Buyer's Guide to Parent Control Apps

Buyer

Parent Control Apps

Kids' technical capabilities and desire for independence can outpace their ability to deal with the unexpected or unpleasant. It always outpaces parents' natural desire to protect their kids.

Parent control apps are great ways of providing your kids with a safety net and you reassurance. Read our guide to choosing, buying, and setting up the right parent control app for your family.

What are Parent Control Apps?

Parent control apps let you place restrictions or monitoring features on your kids' devices to keep them safer online, limit their screen time, and block apps or content. Geotracking monitors device locations so you know where they are. There are dedicated location apps and general-purpose parent control apps which add geolocation features.

Before subscribing to a parental control app, consider the features you need. You can get apps that do everything, but you might not need to pay for all those features, or they might duplicate something you already have.

Alternatively, you might need the extra features of an app dedicated to a single function, such as geotracking. Just as general-purpose app stores don't perform as well for educational apps as the dedicated Parent App Library, general-purpose parent-control apps don't do any one feature as well as an app dedicated to it

What controls can I have over my kids' digital content and interactions?

  • Browsing—some apps maintain lists of websites unsuitable for kids; many will also let you add others. The app will block access to these sites on that device.
  • Apps—some apps let you control or block which apps your kids can install. Some have features which target specific apps popular with kids, like TikTok or YouTube, which let you fine-tune what they can do in the app.
  • Screentime—kids sometimes spend too much time using devices or use them at inappropriate times. Screentime controls let you set time limits in certain apps, fix how long kids can use their device in a day, or prevent some apps from being opened at certain times.
  • Content—kids can have unsuitable content in their device's photos or take inappropriate images. Some parent control apps have tools to detect such images, although they may not always be successful.
  • Notifications—you can set the control app to notify you if your child triggers any of the blocks by trying to download or access the content you have marked as inappropriate
  • Parent control apps might let you control phone calls and text messages. Remember that a message sent through WhatsApp is not an SMS text message. Controlling one will not control the other. On the whole, iOS apps offer fewer communication monitoring controls than Android apps.
  • Live view—it is possible to get apps that let you see through your child's camera, hear their device's microphone, and see their screen. 
  • Images your kids download and images they take with their cameras for inappropriate content, such as weapons or nudity.

What are the best parental controls for tracking location?

We emphasise that it is the device that geotracking apps monitor. This limitation is obvious, but many apps emphasise that they track user locations, which is only the case if they carry the app and only if it is turned on and has a signal.

Kids have left tracked devices in safe places to act as alibis when they go to places they should not. You should not rely 100 per cent on apps to keep your kids safe.

  • Geotracking - lets you know where your child's device is at that moment. Assuming your child carries their device with them, this will help you know their whereabouts. Historical geotracking enables you to see where the device has been over time.
  • Geofencing — lets you set zones corresponding to locations. Your app gets a notification if your child's device arrives at or leaves one of these. Parents use this to know if their kids are at school or come home.

How do my kids' devices affect my choice of parental control app?

  • Limitations — Apple iPhones are more restrictive than Android phones in what they allow developers to do. Some of the features you might want in parental control apps aren't possible on iPhones as they have privacy implications which Apple has chosen not to enable.
  • Jailbreaking — Apple devices do not allow installing apps not on their app store. Jailbreaking is a process that will void your warranty and put your device at risk but allows apps not approved by Apple and with features it would not permit.
  • Multi-device — some parental control platforms have apps that work on any platform but can only monitor apps on a single platform, typically Android.
  • Desktop and mobile — there's no point monitoring content on one device if your kids can switch to another. Some parent control platforms control social media, apps and web browsing on mobile and desktop platforms.
  • Desktop — if you only want to monitor digital content on a computer, then there is little point in paying extra for geotracking as the computer won't always be with your child.

Do I need to worry about my kid disabling parental controls?

Kids have always tried to test their parent's boundaries or push back against rules. The same is true for Parent Control apps.

Some of the ways kids overcome controls:

  • Some parent controls only work with a single browser. Kids know that if they download a different browser, they can search the internet freely. Look for an app which works with all browsers or blocks downloading new ones.
  • Apps can only know where your kids are if they have their devices with them. Kids can use this to convince you they are in one place while going somewhere they should not.
  • Your child's device might be fully protected, but their friends' phones might not. They can still view unsuitable content that way.
  • If you let your kids use your phone to play games, they can access your control app and change the control settings.
  • Remove the parental control app from their phone. All apps can be removed; you must understand what protections there are on each device you have protected.

Will my kid know I am using parental controls?

Decide whether you want to hide your use of parental controls. You should consider their age and maturity when you make this decision/

  • For younger children, it’s often sufficient to implement controls without a detailed discussion, focusing instead on teaching them about safe internet usage in a way they can understand.
  • For older children and teenagers, a more open and transparent approach is usually better. It fosters a relationship based on trust and mutual respect and prepares them for responsible independence.

What else should I do to keep my kids safe?

  • Ensure they know they can and should come to you if they encounter anything online that makes them uncomfortable.
  • Ensure your kids know how to stay safe online by never revealing personal details, locations, or plans to online friends.
  • Ensure kids know that people online may not be who they say they are.
  • Don’t over-rely on app-based safety. You might know where kids are, but there will still be a distance between you both. If your kids lose their device, they will have to make decisions without your support. Ensure kids know what to do in different scenarios where they do not have their devices.

How do I set up a parental control app?

  • Each app will have a different process. You should follow their instructions carefully. These are general tips to help you.
  • Secret or not secret—remember your goal for parental control apps is to keep your kids safe. It is not to satisfy your curiosity about their lives or spy on them. While there are legitimate reasons not to inform kids that you have monitoring apps on their devices, you should think carefully about what it would do to the trust you share if they discovered it.
  • Setting up—the power of parental control apps can make them difficult to set up. You must follow the instructions carefully, as a single setting could make the difference between protection and the illusion of it.
  • Ease of use —if you can't set up an app, you won't use it effectively. This is another reason to think carefully about which features you need; the more you have, the more you need to set up and the more complex the process might be.
  • By their very nature, parental control apps will receive a lot of data about your child's device usage. Everything will pass through the app's servers before it gets to you. Be sure to understand the app's privacy policy and how the developer uses data.

Choosing parental control apps is a complicated process. The Parent App Library will provide a great starting point and clear information about each app. However, only you know what is best for your kids.

Ensure you have a clear view of your chosen app's strengths and limitations.

When it comes to your kid's safety, no single solution should be considered enough. Education, trust, openness, guidelines and parental control apps work at their best together.

View our Best Parent Control Apps list.

View our Best Family Locator Apps list.

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