Insider’s Guide: How to Choose and Use Parent Control Apps for Kid’s Phone

By the time kids turn 18, they average over 10 hrs of device time per day. While that represents a huge chunk of time, not all of it is necessarily wasted time. Technology is more social than you realize; more pervasive than you realize; bigger problem than you realize. Technology is not good or bad. It’s a tool that needs to be used, limited and controlled.

Parental Control. Apps that control devices, apps that control other apps, device control (remote and local), monitoring devices before something bad happens lets you kid know you are watching. Parental-control apps for mobile devices work best when they’re part of a comprehensive approach to teaching your kids about behaving responsibly online. That means talking to your kids about what they should and shouldn’t do with their mobile devices and clearly communicating how you expect them to act.

Tech solutions are great, but nothing can replace a relationship based on trust and boundaries. For that reason, I avoided apps that only run in stealth mode on your child’s phone. Products such as WebWatcher and mSpy both tout this capability. I also did not consider apps that offered the ability to record phone conversations, since state laws vary on the legality of recording someone without his or her consent.

Parent Control Apps

So your kids have somehow made it to adolescence. Now, it’s time to manage how they use devices. On the one hand, giving them free-reign over their swanky iPhone evokes the fear of God in you. But you also don’t have the time or interest in acting like the CIA/NSA and monitoring every bit of data that flows to and from their device.

The middleground is a reasonable parental control app or, at a minimum, parental controls within the settings of the device. While we are about a decade into the smartphone lifestyle, we are only a few years into parental controls that strike that balance between independence and oversight. Below, I’ve created a list of things to look for when researching parental control apps. New apps will come and old ones will disappear, but the list below of qualities to look for should stand the test of time. Here is a comprehensive list of what you’ll want to see in a good quality parental control app:

Installation. How easy is it to install and setup each app on a smartphone? How hard is it for your kid to uninstall?

App Management. Since most of the time spent on smartphones is within an app and not a browser, which program lets you review all the apps on a device and block or limit app usage? Does it control native apps (eg. iMessage for iPhones)?

Filtering. What tools does each app offer and how well did they do at restricting access to inappropriate content online?

Texting Management. With kids doing most of their communicating through texts these days, we looked at the features for monitoring messaging. Do the apps let you review the content of your child’s texts? Can you block a contact and be alerted when your child adds a new contact? Can you block messaging apps altogether?

Location tracking. Does the app keep a log of where your child has been — and more importantly — give you the ability to locate your child in an emergency?

Price. How much will the service cost annually? How many devices can you control? Does the app company upsell you later on?

Gaming. More social than you think, Needs to be limited (time), Needs to be viewed as privilege rather than right or default. Gaming, just like any other activity, should be limited. Gaming is definitely more addictive than sports or other socially acceptable interests. First of all, game designers hire psychologists and create a sticky environment – they make it really, really tough to walk away. Free gaming apps? Even worse since their business model is dependent upon eyeballs on ads and in-app purchases. Games for XBox have a different business model – give away (or sell cheaply) the game system and sell the expensive game. Then their are the in-game purchases. Secondary income stream.  

Social Media Monitoring/Control. Do the services allow users to monitor activity on social media. You either need to “root” a device – which is not recommended. It’s easier and healthier for your relationship to just have your child hand over his or her usernames and passwords.

Solutions

Let’s get to the good stuff – the apps and services that you can use to oversee your kid’s tech usage. I’m sure that by the time this is published there will be a million other ones, but for now, here are some top rated monitoring apps:

Other Interesting Apps

Not all apps or tech need to be about Orwellian parenting. The apps I’ve listed below provide varying degrees of reward and consequence to modify screen time or limit use of certain apps. The theme here is promoting non-screen time.

Pocket Points. Pocket Points is an app that middle school, high school and college students can download onto their phone or iPad. Once students open the Pocket Points app and lock their phone, they start to accumulate points. The longer their phone stays locked, the more points they can get. Points are also awarded based on how many people are on the app at a time. The app is free and only works on a campus that’s identified by Pocket Points. Students can redeem their points for free or discounted items from local vendors. https://pocketpoints.com

Offtime. This app helps students unplug by blocking distracting apps like Instagram and games and filtering communications. It provides data on how much they use their device. A more customized mode like Work, Family, or Me Time can be turned on to ensure that they have access to the necessary things apps, but aren’t distracted by the junk. http://offtime.co/

Moment. Moment tracks student’s phone usage and allows them to set daily limits; the app notifies them if exceeded. They can even use a setting that “forces” them off the phone by flooding the screen with annoying alerts when trying to extend screen time (what a cruel app). Moment can easily be used for families, with the option to track device use from a parent’s phone. https://inthemoment.io/

BreakFree. BreakFree has a usage tracker found in similar apps, but it differs in that it breaks down the information into a super simple addict score (yikes, that’s pretty harsh). It shows kids how often they unlock their screens, and logs every bit of their usage for the day. This app is a great option for students who like to set goals and challenge themselves. Ironically (maybe, intentionally…) it can be addictive to try to see how low students can get their addict score. Oh, the humanity. http://www.breakfree-app.com/

Flipd. Can’t app developers spell things normal? Flipd is the poorly-spelled and dialed-up aggressive app for your kid if they are not so easily encouraged to curb device time. Flipd allows you to lock a phone for a set period of time, and once you do, there’s no going back. Even restarting their phone won’t disable the app, so it’s impossible for them to find a work-around. Flipd can even be used to remotely “flip off” one user from another user’s device, which is helpful for teams that want to keep one another on point. I’m thinking it would be helpful for parents to have this app for kids that just can’t say no and grades are dropping. http://flipdapp.co/

AppDetox. Is your kid a gamer? Are they addicted to checking Instagram? AppDetox can help them get their fixation under control if apps are too addictive, but their not quite ready to give them up. You and your above-average kid can set your own parameters on an app-by-app basis providing access when it’s not a potential disruption. Every time your kiddo breaks one of his or her own rules, the app reminds you to put down your phone. Could be helpful for students that are well-intentioned and need that extra reminder occasionally. https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=de.dfki.appdetox&hl=en

Stay on Task. How’s that for a blunt name? Stay on Task helps your productivity in a gentler way compared to some of the other aggressive time overlords. The app provides a gentle prompt, asking if you’re still on task at random times during your day. If your college student is someone who easily gets distracted, this app can be a great way to redirect their focus when another post popped up and their mind is wandering. https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=valavg.stayontask