How to Monitor Your Kids’ Mobile Devices
If you intend to monitor your children’s device activity in the modern age, you need a parental control application that works well on mobile platforms, in addition to the desktop. Kids can get into all sorts of mischief on their mobile phones (or tablets), either on purpose or by accident. Maybe they just spend too much time every day staring at a screen. After all, tech addiction is a serious problem for both children and adults. Perhaps your kids are even communicating with dangerous strangers without your knowledge. In any case, a good parental control app can restore your sense of control and help you keep a cautious eye out for anything that can harm them. Be sure to have open and ongoing conversations with your children about the importance of responsible device usage, so they don’t immediately scheme to get rid of whatever app you install, or find some clever workarounds.
Parental control apps can help you maintain control in a wide variety of ways. Some of the most common types of monitoring include web content filtering, app blocking, time management, and location tracking. We dive into more detail about these top features (and a few more) below. Keep in mind that some of the products we highlight are mobile-only solutions, meaning that they cannot monitor your child’s activities on Macs or PCs. If these platforms are your greatest concern, make sure to check out our roundup of the best parental control software.
The parental control space is always changing—especially on the mobile side of the equation—so we will be updating this roundup as new entries appear and as others fade away. If you use a parental control app that we did not mention and have strong feelings about it one way or another, be sure to leave a comment on the article below. Your suggestion might make it into the next round of updates.
Pricing and Platforms
Most parental control apps require you to pay for an annual subscription based on the number of devices you monitor. Prices range anywhere from $10 to $30 for monitoring one or two devices and go all the way up to over $100 in some cases if you want 10 or more licenses. That said, there are some exceptions. Some services, like Locategy, operate on a freemium model, albeit with some limitations that don’t apply to the premium edition. Others, like Kaspersky Safe Kids and Norton Family, do not restrict the number of devices that you can monitor or child accounts that you can set up.
Most parental control apps can monitor both on Android and iOS. These mobile apps typically allow you to manage settings and view reports from a phone or tablet itself, though some do not have this capability. The quality of mobile apps can also vary significantly between platforms; stricter design rules on iOS sometimes makes a noticeable difference, as is the case with Locategy.
One quick note; parental control software tends to be more powerful on Android than on iOS since Apple locks down app permissions and device access. Most parental control apps for iPhones require you to install a mobile device management (MDM) profile in order for all of the features (especially those related to app management and time restrictions) to function correctly.
Apple recently announced Screen Time for iOS 12, which adds an excellent set of monitoring and restriction tools. Apple’s built-in (and free) solution is also account-based, meaning that it keeps track of data across all of a child’s devices. Apple already included a good range of app-blocking and web-filtering options within the Restrictions section of its main settings app. Taken together, this means that when iOS 12 is released later this year, Apple will have a native (and near-complete) array of parental monitoring capabilities, which rivals the for-pay offerings of competitors.
The hallmark feature of any parental control app is its ability to prevent kids from accessing inappropriate or dangerous websites. The majority of these apps bundle a proprietary browser that makes it easier for the services to manage, track, and control browsing activity. This makes more sense than trying to reverse engineer support for every conceivable mobile browser. As such, most of these apps instruct you to block every other browser or restrict your child from installing any other apps at all.
Some parental control utilities don’t force your child to use a proprietary browser on iOS devices. Rather, they leverage VPN technology, running internet connections through a local app to enable content filtering. You’ll see the VPN icon when such a utility is active. Note that this doesn’t mean the child’s connection is secured by a full-scale virtual private network, nor that the device’s IP address is masked.
Most of these browsers operate similarly in that they block access to websites that fall under banned categories, including all the biggest offenders, such as file sharing, gambling, pornography, and violence. The best examples have no trouble picking up on HTTPS-encrypted traffic and blocking access to anonymizing proxies. Some apps, such as Net Nanny, let you create custom web-filtering categories, and the vast majority let you add specific rules for custom domains. The quality of web history reporting also varies from service to service. Qustodio shows previews of the sites your child visits on a timeline and contextual options for setting rules, while FamilyTime Premium does not support web supervision at all.
App Blocking and Time Restrictions
One area in which most mobile parental control solutions excel is in their ability to prevent children from using selected apps. This can come in handy for parents looking to prevent their kids from using social media apps, messaging services that are difficult to monitor, or browsers that get around the defined web filters. Still, it can be difficult to keep track of every new app that your child installs. Better yet are those services, such as Boomerang, that automatically block new apps your child installs until you explicitly approve them.
App blocking works differently on iOS. You can block access to system apps such as Safari, Camera, and
Time restriction is another major feature of parental control apps. Some services, like Norton and FamilyTime, let you specify how many total hours (or minutes) a day your child can spend on any given device as well as a schedule for when it is ok to use it. Net Nanny takes a slightly different approach and applies these time limits to internet usage. Still others, such as Qustodio, offers a mix; you can set up usage schedules for specific apps and device usage, as well as specifying a total time allotment for your child that applies across every piece of hardware they use to access the internet.
Track Your Kids’ Locations
A mobile parental control app should at the very least be able to keep track of a child’s current location and some historical location data, too. It’s also important for them to offer some level of control over notifications and the frequency of location reporting, to avoid bombarding the parent with useless data. Both Qustodio and Norton Family offer these features.
