Whenever Justin or I present to adult audiences, we are often asked to suggest parental monitoring software that moms and dads can install on their child’s devices to provide some sort of monitoring functionality. Some are interested in quickly being “in the know” if their son or daughter is being cyberbullied, so that they can help support and safeguard them in any way possible. Others are concerned that their teen might be having inappropriate conversations with an adult stranger, and seek to prevent physical victimization. Still other parents simply want to make sure that their kid is not looking at pornography – or, at least be in the know that it is happening so they can initiate some healthy conversations about it.
There are a number of options available, and they vary in quality and functionality. Research has shown that because kids tend to evade unilateral restrictions on their device usage and time online, technological solutions are helpful as long as they are used with rather than on youth. This is key! That obviously means that you should let them know about it, rather than doing it behind their back. Plus, you should do it in the context of regular dialogue about Internet safety issues and a measure of involvement in their online activities (instead of remaining oblivious). A final caveat: research has shown that software does not decrease the risk of online harassment. It is not the cure-all you’ve been looking for, and it doesn’t serve as a virtual force field impenetrable against any outside attacks. As such, we believe it is best used for the purposes of evidence collection and when your child repeatedly violates your trust.
Below, we’ve taken the time to identify the software that we like the most, and we feel good about sharing them with you so that you can check them out to meet your own family’s needs. I must clearly state here, though, that neither Justin nor I receive anything from any of these companies for discussing their product. We actually don’t have a relationship of any kind with any of these businesses. All have evaluation/trial versions that you can experiment with, and we encourage you to learn more about them on their respective sites and by taking the time to install and properly configure them.
Finally, we encourage you to choose the least intrusive software possible in keeping with your specific goals. For example, if your only issue is how much time your son spends playing League of Legends, simply obtain a program that limits the usage of certain programs. That’s it. Don’t go hog wild and install something much more invasive in your son’s life and justify it with the excuse that you simply want to do all you can to keep him safe.
Now that’s been said, let’s get started!
First off, Mobile Spy is a monitoring application available for iPhone, Android, Blackberry as well as Apple and Android tablets. The software has many ways to allow parents to view their child’s online activities without relying on the device’s actual log history. Mobile Spy allows monitoring of texts, iMessages, Messages from other popular programs (Viber, Skype, Kik, WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter), YouTube videos, app installation, web activity, email, Gmail, GPS location, and even provides keystrokes and screenshots of what your child is doing on their device. Mobile Spy even allows parents to block the use of certain applications and send commands to the device through text messaging to remotely lock the phone or delete information from it. Unlike Phone Sheriff (discussed next), Mobile Spy enables parents to view their children’s screens in real time. However, it does not allow you to set time restrictions (as Phone Sheriff does), and it does require jailbreaking the phone which – while currently legal – can void the warranty of the phone. Jailbreaking means that you have to obtain root/administrator access to it so you can install the product on the device, and has been characterized as “privilege escalation” – giving you more access and ability than before. Mobile Spy is the most expensive program reviewed here, perhaps because of its rich feature set. The recommended premium version costs $64.97 for three months, $89.97 for six months, and $139.97 for 12 months. To monitor a single device!
Phone Sheriff is a tracking application that is available on pretty much every Android, iOS, and Blackberry device. Through the screening and storing of texts, iMessages, limited social media activity (like WhatsApp messages), call history, Internet history, app installations, photos and videos, and contacts, parents are able to see what is being seen, shared, and communicated on their kids’ devices. The application has additional filtering systems that help identify potentially risky user activity with several categories to choose from, including sexually inappropriate or pornographic content, profanity, and even possible child predator interaction based on words typically used in the grooming process. Parents can create custom filters with specific categories, and can block certain websites and apps they don’t want their child accessing. In addition, Phone Sheriff has a GPS locator and anti-abduction measures, alerting them when their child goes outside of certain defined location parameters, and to locate their son or daughter should the worst case scenario happen. It does not require jailbreaking the phone. The software costs $49 for six months or $89 per year.
Net Nanny has been around forever and has remained an industry leader. Available for Windows, Mac, Android and iOS platforms, it is designed to keep children’s online interactions safe from inappropriate content by providing parents with tools that monitor, track, and block access to certain apps and potentially dangerous websites. Net Nanny works upon a thorough internet filtering platform containing 18 specific categories, including age-specific content, sex offender searches, gambling, alcohol-use, hate speech, and profanity to limit which sites children can access. Depending on the package purchased, users can monitor from one to fifteen devices. NetNanny Social is an add-on that enables monitoring of social media on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Tumblr, Google+ and LinkedIn by screening messages for content indicative of that sent by predators and those who bully, and by creating/receiving alerts and reports of activities and details of “friends” across different platforms. It costs $39.99 a year for one device, $59.99 for five devices, or $89.99 for ten devices.
Qustodio is a robust application available for Windows, Mac, iOS, Android, Kindle and Nook devices. The software works on pretty much every major electronic device – desktop and laptop computers, as well as phones and tablets. It does a really good job of blocking problematic sites while also filtering harmful content out of web searches. It keeps you in the loop about questionable activity, informs you of new contacts your child makes on social media, and monitors calls and texts to allowed or blocked contacts. Furthermore, it helps you set healthy time limits on Internet access, and locks the device when those limits have been reached. It allows for the individual customization and tracking of multiple children in your family. As an added feature, Qustodio includes a panic button for the monitored device, which sends parents the exact location of the child in an event of an emergency. It’s pretty comprehensive in what it can do, and we think it will meet the needs of many families. To monitor five devices in your family, it’s $44.95 a year. For ten devices, it’s $79.95 a year.
