Kids are going to be kids, which means they’re curious, and always looking to stretch their boundaries - thankfully, with cell phone parental control software, you can ensure their online safety when they’re not using the family PC.
Your cell phone provider can often block adult content for you automatically, but if you want to take things further, and control the sort of online activity it’s possible to carry out on your kids’ mobile devices, then you’re going to need some parental control software. There’s much more to these apps than just blocking words on a filter list: you can set time limits for internet usage or for particular apps, lock specific apps out altogether, capture screenshots of devices’ screens, and log keystrokes to return transcripts of online chats.
Qustodio makes the internet safer for your children with tools that help you keep tabs on what they look at, who they interact with and how much time they spend online.
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The best cell phone parental control software monitors a broad range of interactions, from simple websites to social media and chat apps, and can prevent your child from uploading images to an online service, or participating in chats with strangers. You can get alerts if they send particular phrases in chats, or give out personal information. If things get really bad, you can remotely disable the device they’re using, cutting off their internet access. It’s not all about draconian blocking powers though, kids can request access to sites they believe have been blocked by mistake, and you can set profiles that change what’s blocked as the child gets older.
1. Mobicip: Best overall
Mobicip is by far the best program we used. Besides being easy to use, it monitors an impressive amount of information, plus its time controls both block internet access and let you lock the entire phone from being used. There are remote controls, too, and it’s a good value – it has a decent price, and you get a minimum of five user licenses.
With Mobicip, you can control all the filters and monitoring settings on your child’s phone from your own phone or the online parent portal. When your child tries to visit a blocked site, open a restricted app or search for filtered content, they see a message from Mobicip letting them know they can’t access it. A similar message shows when they try to use their phone outside the time limits you set for them.
Mobicip has preset filters for blocking webpages and content that fall under specific categories such as pornography, online gaming or violence. It can also block individual apps – for example, it can prevent your child from accessing Facebook, Snapchat, WhatsApp and several other social media platforms. If Mobicip doesn’t have a filter for an app you want to block, you can search for it in the program and add it to the block list.
If you allow your child to use chat and instant message programs, Mobicip captures both sides of their conversations as well as the contact information for whoever they’re talking to. This lets you know exactly who they interact with and what they talk about. You can set Mobicip to alert you if your child or the person they‘re chatting with types or sends messages with keywords and phrases like, “home alone” or “don’t tell.” In addition, you can set the program to notify you if your child tries to share personal information, including full names, birthdates and phone numbers.
Mobicip’s biggest drawback is it only alerts you through the parent portal or by email, not by text message, when your child attempts to access blocked content or uses inappropriate keywords in live chats and texts.
2. Qustodio: Best value pick
Though Qustodio isn’t the cheapest program we reviewed, for the number of tools and monitoring features you get, it’s an overall good value. The program has filter categories that let you block your child from visiting websites with inappropriate content, including pornography, online gaming and drugs. However, during our testing, we found that Qustodio's filters work better on computers than cell phones. The software’s time controls also work on mobile devices, so you can limit when you child can use their phone or tablet and how long they can access the internet on them. Further, you can choose to either shut down internet access or fully lock their cell phone once their time is up.
When installed on your child’s phone, Qustodio lets you peek at their contact list so you know who they communicate with. On both computers and mobile devices, Qustodio monitors conversations your child has through chat apps and via text messages. You can set the program to alert you if your child types or receives a message with red-flag words such as “don’t tell” or “what’s your phone number.” And while Qustodio doesn’t have a keylogger to capture every keystroke your child makes, it saves transcripts of conversations your child has over text and chat.
Qustodio’s best feature is its panic button. This lets your child quickly alert you if they are scared, in danger or lost. The app sends you an email alert with your child’s location so you can get to them or send help fast.
However, Qustodio is missing several monitoring features. It doesn’t log screenshots or record the photos and videos your child views and takes with their phone or tablet.
3. Norton Family: Best app blocking
Norton Family is really easy to use, and we were impressed with how well it blocks apps. Once it’s installed on your child’s mobile device, you can see every application installed on it from the parent profile. To block an app, you simply click on its icon on your end. After you do, your child will see a notice on their device if they try to use the app letting them know it is restricted.
