Parenting

6 parental control apps to help monitor kids’ internet usage

Finally feel comfortable letting your child play on the iPad.

Mother and daughter using a tablet together Credit: Getty Images / MStudioImages

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There is no way around it: Our kids are spending a whole lot more time on their devices right now. Schools require screen time for online learning, while laptops, tablets, and phones can be valuable tools to help kids connect with friends. (Not to mention allowing parents to have a bit of quiet time.)

There is no way any of us are going to survive if we put a lockdown on our kids' devices, but it's also a struggle to maintain reasonable boundaries without watching them like hawks. Here are six apps that we recommend to help reap the benefits of screen time while maintaining some much-needed parental control.

What parents should consider before installing monitoring software

Installing spyware to secretly monitor your child’s online behavior is likely not going to earn you a lot of trust or goodwill. “Gotcha” parenting could only encourage your child to get more clever about finding workarounds.

As Common Sense Media points out, parental controls work best in an open and honest partnership with your kids. If you really feel the need to take these steps, communicate clearly to your child what you’re concerned about and why you, as a parent, are making these choices.

1. Qustodio

siblings using a tablet together
Credit: Getty Images / Adene Sanchez

Parental control apps can help monitor usage as well as limit time on certain apps.

Cost: $55 for a five-device plan; free for use on one device

Qustodio’s online dashboard and parents' app allows parents to see how their child uses devices, apps, and the web. We like it because it works across a variety of platforms, making it one of the few top-rated parental control apps that is available for both iOS and Kindle.

When checking in through the app, Qustodio gives you a rundown of search terms and app usage used by your child. I like this one because it allows you to completely block inappropriate content on a device, which makes it a good fit for managing usage with younger children.

It also tracks time between applications, so if your child says they've been spending the past 40 minutes on their school's math app, you can check whether they moved over to Minecraft five minutes in.

Qustodio also has features like YouTube monitoring and advanced Facebook and Twitter monitoring. We like that you can keep track of who your kids are friends with, as well as suspicious messaging—a feature that really stands out compared to other services—but considering so few young people use Facebook these days, it might be more useful for Qustodio to update their program to include apps like Snapchat, WhatsApp, Instagram, and TikTok. For now, Qustodio can tell you how much time is spending on apps like Snapchat and WhatsApp, and give you the option to block them or schedule their use.

Download Qustodio

2. Bark and Bark Jr.

boy using tablet in the dark
Credit: Getty Images / andresr

With real-time alerts, parents can feel more comfortable letting the kids play with the iPad while they cook dinner.

Cost: Bark: $14 per month or $99 annually; Bark Jr.: $5 per month or $49 annually

While Bark focuses on cyber-bullying and monitoring messaging apps, Bark Jr. is a tool for parents to set up screen time monitoring and web filtering.

The apps sound alarms on your phone when your child is trying to access a website or app that's not on an approved list. I love this because you can, for example, temporarily make something like PBS Kids or YouTube part of the unapproved list during homework time. If they try to access something on the unapproved list, you are alerted immediately, allowing you to manage usage without standing over their shoulders.

This app works on iOS, Android, and Kindle, though setup was a bit clunky. The customer service, however, is top notch and can get you going should you encounter any hiccups.

Download Bark or Bark Jr.

3. Net Nanny

girl on tablet
Credit: Getty Images / SeventyFour

Net Nanny's flagged terms alert you to searches of sensitive topics that may warrant an in-person discussion with your child.

Cost: $55 a year for up to five devices

If you are less concerned about your child getting stuck in a video game loop and more worried about them stepping into sticky online situations, Net Nanny's excellent web-filtering technology makes it a top choice. Net Nanny's lack of call- or text-message monitors could be a deal breaker for some users, but its existing features make it one of the best options out there.

I really like that you can give tiered protection that flag—instead of block—searched content, allowing you the chance to have a discussion with your child. For example, you can choose to block certain content like death, gore, or mature themes, while simultaneously setting up alerts for terms like "drug use." This can alert you to their searches, so you can decide if it's something you'd like to talk to your child about in person.

It also allows you to block certain apps. I do wish they gave apps the same tiered security, so that you get an alert every time your child is on their favorite social media site. This one works across iOS, Android, and Kindle.

Download Net Nanny

4. Our Pact

brothers using a tablet together
Credit: Getty Images / pixelfit

Parents of younger kids may not be as concerned with unsupervised searches, but can still benefit from time-limit apps.

Cost: Free; or up to $7 a month

Our child is still young, so we aren't as worried about him being cyber-bullied or actively seeking out inappropriate content in a web search. Since he doesn't have interest in social networking, our family's needs are more about managing the time he uses on the web and on apps, particularly when he sneaks onto his "reward apps" when he's supposed to be using an educational app I've painstakingly researched and downloaded for him.

Our Pact is a perfect solution for that kind of use—you can finally give your child a device for 40 minutes while you make dinner, without having it go off the rails while you're focused on chopping onions.

What we love about this one is that you can set time limits for usage. Not only can the time limits be customizable, but you can shut off your kid's access remotely. This is great for when your child is supposed to be playing a Spanish practice app but you suddenly hear the faint sounds of ninjas fighting coming from the other room. For kids that are a little bit more savvy, you also receive alerts when they install new apps.

Our Pact, or the simplified Our Pact Jr., does not work on a Kindle device. We'll be anxiously awaiting that rollout.

5. Family Time

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Credit: Getty Images / mapodile

Family Time monitors calls, texts, and even contact lists, which may be more helpful with tweens than toddlers.

Cost: Free; or $27 per year per device for premium access

If your kid is one to push their limits, Family Time might be the right app for you. Not only can you can block or control usage on an app-by-app basis and apply internet filters, Family Time monitors calls and texts, and keeps an eye on contact lists—making it one of the best parental control apps for the tween that isn't interested in honoring boundaries.

The software allows parents to set blocks of time for homework and bedtimes, or just limit the total time your kids spend on their phones. There’s also location tracking, for when your kids can finally wander around post-social distancing.

Download Family Time

6. Screen Time

girl using a tablet with a stylus
Credit: Getty Images / Chinnapong

Screen Time allows parents to remotely pause or reward extra time on the device.

Cost: Free; or up to $6.99 a month

Not to be confused with Apple's Screen Time, which offers some parental controls and time-usage statistics, Screen Time offers the a simple and straightforward approach to monitoring usage.

Screen Time lets parents dictate which apps are approved and how much time kids can spend on a device overall. It reports how much time is spent on each app and it has a wonderful "pause" button that parents can control, which allows for them to pause every device in the house with a popup message that can say, "Screen pause: Go outside and play for 40 minutes."

While this one isn't as granular in its ability to filter or block search content, it's perfect for families that want to set up clear limits.

One of our favorite aspects of Screen Time is the ability to create tasks in the parent portal that allow you to assign a minute value for each task completed, earning your child bonus time on their devices for good behavior. You can also remotely award them "free play" (should you need more quiet time), where you can give them a custom message on their devices to let them know they have more time at their disposal.

Download Screen Time

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