This post: 10 Best Parental Control Apps for Parents of Teens
Written by: Marybeth Bock and Nancy Reynolds
Note: This post doesn’t aim to persuade or dissuade parents from monitoring their tween or teen’s online activity in any way – the focus is solely to present the facts and options available should a parent decide to do so.
This generation of kids is fortunate to have the internet with such a plethora of amazing information at their fingertips just waiting to be explored and discovered. But like most technology, there’s a downside…
Sure, our kids can use their phones, iPads, and computers for school and assignments, staying connected to their friends, keeping up with the latest and greatest trends, world news updates, and, of course, for the sheer entertainment of it all.
But the internet can also be a very dark and dangerous place – especially for young tweens and teens who, every single day, are being exposed to cyberbullying, scams, pornography, sexting, interaction with predatory strangers, and other dangerous and risky online activity.
10 Best Parental Control Apps for Parents of Teens
As parents, we want our teens to be safe when they’re online. And, it turns out, teenagers want to feel protected as well.
In fact, a 2022 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center found that 62% of teenagers ages 13-17 felt, “A welcoming, safe online environment is more important than people being able to speak their minds freely online.”
Still, as much as teens want to feel safe online, I think we can all agree that most teenagers would prefer not to have their parents diving into their online personal lives.
Should You Monitor Your Teen’s Online Activity?
Whether you decide to use a parental control app or not is a personal parenting decision.
However, when deciding whether or not to monitor your teen (and to what degree), several factors should be considered, including your child’s age, maturity, trustworthiness, how responsible they are, your family values and morals, whether you suspect they are engaged in risky, dangerous or illegal online behavior, whether you suspect they are a victim of bullying, (or they are bullying someone), or if you notice a sudden and/or concerning shift in your teen’s behavior that might indicate a need for increased involvement in their life, including:
- They seem more withdrawn, sad, anxious, defensive, angry, or secretive
- They have significantly increased or decreased the amount of time they spend online
- They do not respond to limits placed on how often and how long they spend online
- They have lost interest in activities that they’ve normally enjoyed
- They are complaining of stomach aches or headaches
- They develop problems with sleeping patterns, such as difficulty falling or staying asleep at night, or sleeping all the time and avoiding interaction
In other words, there really isn’t a cut-and-dry answer…
Some parents may not feel the need at all to check up on their teen’s online activity; others might decide to check up on their teen from time to time to ensure they’re playing it safe; and still, other parents may be dealing with a situation in which they suspect their teen’s physical and/or mental well-being is at stake.
The Challenge with Older Teens
When our kids hit their teen years, (and even before), every parent has to make important parenting decisions about their child’s internet usage and freedom.
The question is, at what point should parents loosen their grip and hand the internet reins to their teen?
According to PCMag’s 2022 Tech Parenting survey, a significant number of parents are choosing to play it safe – waiting until their child is off to college before they officially turn off parental controls. The survey found that 31% of parents said they plan to use some form of control features like blocking certain websites and content, recording activities, putting time restrictions, and, the most popular, viewing their child’s browsing history and communication until their child turns 18.
That’s not to say that all parents are watching all of their teen’s online interactions. In fact, about 17% of participants believe that 16 is the right age to let their teen go online unmonitored.
But…shouldn’t teens have some level of privacy?
According to James Lehman of Empowering Parents, privacy is a privilege, not a right. “There should be a direct link between the amount of responsibility, consistency, and honesty that a teenager shows and the amount of privacy they’re allowed to have.” It’s not as though we have to fully respect our kids’ privacy allowing our kids to do whatever the heck they want. It’s our job to protect our kids even if that means making unpopular decisions.
Leman states, “You can tell your child the following: “If you don’t meet your responsibilities to take care of yourself and stay safe, then I’m going to do whatever is necessary. If that means looking in your room, looking in your drawers, and looking on your computer and phone, that’s exactly what I’m prepared to do.”
A Few Helpful Reminders About Using Parental Control Apps
Keep the Purpose in Mind
Should parents decide to monitor their teen’s online activity, it should be for the sole intent to keep them safe, not to keep tabs on them simply because they can or dive into the nitty-gritty details of their teen’s personal life.
Monitor… Don’t Spy
Some parental apps have options for parents to secretly install them on their child’s phone, but experts warn against doing that. While there might be instances when it’s necessary, as a general rule parents shouldn’t “spy” on their teens. If their teen discovers they’re being secretly monitored, it can not only damage the trust in the relationship but also trigger their teen to lie, hide information, use burner phones or friends’ phones, or create new social media accounts using different names.
Communicate Your Intentions
Remember, teens today are very tech-savvy and can often find ways to get around the restrictions these apps impose. It’s far better to be open and honest with your teen about your intentions and why you believe an app is necessary for their safety. Coming to a mutual agreement on its use can also be helpful in making your teen feel part of the process.
Ana Homayoun, an educational consultant and author of Social Media Wellness: Helping Tweens and Teens Thrive in an Unbalanced Digital World tells parents that “having frequent and open conversations with your children with compassion, empathy, and understanding rather than with fear, anger, and frustration can help them make better choices online, regardless of whether you’re watching them or not.”
Remember… To Teenagers, Privacy is Everything
It’s important for parents to remember that privacy is important, especially for older teens who are learning how to “adult” and may soon be venturing off to college or out into the world. Occasional check-ins on their digital footprints should be fine (should you decide to do so) unless they’re exhibiting concerning or suspicious behavior.
The ultimate goal should be to help teens learn to self-regulate and set their own limits when it comes to time spent online and whom they choose to communicate with.