This cell phone monitoring program is also good at blocking content that falls under categories like pornography and drugs, and it alerts you when your child tries to view something inappropriate. In addition, you can use Norton Family to set when and for how long your child can be online. When their time is up, you can choose for the program to either disable the internet or lockdown the entire device. If you add an app’s website to Norton’s blocklist, your child can’t reach the program through an internet browser either.
During testing, we noticed devices with Norton Family installed ran much slower than when other monitoring apps were installed. This means the program uses a lot of the device’s resources, which can affect how well allowed apps, including video and gaming programs, work on your child’s phone.
4. Surfie: Best for activity tracking
One of Surfie’s best features is it texts you alerts about your child’s online activity. This isn’t a common feature, which is why it is a good choice for monitoring your child’s cell phone activity. Surfie also gives you access to your child’s contact list so you know who they interact with. And you can block content, gaming apps and instant messaging programs.
Surfie has a keyword and phrase alert, which is a great tool for stopping cyberbullies and other predators. When your child sends or receives messages with tagged words, including “don’t tell” and “you’re dumb,” it sends you a text with the contact information for the person your child was communicating with. You can use the program to lock your child’s device or block the messaging app until you can chat with your child.
This monitoring program includes time controls and provides very detailed reports about what your child does online. Reports include information about which websites your child visits, apps they use and words they search for as well as how long they spend in each application. Surfie doesn’t track incoming or outgoing calls, but it captures text messages.
5. Net Nanny: Best for masking profanity
Net Nanny doesn’t have a lot of features for cell phone tracking – it’s better as a computer monitoring program. However, its cell phone monitoring program includes profanity masking. This tool smudges out or replaces swear words in messages and online content so your child can’t see or read them. And it doesn’t let your child type profanity either.
We’re also impressed with Net Nanny’s pornography blockers. Not only does it deny your child access to X-rated websites, but it also checks the pictures and ads on safe sites. If something displayed in a rotating ad isn’t appropriate for your child, Net Nanny blocks the website until that ad or image is pulled from the rotation.
Beyond blocking content, Net Nanny doesn’t have a lot of features. It doesn’t capture text or chat messages or block apps. You also can’t access your child’s contact list or track where their phone is. Net Nanny provides some summary reports, but they aren’t as detailed as those in other cell phone monitoring programs.
How We Tested Cell Phone Monitoring Software
We’ve been reviewing smartphone parental control apps since 2011. Every year, we use the Android smartphones, iPhones, tablets and computers in our on-site testing facility as well as our kids’ personal devices to evaluate the programs.
On top of physically testing these apps, we research news and organizations dedicated to educating children and parents about healthy technology habits. Two of these organizations are Common Sense Media and ConnectSafely. Both have extensive guides for parents that are worth checking out.
We also spoke with advocates and read advice on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and National Suicide Prevention websites about how to recognize cyberbullying and how to talk to your kids about online dangers.
As parents, we want to ensure the programs we recommend give other parents the best chance of keeping their kids safe from online predators and inappropriate content and people. We installed each program on our own children’s tablets and cell phones, then used the online parent portals and companion parent apps to set basic rules and filters. We let our kids have their phones and watched what each app captured and recorded.
After we got a good feel for how the programs work, we experimented with setting time limits, enabling internet filters and blocking apps. We knew when a program worked well because we would hear groans coming from all corners of our homes as our kids were locked out of games and chat apps or as they reached their daily time limits.
We gave extra credit to programs that both monitor and block content, and we were really impressed with apps that captured screenshots of our kids’ screens, logged their keystrokes, and showed us text and chat transcripts.
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. You often must also purchase this subscription for each device you wish to monitor, though there are a few apps that will give you multiple licenses for a decent price.
You can expect to pay around $60 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 we’ve found many lower cost options that are easier to use and come with more than one license and more features. Our favorite is Mobicip.
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 is able to understand why good smartphone habits matter on their own, it’s a good indication that you can trust them with one.
Make sure, when your child is ready for a cell 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.
For more information and advice on deciding when to get your child a smartphone, check out When Is Your Kid Old Enough for a Smartphone? from our colleagues at Tom’s Guide.
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.
For advice on teen apps, check out 10 Apps to Delete from Your Teenager's Phone (and 4 to Watch Closely) from our colleagues at Tom’s Guide.
Official Parental Controls on iPhone: Screen Time
If your child has an iPhone, you can take advantage of its built-in Screen Time parental controls to place restrictions on apps, purchases, explicit content, Siri, privacy and other settings. Check out Apple’s support website for a brief explanation of Screen Time as well as detailed instructions on how to use it. However, you may want to consider blocking your child from deleting apps, which removes the time restrictions if redownloaded later.
