Guide to Monitoring apps

With children accessing the internet on a range of devices, the job of protecting them from things they may not be ready for online can be a challenge.

In recent years, a wide variety of monitoring software solutions have appeared to allow you to see what children are doing online and set digital boundaries.

With the help of Pocket-lint’s Andy Robertson, we’ve given tips on how best to use them and reviewed the top apps available.

Guide to Monitoring apps

With children accessing the internet on a range of devices, the job of protecting them from things they may not be ready for online can be a challenge.

In recent years, a wide variety of monitoring software solutions have appeared to allow you to see what children are doing online and set digital boundaries.

With the help of Pocket-lint’s Andy Robertson, we’ve given tips on how best to use them and reviewed the top apps available.

What do monitoring apps offer families?

Companies producing technology are making huge strides to empower and equip parents to play a crucial role in guiding children to digital health. Whether they are games consoles offering automatic parental controls based on PEGI ratings, routers providing apps to show you exactly who’s doing what online, or even smartphone add-ons that let you track where you child is, there has never been more help for parents.

 

But that’s just it. There are so many of these services and settings that it’s hard to know where to start. This guide is, therefore, the quick way to find the best of what’s on offer for parents with children who have (or will soon have) some kind of smartphone or tablet device.

What to consider when choosing monitoring apps

Rather than rating the technical prowess of innovation of these differing approaches to online safety, we have four simple measures that make a difference to real families:

For families, the devil really is in the detail. Parents need to be able to specify limits for particular activities rather than blanket cut off times on everything. They also need to be able to control devices and apps availability when they don’t need internet data, to avoid children downloading everything in the morning and then spending the rest of the day browsing offline.

Families need simple ways to solve complex problems. The best apps and services to keep children safe don’t require long manuals or hours of setting up and installing.

Internet safety apps need to address the multi-device and multi-platform reality of family life. To avoid repeatedly setting up controls on different systems, parents need one device that controls everything, as much as possible. This also means fewer ways for children to cruise devices when time limits have been used up.

Cost is always important to families. However, it doesn’t necessarily mean that cheaper is better. Parents are happy to spend money for solutions that work efficiently and simply freeing up their time and reducing time spent arguing about technology.

Whichever of these monitoring apps you choose, they are an excellent way to better understand and discuss technology and gaming with your child. Implementing limits are a good first step but will only ever be a short-term solution.

iOS 12 for iPhone and iPad

The new Screen Time features built into the forthcoming iOS 12 for iPhone and iPad devices offer great family controls for free and at the operating system level. Although some other services here provide app locking and time limits, having this as part of the OS makes more sense and is much easier for parents to set-up.

These new settings also enable the device to control apps (and categories of apps) regardless of whether they need internet access. It gives a detailed breakdown of all app and online activity. A nice touch is when a time limit is exceeded the child can ask (only once to stop pestering) for more time at the touch of a button.

Of course, this is limited to Apple mobile devices, so currently that doesn’t extend to Macs or Apple TV. The latter will be a loophole that children will quickly spot for extra YouTube time, so you may want to add a password there too.

  • Simplicity: 5/5 Simple app to control as built into the operating system.
  • Coverage: 1/5 iOS.
  • Control: 5/5 Can limit apps and internet time as well as other activities like texts, calls, and location.
  • Value: 5/5 Free with iOS.
  • Score: 16/20
See app

Circle

Unlike other solutions here, this is a hardware device that hooks into your internet. The big benefit is that without the need to install software it can control access to Fortnite, YouTube, Facebook and the like across iOS, Android, Xbox, PlayStation, Apple TV, computers and other devices. It’s simple to set-up with the app and offers accurate and clear reporting.

It doesn’t offer location tracking or control of mobile data by default but can be upgraded to this feature for £4.99 per month for up to 10 devices. It could also do with more detailed reporting, for instance, we’d like to see a list of YouTube videos watched, as Boomerang offers.

For a super simple way to control all the devices in your household there really isn’t much to compete with Circle.