Top 10 Most Popular and Effective Parental Control Apps
When it comes to the best parental control apps for parents of teens, there are several great options to choose from, all with varying features and levels of monitoring.
BARK is a powerful parental app that offers a lot of great features to bring parents peace of mind. It can send alerts about bullying, predators, and sexual content, scan your teen’s online activities in 30+ apps and social media platforms, create custom daily screen time schedules for your teen’s device, lock access to specific websites or even whole categories, and notify you when your teen arrives at or leaves a set location. You can even get details about your teen’s digital activities and expert recommendations from child psychologists.
($5 to $14 per month, good for both iOS/Android and can be used on an unlimited number of devices)
This app is great for families with multiple kids that might need different levels of monitoring and intervention. It allows you to read the full content of all sent and received social media messaging and SMS text messages, view call log histories, block phone numbers, and view browsing histories. There is also a Teen Slang Word Glossary and it’s one of the few parental control apps that actually requires a parent to approve all new app downloads, so you can stay up to date with new apps that are constantly popping up.
(Family plans start at $9.99/month, good for both iOS/Android)
If you only need to monitor one device, this app is the best free parental control app available. For no charge, the basic plan includes web filtering capability, location monitoring, time limits, Facebook and Twitter monitoring, a safe search option, and a “pause the internet” feature. If you need to monitor more than one device, you can opt for a premium subscription as well that covers five devices.
(Free or up to $55/month, good for both iOS/Android)
Got a new teen driver or a teen who’s always on the go? While not a traditional parenting control app, Life360 is one of the best apps for location monitoring and giving parents peace of mind when their teen is behind the wheel. Every plan offers SOS alerts, crash detection, and digital data safety breach alerts. And, depending on which plan you choose, features include up to 30 days of location history, location/place alerts, family and individual driver reports, roadside assistance, emergency dispatch, towing, crime reports, digital safety protection (such as identity theft), travel support, and stolen phone protection.
(Free and up to $24.99/month, good for both iOS/Android and on unlimited devices)
Gaming consoles like Sony PlayStation and Xbox One have parental controls integrated within the console, but the Nintendo Switch is the only gaming console that has its own control app in addition to its in-console controls. With the app, a parent can set daily time limits, suspend play if time limits are exceeded, choose from pre-set options or customize select games that can be played, limit sharing of in-game text and images, restrict the ability to post screenshots of the game to social media and restrict the ability to purchase games.
(Free to use on iOS)
The Aura app is a great option for big families with many devices. Their family plan includes service for up to five adults (think grandparents and babysitters) using up to ten devices, including computers, smartphones, and tablets. You can set different parameters for each of your children, which allows you to set age-appropriate limits to what they can see, and how much screen time they each are allowed. Aura covers various social media platforms including Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and YouTube. It also comes with antivirus protection, ad blocking, a safe browsing feature, and email alias creation to reduce your family’s exposure to data breaches.
($99/year, good for both iOS and Android)
The OurPact app has some really interesting features that might be very helpful for you and your teenager. In addition to things like blocking social media apps and internet browsers like Safari and Chrome, you can also block texting across iOS and Android devices. This is a handy way to ensure texting doesn’t cause distractions during homework time or family meals. OurPact’s View feature gives visibility into a teen’s online activity via an automated periodic, on-demand, or private gallery of screenshots – all encrypted for maximum safety. There is also a family member locator, and with a premium or premium+ subscription, you can manage up to 20 devices.
(Free, or up to $9.99/month depending on the plan, good for both iOS/Android)
Touted as the most powerful phone monitoring software on the planet, this app will offer full disclosure of what your teen is doing online and on their smartphone – (helpful if you feel your teen may be getting into dangerous online activity). It offers location tracking, and full access to their emails, personal texts, and social media messages from Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, Telegram, Snapchat, and Viber. You can also view their contact list and call logs, including names, dates, and durations, and multimedia files such as photos, videos, and installed apps. There is also the ability to block social media apps and see calendar entries. NOTE: As long as you’re monitoring your underage child who is living under your care, this type of parental control is legal.
(Prices start at $9.99/month if you sign up for a 1-year subscription, good for both iOS and Android)
Highly rated by users, the mSpy app offers parents real-time updates on their teens’ phone activities, with updates every five minutes remotely. You can monitor social media apps, see web browser history and activities with timestamps, track app usage time, see call logs and text messages, and current GPS location all while remaining totally undetectable with no app icon displayed. Like some of these apps, they also offer 24/7 customer support.
($69.99/year for iOS)
If you’re concerned your teen is sexting or viewing online pornography, the Canopy app is one of the best out there for mature content screening. Besides offering the basics like web filtering, location alerts, and screen time limits, the app can alert you if it identifies your teen has taken a sexual photo. It also scans websites in real time for suggestive photos and covers them up with white squares, but still allows a teen to view other pictures and videos within a site. In addition, the app allows parents to filter partial nudity images as well.
(Starts at $7.99/month for up to 3 devices, good for both iOS/Android)
As with every aspect of parenting a teen, the goal is to send them off into the world equipped with the skills needed to be successful on their own.
In the meantime, parents should strive to provide guidance, rules, and the necessary safety regulations that make sense for them and their individual teen’s age, maturity, and circumstances.
Marybeth Bock, MPH, is Mom to two young adults and one delightful hound dog. She has logged time as a military spouse, childbirth educator, college instructor, and freelance writer. She lives in Arizona and thoroughly enjoys research and writing – as long as iced coffee is involved. Her work can be found on numerous websites and in two books. Follow her on Facebook and Instagram.
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