While Screen Time may not have the comprehensive tools of some parental control apps, it might meet your needs and save you money in the long term. Screen Time is available on devices running iOS 12, which was released on September 17, 2018. The oldest iPhone model that can run iOS 12 is the iPhone 5S.
Official Parental Controls on Android: Family Link
If your child has an Android smartphone, you can use Google’s parental control app: Family Link. This isn’t built in like Apple’s Screen Time, but it’s easy enough to find in the Google Play store. Family Link allows you to track your child’s smartphone usage, manage apps, limit screen time, lock devices manually or on a schedule, limit Play Store purchases and track their location.
The child version of Family Link only runs on devices with Android 7 or later (with limited support on some devices running Android 5.1 and later), so it’s best used with newer Android smartphones. The parent version runs on Android 4.4 devices and higher as well as iPhones.
Google also has an app called Digital Wellbeing, which allows you to self-restrict app access on devices running Android 9. This app is geared towards adults tracking and managing their own screen time, but we like the potential of using this app to help older children and teens learn about healthy smartphone habits. Digital Wellbeing is currently only available on Google Pixel smartphones, but will eventually roll out to other Android devices. We’ll update our article as Google adds support for additional smartphones.
Since smartphone manufacturers often use their own custom versions of Android, some devices may have different apps for parental controls, so it’s a good idea to see what your child’s smartphone has in terms of built-in tools. For example, the Samsung’s Kids Mode app replaces the phone’s home screen but also allows you to set restrictions.
Official Parental Controls on Amazon Fire: FreeTime Unlimited
The Amazon Fire HD 8 is one of the most affordable tablets on the market, making it a prime choice if you don’t want to buy an expensive iPad for your child. Unlike official software on Apple and Android devices, you only get access to the Amazon Parent Dashboard if you pay for FreeTime Unlimited, Amazon’s child-oriented subscription service.
A single-child FreeTime Unlimited subscription is $2.99 a month for Prime members and $4.99 a month for everyone else. There’s also a family subscription option, which covers up to four children for $6.99 a month with Prime and $9.99 a month without.
FreeTime Unlimited has common parental control features, including time limits, web content filters, and app restrictions. However, it also has a few unique features such as an extensive library of kid-friendly books, videos, games, audiobooks, apps, and educational content. In addition, FreeTime Unlimited works on Amazon Echo and Kindle devices. Despite its primary focus on Amazon devices, FreeTime Unlimited also works with Android and Apple devices.
Parental Controls from Wireless Carriers
The wealth of smartphone parental controls also extends to your cell phone provider. Unlike the free official controls for iPhones and Android devices, you’ll find that even the best cell phone providers will charge a monthly subscription for similar parental controls, with costs comparable to those of dedicated smartphone monitoring apps we’ve reviewed. These services focus on location tracking and alerts, though they also allow you to set limits and filter content on your child’s device.
These are the current parental control offerings from the four largest U.S. cell phone providers:
- Verizon Smart Family (starts at $4.99/month depending on the features you choose)
- T-Mobile FamilyMode (starts at $10/month depending on the features you choose)
- AT&T Secure Family ($7.99/month)
- Sprint Safe and Found ($6.99/month)
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. We especially liked the colorful reports in Qustodio. 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.
Time limit settings, like those in Qustodio and Net Nanny, are among the most beneficial features, 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.
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 – for example, Net Nanny or Qustodio. 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.
Remote Device Control
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 if necessary. Some of the apps we reviewed, including Qustodio and WebWatcher, run invisibly on the target device, while others, such as Net Nanny, are visible no matter what. Choosing an invisible app can make it more difficult for your child to bypass the restrictions on their phone.
Viewing Deleted Content
Some smartphone parental control apps, including Mobistealth and WebWatcher, 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 features require a rooted Android or jailbroken iOS device. Jailbreaking or rooting your device to install unauthorized software or applications on your smartphone is generally considered a bad idea because it opens the door for malware and “bricking” your phone, making it unusable. Because of the inherent risks that come with either of these processes, we do not advocate doing so. Of the apps we reviewed, only Mobistealth, XNSPY and TheOneSpy have features that require a rooted Android device.
Contributing Reviewer: John Carlsen