  • Simplicity: 5/5 No app to install on devices, just one simple setup for everything.
  • Coverage: 5/5 PC, Mac, Apple TV, Smart TVs, Android, and iOS.
  • Control: 3/5 Can limit any app via internet time with limits for specific activities like Fortnite or Roblox across all systems. But it doesn’t limit time on apps without internet. Doesn’t limit texting or mobile data unless you pay extra.
  • Value: 3/5 £99 one-off fee no device limit, but extra cost to manage mobile data.
  • Score: 16/20
See app

Monqi Phone

Monqi is an all-in-one solution. It’s a smartphone or tablet that has controls built into the handset. Parents download a control app for their own smartphone and can set time limits, track location, limit apps and browse activity reports on the Monqi device remotely. This offers a good level of control, not just at the internet access level, but down to specific app usage time.

At £149 it’s not cheap, but that price includes the device as well. Some have found that the battery life is not good on the hardware, which is an issue. It also doesn’t stop children accessing the internet and apps on other devices, like consoles, smart TV’s or computers.

  • Simplicity: 5/5 Devices come ready set-up.
  • Coverage: 1/5 Android.
  • Control: 5/5 Can specify apps and internet limits as well as calls, texts, and locations.
  • Value: 4/5 £149 one-off fee and no subscription.
  • Score: 15/20

See app

Boomerang

Once installed, Boomerang lets you control access to the internet and apps in a detailed fashion. You can set bedtimes and off times, and specify certain apps to be available longer than others. It provides excellent YouTube and Search history results. Safe browsing of the internet, as well as other filters, are provided

It also logs text messages and calls to and from the phone. As with other apps, it includes location tracking with updates on your child’s whereabouts via their mobile device.

It only works on iOS and Android devices so won’t limit internet or game time on consoles, smart TVs or computers.

  • Simplicity: 4/5 Simple app to install on devices, that is easy to set up than similar solutions.
  • Coverage: 2/5 Android and iOS.
  • Control: 5/5 Can limit apps and internet time as well as texts, calls, and location.
  • Value: 4/5 $30.99 (£23.50) a year for 10 devices.
  • Score: 15/20
See app

Qustodio

Qustodio works by installing software on each of your devices, on Windows, Mac OS X, Android, iOS, Kindle, and Nook. It pulls the data in easy to read dashboards and lets you set limits. It includes the ability to location track your child and set geographical limits. You can also block specific apps from a limit list (that does include Fortnite but not Roblox).

One weak spot is that It doesn’t cover games consoles so children can use those devices to be out of the loop and get extra playtime.

  • Simplicity: 2/5 Need to install the app on each device and some parents find this problematic.
  • Coverage: 4/5 Windows, Mac OS X, Android, iOS, Kindle, and Nook.
  • Control: 5/5 Can specify apps and internet limits as well as calls, texts, and locations.
  • Value: 3/5 £64.95 a year for 10 devices
  • Score: 14/20
See app

OurPact

OurPact will, like similar services, track calls, and texts and monitor a range of online activities. It’s particularly good at scheduling access to specific apps based on time of day. This not only pauses the internet but limits access to a specific application or game on the child’s device. It works for iOS and Android devices.

Although it costs $1.99 per month for up to 10 devices, to access all features you need the $6.99 option. There is some setup to do to get app blocking working on iOS devices. It doesn’t block or manage games consoles, computers or smart TV’s so parents will need to set up controls separately on those devices.

  • Simplicity: 2/5 Need to set up on each device which is relatively complex, particularly on Premium setup.
  • Coverage: 2/5 Android, iOS.
  • Control: 5/5 Can specify apps and internet limits as well as calls, texts, and locations.
  • Value: 3/5 $83.88 (£63.60) a year for 20 devices
  • Score: 12/20
See app

Google Family Link

The free Android-only app allows parents to control children’s Android devices through their iPhone or Android phone setting time limits, managing apps children can use by approving or blocking then and setting device bedtime. Parents are also able to remotely lock down the device when its time to play, study or sleep.