Some services, including Locategy, Boomerang, and FamilyTime, go one step further, letting you construct geofences around a location. For the uninitiated, geofences are digital boundaries around a physical location that help parents keep track of when a child arrives at or leaves a given location. Kaspersky Safe Kids even lets you add a dimension of time to a geofence, so you can easily make sure a child stays where they are supposed to be throughout the day. Boomerang offers a unique feature, in that you can draw custom geofences on a map; others just create a circular radius around a point you define.
Communication and Extras
The best parental control applications let you record and monitor who your child communicates with and what they talk about in said conversations. Keep in mind that this capability is almost exclusively limited to Android. The implementation of this feature varies from service to service, of course. FamilyTime Premium, for example, copies a child’s entire SMS history and call log for parents to review. Norton and Boomerang take a less invasive approach and let you specify which conversations to monitor and log. Still others, like Locategy, only display the phone’s call log.
The best parental control software also lets you manage your child’s social media activity, though in most cases this is limited to Facebook. Net Nanny used to offer a service dedicated to tracking social media accounts, but it is no longer available at the time of this writing.
One last feature worth mentioning is an SOS button. When a child presses this button, it sends out an alert to the parent and any other trusted contacts. The notification includes time and location information and will (in some cases) keep broadcasting said data until either the child deactivates the alarm or the parent disables it from their own account. This works regardless of platform and even if a child has run out of their allotted time. Parents who are worried about always being reachable to their kids in case of emergencies should consider Qustodio and Locategy for this reason.
Keep in Touch With Your Kids
Although the range of features that parental control software supports is impressive, no system is perfect. If your children want to get around the limitations you impose, they will likely be able to do so either by using unmonitored devices or finding ways to wipe their devices clean of the controlling apps. Thus, it’s worthwhile to take the time to talk with your child about why you have installed monitoring software in the first place. After all, digital safety and security are worthwhile topics for everyone. It’s better to approach these conversations honestly, rather than have them find out on their own and stop trusting you. Especially for older children, it’s also important to listen to your child’s specific privacy concerns, rather than just setting rules and restrictions that may otherwise be seen as arbitrary.
Pros: Cross-platform support. Browser-independent content filter handles HTTPS traffic. Time scheduler for internet, device, and application usage. Location tracking.
Cons: Expensive. Social monitoring only tracks Facebook. Dated web portal. Some iOS limitations.
Bottom Line: Parental control app Qustodio is a highly configurable, easy-to-manage tool for keeping track of your child’s activity on Windows, Mac, iOS, and Android devices.
Pros: Affordable. No limit on devices or child profiles. Flexible control of device and app usage. Robust web filtering. Geofencing. Extensive alert system.
Cons: Several iOS limitations. Content filtering limited to specific browsers. Social monitoring only covers Facebook and VK. Sluggish web interface.
Bottom Line: Kaspersky Safe Kids is a full-featured, affordable parental monitoring system for desktop and mobile platforms that doesn’t impose limits on the number of devices you can monitor.
Pros: Affordable. Excellent web dashboard. Settings apply across all devices. No limit on number of PC, phones, tablets, or children protected. Tracks child’s location.
Cons: Does not work on Macs. No Free version anymore. Does not block HTTPS sites on unsupported browsers. Web extension is easily disabled. Platform-dependent features. Lackluster social media tracking.
Bottom Line: Norton Family’s top-notch web interface and wealth of features make it easy for parents to track and manage their children’s activity across their many devices, though it doesn’t work on Macs.
Pros: Supports Windows, Mac, Android. Web-based configuration and reporting. Powerful filtering. Cross-platform internet time allowance. App control for Android.
Cons: No new updates. Expensive. No location tracking. Lacks advanced time management control. Limited iOS features.
Bottom Line: Net Nanny’s web-centric and multi-platform approach to parental control makes it a useful option for the modern world, but it hasn’t been updated substantially in years.
Pros: Good app and device usage controls. Useful web filters. Supports geofencing. Call and SMS supervision on Android.
Cons: Expensive. Mobile-only. Some limitations on iOS. Must configure each device separately. Requires proprietary browser.
Bottom Line: Boomerang is a solid parental control app for Android and iOS that helps parents track their children’s web, app, and mobile activity. It’s mobile-only, though, so you can’t use it to monitor Macs or PCs.
Pros: Excellent iOS app design. Accurate and well-implemented location tracking. App blocking and usage schedules. Free version available.
Cons: No support for Macs and PCs. Lacks call and SMS blocking. No social media monitoring. Web filtering only works on specific browsers.
Bottom Line: Locategy’s parental control app for Android and iOS keeps track of your kid’s activities and location, but some design elements could use a refresh and the web filtering capabilities only work with a few browsers.
Pros: Easy install and setup. App Blocker. SOS and Pick Me Up options for child. Call and SMS logging on Android. Supports geofencing.
Cons: Expensive. Cannot monitor Macs or PCs. No web content filtering. Easily uninstalled. Not all features work as expected. Inconsistent features across platforms.
Bottom Line: FamilyTime Premium does a decent job of keeping track of your kids’ locations on Android and iOS, but it’s a mobile-only parental control solution, and its lack of web filtering and inconsistent performance are serious shortcomings.