Editor’s Note: Because wiretap laws vary by state, we do not advocate using cell phone parental control 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.
We spent 160 hours gathering information on cell phone monitoring software for parents. We installed and used a few programs to get a feel for how they work, but we couldn’t physically test every program. This is because many mobile monitoring programs require you to root your Android phone or jailbreak your iPhone to track certain apps and monitor email messages.
Rooting and jailbreaking require you to break your phone’s most basic file structures to override permission-based files, alter file structures and control files using pseudo commands. Beyond the security risks, jailbreaking or rooting your device can prevent vital operating system updates and void the warranty. As such, we do not advise it.
However, we tested a few programs that don’t require bypassing permissions, and we believe Qustodio is the best option for cell phone monitoring for parents.
Best Cell Phone Monitoring
Best Cell Phone Monitoring: Qustodio
Qustodio lets you monitor chat app use as well as text and email messages without rooting or jailbreaking your child’s phone, which keeps the device secure and any warranties intact. It monitors an impressive amount of activity on your child’s smartphone, including newly added contacts, images sent from or to your child, and photos and videos your child takes. Its detailed reports let you see exactly where your child has been and what they accessed using their device. From the parent portal or mobile app, you can adjust settings, including blocking access to web browsers and specific webpages.
The program comes with a minimum of five licenses, so you can protect multiple devices at once. It also runs invisibly on your child’s cell phone, and it gives you the power to remotely lock the device.
Budget Cell Phone Tracking
Budget Cell Phone Tracking: WebWatcher
WebWatcher is a budget cell phone monitoring program that helps you track your kids’ smartphone activity to make sure they aren’t viewing inappropriate content or talking to dangerous people. You can view basic activity, such as calls and texts, along with the apps they have installed and their GPS location and history. The program also shows you low-resolution versions of any photos taken with the device. A single license costs much less than other, similar cell phone trackers.
Mobile App Blocking
Mobile App Blocking: Net Nanny
Net Nanny lets you track your kids’ internet activity as they browse on their smartphones, and it has powerful tools to block apps and websites.
The software makes it easy to limit the kind of content your child has access to thanks to its built-in filter. You can block certain categories of sites, such as those that deal with pornography or drugs, or blacklist specific websites and apps so your child can’t access them. The program also has a whitelist where you can add sites and programs you are okay with them using.
In addition, you can block phone numbers you don’t want your children sending or receiving texts or calls from. Net Nanny also alerts you if your child searches for certain keywords using their cell phone’s internet browser.
How Much Does Smartphone Parental Control Software Cost?
Parental control apps are subscription services, so you pay a yearly fee to use them. On average, you can expect to pay around $60 per year for most popular apps, including Qustodio and Net Nanny. However, some services cost as little as $30 a year or as much as $100 a year.
While annual subscriptions are the most common, some companies offer monthly subscriptions and are great options if you only need the app short term. If a company offers both monthly and annual subscriptions, the annual option is a better value. Some companies charge as much for one month as others charge for a year.
Oddly enough, some companies charge different rates for the Android and iOS versions of their apps, so it’s a good idea to check that your subscription covers your operating system of choice. Naturally, companies that only cover one device per subscription aren’t as good of a value as those that let you monitor multiple devices.
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 still in beta testing on Google Pixel and Android One devices. We’ll update our article when Google releases it to the public.
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.
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 need to pay a monthly subscription for similar parental controls through a wireless carrier. The costs are 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:
Older Device Compatibility
Mobistealth is a good choice if your child uses an older cell phone model since it is one of the few programs that is compatible with iPhones, Android and BlackBerry cell phones. It also works with all major cell phone carriers. This means your child can use an old hand-me-down cell phone instead of the newest and most expensive model, but you also don’t have to worry about purchasing another program if you do upgrade.
You need to purchase a separate license for each phone you track, but you can monitor them all on one parent control dashboard on the Mobistealth website.
As a parent, you do your best to raise your children and prepare them for adulthood. Along the way, you can get a little extra help from cell phone monitoring software. It can help you teach them responsibility and time management while also protecting them from inappropriate content.
Contributing Reviewer: John Carlsen