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 Overall & Best Value
Best Overall & Best Value: Qustodio
We selected Qustodio as the best smartphone parental control app because it makes it easy to monitor your child's text messages, emails and chat app activity. Most importantly, you don’t need to modify your child’s phone through jailbreaking or rooting to use these features. Only one other app we reviewed, WebWatcher, lets you do this. As such, we found Qustodio very easy to install on the target device.
Beyond monitoring how your child communicates with others, Qustodio lets you monitor other smartphone activity such as contacts, videos, photos, images, installed apps, GPS location and browser history. We also liked Qustodio's easy-to-understand user interface, which gives you access to detailed reports and settings through the parent app or a web browser. The app runs invisibly on your child’s cell phone, and it gives you the power to remotely lock the device.
Although Qustodio lets you block websites and apps, it’s the only parental control app we reviewed that doesn’t alert you when your child uses questionable keywords in web searches.
Qustodio is also one of the best value parental control apps. It lets you monitor five devices for $54.95 a year, compared to more expensive competitors' one-phone-per-license models. Qustodio is also our top pick for traditional parental software on PCs and Macs.
Excellent Reporting: WebWatcher
WebWatcher is a 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 monthly license costs much less than other, similar cell phone trackers like XNSPY and Mobistealth.
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.
Why Trust Us
We’ve been evaluating smartphone parental control apps since 2011. Every year we conduct tests using Android smartphones and iPhones in our onsite testing facility. Our last comprehensive round of parental control app testing was in June 2017, though we did limited testing in June 2018. As such, we are selecting candidates for our next round of comprehensive tests in 2019.
In between tests, we update our guide as often as we can with news and resources to help you learn ways to keep your child safe online. As part of our research, we gained information from two organizations dedicated to educating children and parents about healthy technology habits: Common Sense Media and ConnectSafely. Both of these organizations have extensive guides for parents that are definitely worth checking out.
We recently added information about the official controls offered on the two major smartphone platforms as well as parental control services offered by cell phone carriers.
How We Tested
Our tests focused primarily on using parental control software on Android devices, with additional testing on iPhones as necessary. We chose Android because it gives parental control apps more freedom to monitor and control device settings than the iPhone. As we tested the software, we verified whether features worked instead of assigning specific scores based on how well they worked. We did not test any features that require you to root or jailbreak your smartphone, which can lead to phone performance issues and make your device more vulnerable to malware.
We also checked to see what specifically you can track when monitoring. To test tracking features, we visited websites, took photos and downloaded apps on the child device before comparing what we did with reports and alerts on the parent device. This not only allowed us to test what an app can do but also gave us a way to evaluate the user experience on both devices. We also set time limits, locked devices remotely and tracked location with each app if it had the feature.
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 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, audio books, 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 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:
What’s the Right Age for a Smartphone?
Unlike social media, which typically requires a person be 13 or older to sign up for an account, there’s no commonly accepted age for when to give smartphones to children. Common Sense Media and ConnectSafely both suggest that your child's maturity level, rather than their age, is the most important factor.
Sit down and talk with your child to find out what they understand about internet etiquette, privacy, security, cyberbullying, malicious websites, sexual content and time management. This is a lot to digest in a single conversation, so don’t try to talk about it all at once or run through it like a lecture or presentation. When your child is mature enough to understand on their own why good smartphone habits matter, it’s much easier to trust them with such a powerful and beneficial tool.
If you decide your child is ready, have them help you set clear rules. Be prepared to set firm rules on things that matter most to you, but be open to negotiating rules such as how to earn more screen time. This allows your child to contribute to the process and gives them a personal reason to follow the rules. You can even consider using something like ConnectSafely’s Family Contract for Smartphone Use, which sets specific rules and responsibilities for 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.
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