The Internet is a scary place. Trust me, I work there. And if the dangers of cyberspace can rattle an adult, imagine how they might traumatize an innocent child. Installing a parental control tool on your PCs can shield your kids from the dark side of the Web, but computers aren’t the only tech kids use to get online. These days, phones, tablets, and other mobile devices are the toys most young people turn to when they want to browse the Internet, download apps, and chat with friends. And all of those activities can open up our precious youth to some serious online nastiness.
Don’t fret, parents, there is hope. Parental control tools are now available specifically for mobile devices. This list currently highlights only the latest and greatest Android apps for parental control. Many of these utilities have iOS counterparts, but they’re typically more powerful on Android because of Google’s looser restrictions for what they can and can’t do. But rest assured that I’m already hard at work reviewing parental control iPhone apps, and I’ll add them to this roundup soon. And even services that work great on PCs don’t always suit the needs of Android users. So if you want to keep your child’s Android smartphone or tablet safe and secure, here’s what you should know about the apps you need.
Your Child’s Security? Priceless
This roundup highlights four Android parental control apps we’ve reviewed: Net Nanny, Mobicip, Qustodio Parental Control, and our Editors’ Choice Norton Family Parental Control. Net Nanny offers a standalone Android app subscription for $13 per year. The others require users to purchase subscriptions to the complete Web versions, with prices ranging from $40 to $50 per year, before they can activate the Android app. At least with those full subscriptions you’ll be able to protect additional devices and children. Every service reviewed offers a free trial, which includes access to the Android app, so you can try before you buy. We also recommend reading our full reviews of those products to learn what other features you get, aside from the Android-specific features mentioned in the reviews listed here. If you have to buy the whole software suite, you might as well take complete advantage of it.
Many of these apps also require you to use the Web interface to unlock their full potential. The apps correctly assume that the device under protection is primarily used by the child, and not the parent. This means most apps don’t allow parents to do much overseeing using the mobile app itself. Mobicip allows for some light filtering customization within its separate Monitor app, but to access advanced features, such as reviewing weekly reports or setting up schedules for when and how long the child can be online, you must use the Web interface. Net Nanny and Qustodio just redirect parents to the Web interface in the mobile browser, not ideal on a cramped smartphone screen. Out of the services we’ve tested, only Norton’s offers the full capability of its Web interface in an independent mobile app.
Web and Social Media Filtering
The primary way parental control apps clean up the Internet for kids is by filtering out websites with explicit material and other inappropriate content. They achieve this by modifying the existing browser (which requires users to grant the app special permissions in the Accessibility Services of the Android OS), or by forcing kids to use a new custom browser. Both methods are totally valid, and none of the custom browsers we tested were significantly worse than standbys like Chrome. Some even handle HTTPS, so kids can’t evade them using a secure anonymizing proxy.
The default Web filtering of these services will block obviously harmful material like pornography, excessive violence, and rampant profanity. However, they also allow parents to customize the filtering based on what they think is appropriate for their child. The granularity of these filters differs from service to service. Many apps have a range a filtering presets based on how old the child is. Sex education websites may not be suitable for toddlers, but for teenagers they are a vital health resource. Net Nanny has an option for masking curse words instead of blocking the whole page due to one obscene comment, and it even lets you block content as specific, and nefarious, as anime. In addition to seeing what sites your children are visiting, these apps also allow you to make exceptions for blocked websites. So the rules don’t have to be ironclad if your child is particularly mature.
Social media filtering is also a big feature of parental control apps. Social networks like Facebook and Twitter can open kids up to a lot of potential emotional or even physical abuse. You can always choose to block those apps outright, but many control tools, such as Norton and Qustodio, allow for more-nuanced social media monitoring. These features include viewing logged conversations or blocking specific questionable contacts. But for more advanced social media protection, you may want to invest in a dedicated app such as Net Nanny Social$19.99 at ContentWatch.
Exclusive Android Features
While all of these Android apps tie into their larger Web versions, they also include features that only make sense on a phone or tablet. All of these apps let parents block kids from using certain apps on their device. Some block new apps from even being installed, while others can only blacklist apps after they’ve been downloaded. An easy, if blunt, solution is to simply block the Google Play store (or any other Android app store) and only allow kids to install new apps once they’ve gotten your permission. Along with stopping kids from downloading inappropriate apps, this method will also protect them against malware, since a skeptical adult is theoretically more likely to be able to spot a shady, illegitimate app.
Norton and Qustodio offer even more useful, Android-specific functionality. Both apps can also track the child’s location so that parents can make sure they aren’t somewhere unsafe or that they aren’t cutting class. Both apps can also track the child so that parents can make sure they aren’t somewhere unsafe or that they aren’t cutting class. Qustodio’s app even features a big panic button that a child in danger can press, which sends an alert to a list of family and friends so that someone can come to their rescue.
Won’t Somebody Please Think of the Children?
Click through the review links below to read our full evaluations of the best Android parental control apps. Each app offers at least a baseline level of protection, but when it comes to keeping your kids secure online, it’s best not to cut corners. Each Android app review also links to the review of its full Web counterpart. Are you a parent who uses a parental control app? Or do you have a horror story that’s motivating you to now get one? Tell us about your experiences in the comments section below.
Norton Family Parental Control (for Android)
$49.99 per year$19.99 at Norton
Norton Family Parental Control, already a powerful parental control Web-filtering tool, provides equally impressive protection on Android devices.
Net Nanny (for Android)
$12.99 per yearFree at Amazon
Net Nanny for Android delivers the impressive parental control power of Net Nanny 7 on your child’s Android device. Only the lack of a few features keeps it from winning an Editors’ Choice.
- Make sure all of the devices your children have access to are protected by one of these filtering/monitoring programs. While there is no way to guarantee that any of them is 100% foolproof, they are infinitely better than no protection at all.
- Let your children know that you have installed (or will be installing) filtering and/or blocking software on their devices. Also explain that this is not because you don’t trust them, but because as a responsible parent you are obligated to make sure their devices are protected. You look out for them regarding all kinds of potential risks in their day to day lives and this is no different.
- For kids aged 6-12, ask the parents of your children’s friends if their devices are protected before playdates. If the answer is no, here’s how to politely let them know that your child is not permitted to use or view an unprotected device.
- Don’t be swayed by negative reactions to blocking/monitoring software from your kids. If they object to what seems like an intrusion, here’s how to strike the proper balance between empathy and firmness. If they object that the software is interfering with their ability to access legitimate sites (without objectionable content), here’s how to manage the conversation.