family can supervise your kids’ online searches, deploy profiles to automatically block unsuitable content and send parents email alerts if the kids try to access blocked content. Parents can lock devices, see what apps their kids have been accessing, and even see small snippets of videos they’ve watched. Parents can establish pre-defined House Rules, kids can use Norton’s messaging service to chat if they disagree with the rules, and Norton’s broad, in-depth web portal can be used to manage your home network from any web-connected device.
There are some caveats: while Android and iOS users get most of the same features, there are a couple of missing features on Apple’s platform. Norton Family doesn’t work on mac OS either, and it doesn’t have GPS-powered geographic safe zones. There’s also no free version.
The price certainly isn’t bad, though – Norton Family costs $50 a year for ten devices, and you can also buy Norton 360 Deluxe for the same price, which pairs these features with broader and more powerful security options, including real-time threat protection, secure VPN options and a password manager.
How much does smartphone parental control software cost?
Cell phone parental controls programs are subscription based, meaning you have to pay either a monthly or annual fee to continue using that program. Apps often have different prices depending on how many devices you wish to monitor.
You can expect to pay at least $15 per year for a single user licence from a decent smartphone parental control program. There are some programs that charge over $100 per user license for a year’s access, but the range of options is vast, with affordable apps sitting alongside more powerful tools that work with a wider range of hardware.
What’s the right age for a smartphone?
There is no age requirement when it comes to owning a smartphone, unlike social media accounts that typically require a person to be 13 or older to sign up. Common Sense Media and ConnectSafely both suggest basing cell phone ownership on your child’s maturity level rather than their age.
Before giving your child their own smartphone, sit down and talk with your child about internet etiquette, privacy, security, cyberbullying, malicious websites, harmful content and time management. This is a lot of info to bombard a child with, so take your time and spread out these topics over several conversations rather than running through them like a lecture or presentation. When you child understands why good smartphone habits matter, it’s a good indication that you can trust them with one.
Make sure, when your child is ready for a phone, that you set clear rules. Be prepared to set firm rules on the things that matter most to you, but be open to negotiating rules such as how to earn more screen time. The Family Contract for Smartphone Use from ConnectSafely is a good tool to help you set specific rules and responsibilities for both children and parents.
Teaching Kids About Responsible Smartphone Use
While setting rules is an important part of helping your child establish healthy smartphone habits before they hit adulthood, they still need to understand why these rules exist. If you can help your child find value in the guidelines you set, it’s possible they’ll want to keep a rule instead of break it.
An excellent way to explain smartphone rules to kids is to talk about how you use your smartphone. Although this may cause you to question your own smartphone habits, it can teach your child the potential advantages and hazards of smartphones. For example, you could talk about why you set time limits for yourself, why you value privacy, why you avoid certain types of online content and why you don’t text while driving. By setting an example your child wants to emulate, you become a powerful influence in developing healthy smartphone habits for your child.
For more ideas, check out this article on cell phone safety from Scholastic.
What to Expect from Smartphone Parental Control Apps
When Is Smartphone Monitoring Legal?
Smartphone parental control apps are typically legal to use on your kid’s phone, but only if your child is a minor and you are the person legally responsible for the device. You may be required to tell your child that you are monitoring their device, depending on where you live. However, even if you aren't, it may be a good idea to tell older children and teens about monitoring apps on their phones and explain why it’s important to you and why it should matter to them.
If you need legal advice before using parental control apps on your kids' phones, you should contact an attorney or legal counsel. Because wiretap laws vary by state, we do not advocate using smartphone parental apps to record phone calls, either audio or video.
Look for apps with clear-cut reports that make it easy to track relevant information with regards to your children’s online activity. Most programs let you choose from a variety of reports, including monthly or hourly reports with graphs, lists of frequent contacts, browser history, newly installed apps, message history, calendar events, pictures taken, GPS location and keystrokes. Any good parental control app, in short, will be able to present you with loads of information – and give you loads of options when it comes to how that information is delivered and presented to parents.
Time limit settings are among the most beneficial features in parental control software, as they help kids focus on schoolwork free of smartphone distractions. You can set a window of time when your child can access apps and the browser and adjust it whenever needed. Some of the apps we tested allow you to remotely unlock the phone for a few minutes of open access if your child requests it, others allow kids to request spare time, and others encourage them to budget their own time. There are even apps that have separate time windows for homework and leisure time, so one doesn’t distract from the other.
App & Web Restrictions
It's essential that the parental control smartphone app you choose lets you restrict access to other apps and the internet. Look for one that allows you to flag or block certain apps, websites and contacts. This feature helps you protect your children from undesirable people and inappropriate content. You can even restrict web searches and set the app to notify you if your child discusses inappropriate things via text or chat. It’s also possible to use pre-set filters to block inappropriate subjects from all apps and browsers on your children’s devices.
Remote Device Control & GPS
Most smartphone parental control apps have tools that let you remotely lock your child's phone, backup important data and even remotely wipe the phone. Many apps have location tracking so you can see where your children are, and some even allow you to establish geographic safe zones – and get alerts if they stray beyond this. It’s even possible to find apps that give warnings if your children’s phones are about to run out of battery.
Viewing Deleted Content
Some smartphone parental control apps let you view deleted material such as texts, emails, chats, media, browser history and web activity viewed in an incognito window, along with how often your child accessed content on a given smartphone. This feature isn’t a necessity, but it may be useful depending on your situation.
Though these apps support most common smartphones and carriers, not all are compatible. It's important that you double-check the brand and model of the phone you want to monitor so you don't waste money on incompatible software. Most developers have extensive lists of compatible devices on their websites.
Each of the apps in our comparison works on Android and iOS devices. Features are generally more limited on iOS than Android because Apple maintains strict control over the operating system. You need to have physical access to the target device to install the software, as none of them can be installed remotely. Some apps work on Kindle devices and Chromebooks, too, and others also work on Windows and Mac computers.
Most parental control apps require parents to use an app or a browser-based dashboard to manage their children’s devices – as well as apps on each child’s phone. It’s worth checking before you invest to make sure that your devices and your children’s devices are all compatible.