In order for it to work, your child’s device must be running the latest Android 7.0 Nougat operating system or higher or using one of a very few specific devices using Android 6.0 Marshmallow. It can take up to 30 minutes as there are many steps to go through. You can add multiple children to the parental account but all children must use one device. Children must also have a Google account to make it work and once they reach 13 the Family Link unpairs their device automatically.

Google Family Link is great if you are a family of Android users with children under 13. If you fall outside of this, the solution may not be suitable for your needs. See our step-by-step guide to set up the app on your child’s device.

  • Simplicity: 3/5 App or software need installing on each device.
  • Coverage: 1/5 Android, (parents with iPhones can manage the app)
  • Control: 3/5 Monitors, limits time and blocks apps.
  • Value: 5/5 free
  • Score: 12/20
See app

Family Time

This is an app you install on each of your devices that lets you control exactly what your child can do online. You can set-up homework and bedtimes as well as an overall time limit. You can also track movement and set zones that will alert you if the child leaves them.

The app is limited to iOS, Android and Kindle devices, so doesn’t stop children cruising to other technology like smart TV’s, consoles or computers. It works on the basis of limiting internet usage rather than specific apps. This means that once the limit is used up children can still use smartphones offline.

  • Simplicity: 2/5 Need to install the app on each device and some parents find that their children can “defeat” restrictions.
  • Coverage: 3/5 iOS, Android, and Kindle.
  • Control: 5/5 Can specify apps and internet limits as well as calls, texts, and locations.
  • Value: 1/5 $69 x 2 (£105) a year for 10 devices
  • Score: 11/20
See app

Net Nanny

Net Nanny is one of the longest standing options. It includes an internet filter, scheduled access, activity alerts and reports. It doesn’t let you control specific apps though, which means parents need to have other ways of monitoring games and social media.

It requires that you install software on each device. It supports iOS, Android, Windows, and Mac, but not games consoles or smart TVs.

It’s more expensive than other options, costing upwards of $9 per device. It also doesn’t do location tracking and alerts as is popular on more recent competitors in this space.

  • Simplicity: 2/5 Need to set up on each device which is relatively complex, as well as extra settings to restrict default browsers.
  • Coverage: 3/5 iOS, Android, Windows, and Mac.
  • Control: 2/5 Can’t limit apps but it does limit internet time.
  • Value: 2/5 $119.99 (£90) a year for 10 devices
  • Score: 9/20
See app

Norton Family Premier

This offers online safety features as part of virus protection. It tracks how long your children are online and what they are doing. You can then limit how long they can spend online on different devices including PC, Android, and iOS but not Macs.

It doesn’t have the extended features of app controls and detailed bedtimes and costs more than other options at £29.99 although this isn’t limited to a certain number of devices and does include anti-virus functions.

  • Simplicity: 3/5 App or software need installing on each device.
  • Coverage: 3/5 PC, Android, and iOS.
  • Control: 1/5 Monitors rather than limits time, just covers online time rather than apps.
  • Value: 2/5 £79.99 a year for 10 devices
  • Score: 9/20
See app

How can I make sure it’s the best option for me and my child?

This will depend on what you want to do, the concerns you have and the degree to which you want to monitor and control your child’s internet usage.  We don’t recommend the use of recording software as this is highly invasive and shows a lack of trust in your child and has the potential to drive unsafe behaviour ‘underground’.

Many of these companies offer free trials and non-premium free products. It is worth trying out a few until you find the one that best suits the needs of you and your family.

It’s also important to talk through the options with your child so they understand how you’ll be using the ap and how this may impact on their use. Having your child’s buy-in will ensure that they work with you to give them the support they need and not feel threatened that this will breach their privacy. Once you have agreed together on how you’ll use the app, it’s important to review boundaries as they mature to show that you trust them to make smart choices online.

More to explore

Here are more resources to help you keep your child safe online