6 Parental Control & Monitoring Apps for Smartphones

From app blocking to text monitoring, these apps help you track your kids online

Mom looking at daughters phone over her shoulder
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If you’re a new parent, there’s a good chance you’re worried about your children’s activity online. Keeping an eye on your kids surfing the web was much easier when they were confined to a single computer in the living room. But now, the majority of browsing and online activity happens on smartphones and other mobile devices, which makes monitoring your kids’ online presence much more complicated.

What's more, if you want to monitor your children's behavior on their phones, you'll have to either jailbreak (for iPhones) or root (for Android) their devices in order to grant a monitoring app access to control other apps. Think of jailbreaking as removing all the rules Apple put on your phone - everything from displays to app control. The problem, however is that once you've removed these restrictions, you will void the warranty on your phone and forfeit any future help from Apple if your device breaks.

Put simply, jailbreaking is not for everyone. The best way to monitor your kids online remains in the physical world. It's relatively easy to childproof an iPhone and limit the apps kids have access to - the same restrictions are also available on Android devices. 

However, if your kids are too old or clever for these restrictions and you want to jump into the deep end of smartphone hacks, here are a few apps that can help you keep an eye on your kids online.

MamaBear

One of the mainstays in the industry, MamaBear functions as a private and secure family communication center. Once installed on your kids’ devices, the app sends updates on social media activity, monitors texting, and offers location sharing and alerts when your teen may be speeding.

The text monitoring is only offered on Android devices and costs extra.

Otherwise, the app is free to use; MamaBear offers an ad-free version for $15/month.

  • Pros - monitors social media, texting, and provides location sharing
  • Cons - text monitoring only available for Android at additional cost

Compatibility: 

  • Android
  • iOS (limited)

Phonesheriff

While Phonesheriff is one of the pricier options out there for parental monitoring apps at $89/year for just three devices, it’s also among the best reviewed. The app has a slew of functionality that’s all controlled from a relatively easy-to-use administrator dashboard. This includes limitations on app usage, time usage, browsing, and texting, along with location tracking. You can even set up profanity filters and alerts for certain keywords.

This dashboard can take some practice to get used to and even then, it offers almost too many monitoring options. Phonesheriff is available on iOS and Android, but iOS users will need to jailbreak their phone before using the app and Android users will need a rooted device in order to take advantage of all features, such as SnapChat monitoring.  

  • Pros - easy-to-use dashboard, app usage limitations
  • Cons - expensive, almost too many monitoring options

Compatibility: 

  • Android (rooted)
  • iOS (jailbroken)

    Norton Family Premier

    With a name that’s become synonymous with online security software, it’s no surprise that Norton’s parental monitoring app is one of the best on the market. Offering location tracking, a digital curfew, monitoring, and a simple dashboard, Norton Family Premier not only covers mobile devices but PC use as well.

    A relatively low annual fee of $50 covers up to ten devices, which you can set profiles for so one child’s rules would apply across multiple devices. The biggest downside is that there is no support for MacOS and the iOS version only monitors browser activity.  

    • Pros - industry standard, low price
    • Cons - no support for Apple products

    Compatibility:

    • Android
    • iOS (extremely limited)

    Qustodio for Families Premium

    Qustodio offers much of the same features as other apps on this list, but its time limitation options help it stand out. The Android version of the app allows you to read texts and block any coming from certain numbers. It also monitors certain social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram for cyberbullying and inappropriate behavior.

    Where Qustodio really shines is in time limitation. Instead of completely blocking certain apps, Qustodio can shut off usage only during designated times. You can also establish time limits for either apps or an entire device. Qustodio also features a panic button that can send an emergency text to a number of pre-selected contacts.

    • Pros - text monitoring, time restrictions, panic button
    • Cons - limited functionality with certain apps, can be difficult to set up

    Compatibility:

    • Android
    • iOS

    mSpy

    Aptly named, mSpy tracks just about everything kids do on their phones and allows parents to review it at any time. This includes call logs, location tracking through GPS, calendar updates, texts, emails, browsing history, and even new address book entries. The app even allows you to remotely lock a device remotely. Once installed the mSpy runs inconspicuously in the background, hidden from app manager, drawer, or list, meaning it’s perfect for overly-savvy teens looking to subvert monitoring apps.

    However, all of this has led to mixed reviews and news coverage saying the software skirts the line between useful and terrifying.

    While mSpy offers an app for both iPhone and Android users, difficulties rooting and jailbreaking iPhones in particular are a common refrain and a source for many negative reviews. As you can probably tell, mSpy goes well beyond most (if not all) parental monitoring apps and is therefore much pricier. Indeed, one of the more common uses for the app is monitoring business-owned smartphones.  mSpy has a variety of products and pricing models, ranging from $14-70/month.

    • Pros - can track just about anything that happens on a smartphone
    • Cons - price, can feel too invasive 

    Compatibility:

    • Android (rooted)
    • iOS (jailbroken)

    Lock2Learn

    If you’re less interested in monitoring every single aspect of your children’s online life, Lock2Learn is a great way to simply limit the time your kids spend on their devices or with certain apps. Lock2Learn is an app manager that limits access to certain apps and can be set to lock down a device until a number of quiz questions have been answered. This makes it a good choice for parents who still share a device with their kids and therefore don’t need robust monitoring.

    Unfortunately, the app has little functionality beyond app management; with little to no monitoring capabilities, it lacks much of the features of the other apps on this list. But as a stripped down app manager with mild educational value, Lock2Learn will work for parents who hand off their smartphone to their kids when waiting in a long line. And for young parents new to the world of smartphone monitoring, it’s not a bad app to start with.

    • Pros - helps kids learn by restricting app access
    • Cons - no monitoring capabilities, limited quiz questions

    Compatibility:

    • Android

    Parents Beware - Tech Changes Fast

    You may have noticed a pattern of iOS devices not being supported by these apps. Due to security protocols on most smartphones, many of these apps won’t do much unless you have a jailbroken or rooted device (and maybe not even still then). If you’re really concerned with keeping an eye on your children’s lives online, it's best to start by talking to them about online safety and security

    As a parent, it may seem technology advances even faster than before you had kids. With new apps, social media, and devices emerging every day, monitoring kids is a constantly evolving challenge and the world of parental monitoring apps changes all the time. No matter what app you choose, make sure to review it every few months to ensure it’s still doing its job. If kids start using a new app to communicate, you may find it’s not covered by your monitoring app, putting your kids at risk.