WebWatcher is compatible with Mac, Windows, iPhone and Android and Blackberry devices. For computer monitoring, parents can view their children’s activity remotely as well do so after the fact through activity screenshots, keystroke monitoring and web history via a secure web-based account. For smartphone and tablet monitoring, all of the same services are offered with the addition of access to text messages (including deleted ones and those sent and received with Skype, Kik, and WhatsApp), call logs, photos, and a record of installed apps on the device. It also allows you to set up “alert words” where you are notified if those words appear in any text or email on the device. Monitoring of the child’s Calendar and Contacts are two forthcoming features the company is working on. The cost is $99.95 for a year’s access to your web-based control panel and unlimited data storage for that viewing period.
uKnowKids is another great app which analyzes social and mobile data from 21 different sources, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Bebo, Foursquare, Habbo, Gaia, XBOX Live, Formspring, LinkedIn, Tumblr, LastFM, Flickr and YouTube. You will need your child’s login credentials to monitor messages and posts to the top social media sites. It also does what most other programs do, in terms of letting you know about texts, iMessages, phone calls, contacts, installed apps, photos and videos, and device location. Another cool feature is that if you let the software know “profile attributes” of your child, it scans over 1 billion social media profiles to find matches and clue you in on apps where they might have an account you didn’t know about. It works on both Android as well as iPhones, but the featureset is a bit richer for the latter. It does not require jailbreaking of the phone, and costs $10 a month, $100 a year, and $180 for a lifetime subscription.
NetSanity aims to return control of the child’s device back to the parent. It does this through a variety of functions. For one, it allows you to disable certain apps, games, or even access to the Internet with the click on a button. Furthermore, allows you to assess over 30 categories of sites that are age appropriate and make the decision as to what you’re okay allowing your child to access. For more granular control, you can add or block specific websites as needed. Finally, should your child abuse their technology privileges by simply spending too much time with their devices or even certain apps, you can schedule their access in one hour increments. Annual plans start at $59.95 per device per year.
If your kids have just started learning about and using the Internet, Norton Family Premier provides a few basic services for supervising what they do. Through the software, parents can monitor which websites their child searches for and visits while also blocking those that are deemed inappropriate for their age level. Apart from the great controls on content accessed, it also provides time limitations and supervision to promote balanced usage. A major pro is that it doesn’t limit the number of devices to which you can apply monitoring and restrictions. A major con is that it doesn’t do much related to social media tracking, and is limited on iOS devices. It costs $49.99 but that can vary depending on the feature set you want to employ.
Finally, Windows Live Family Safety is a free parental monitoring and content control suite built into the Windows operating system and the cloud. Parents are given the option to block social networking sites, filter images, filter contacts on Windows Live Messenger, filter games their children can play based on the ESRB ratings given to them, and set time limits on Internet use. With these services in place, parents can obtain general activity reports to paint a comprehensive picture of their son or computer activity. I don’t like that you have to use Internet Explorer to access some of the features, and don’t feel like this software is that useful for older teens. However, for kids just starting to use Windows computers on a regular basis, this can help you keep tabs on what they are doing via general web browsing activities. It’s free and (likely) already installed on your updated Windows machines.
Since this is a post discussing software on a site devoted to preventing and responding to cyberbullying, I want to provide a quick side note by recommending one other program that we love, even though it is not used for parental monitoring but instead for digital record keeping. SnagIt is our favorite screenshotting application available for Windows, Mac, and iOS systems (app available for iOS). Instead of using much more limited ways (the Print Screen button, the Snipping Tool), SnagIt allows you to create either static picture or video captures of whatever is viewable on your screen in a box, region, window, or even across an entire browser or app window through its automatic scrolling feature. You can then edit it via SnagIt editor and add callout boxes, arrows, text, voiceovers, and so many other elements before uploading or sending it to others. We could not recommend it more highly, particularly for the saving and archiving of digital evidence that can then be used by the school or law enforcement during their investigations. Moreover, you may need to send such captures if they involve cyberbullying or other violations to the social media sites to get accounts terminated or content taken down. SnagIt makes it incredibly easy to do. It’s $49.95, and I use it on a daily basis.
I hope these suggestions and details are beneficial for you – whether you are concerned that your child might be cyberbullying others, is being targeted in some fashion, or is simply overusing or otherwise misusing their technology privileges. Remind him or her that access and use is a privilege, and not a right – and with that privilege comes some expectations. I mentioned it earlier, but I’d like to reiterate an important point: you should let your kid know that you are using monitoring software to simply be upfront with them, and to provide a measure of deterrent value.
Please let us know your feedback and experience as you explore these different option, and feel free to share with us some input on any others that you think warrants some coverage here. I did take the time to explore more than what is listed above, but didn’t want to provide too many choices for our site visitors and unnecessarily complicate their decision-making. We look forward to hearing from you, and we’ll update this page as necessary in the future.