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Why you should trust us

To research this guide, I interviewed Megan Moreno, MD, a pediatrician and lead author of the American Academy of Pediatrics’s policy statement on and media use; Anya Kamenetz, author of The Art of Screen Time: How Your Family Can Balance Digital Media and Real Life; and Christine Elgersma, a senior editor at Common Sense Media, a nonprofit that focuses on kids, media, and technology. I also combed through research and reviews of parental-control applications. I surveyed dozens of parents of kids aged 8 to 16 in person and via social media.

As a longtime technology journalist, I have reported on smartphones, parenting , and other tech trends for the San Francisco Chronicle, CNBC.com, and other publications. As a parent of a -year-old whose friends already own smartwatches and smartphones, the question of whether I should give her a phone—and which one—is a personal one that I am deeply invested in.

Who this is for

This guide is for parents who are thinking about giving a child of elementary school age or older their own smartphone, and for parents who would like to manage the phone their child already has more closely.

When should a child get a cell phone?

By age 8, 16 percent of kids have a cell phone with a service plan, according to a Nielsen report published last year that surveyed nearly 4,700 parents with kids ages 6 to 12. By age 10 to 12, nearly half of kids have a cell phone with a service plan. Asked why, 90 percent of parents said they wanted to get ahold of their child easily; 80 percent said they also wanted to be able to track their child’s .

Giving kids their own can obviously make family communication and coordination easier. But doing so is a difficult choice for many parents. Tweens and teens are spending increasing amounts of time using a screen—as much as 6½ hours a day, according to Common Sense Media—and having a smartphone means that a screen is all the more accessible and tempting. Concerned about the impact that smartphones can have on sleep, mental health, and bullying, groups of parents have pledged to “wait until 8th.” Some families in Silicon Valley particularly are also simply trying to avoid any kind of screen time for their children for as long as they can. Some affluent communities are even pushing back at schools to discourage the use of screens in the classroom.

What’s the right age for a smartphone? The simple answer is that there isn’t one. When you give your child a cell phone depends on your family, your needs, and your child’s readiness. Dr. Megan Moreno, a pediatrician and lead author of the AAP’s policy statement on kids and media use, suggests that parents begin by asking themselves if their child truly needs a phone yet, because going back is difficult. “Handing over a phone is a watershed event for kids,” she said. “Once they have a phone, they won’t ever not have a phone.”

Parental controls can help parents navigate their child’s first experience with owning a smartphone. Parents can use them to set time limits and enforce them automatically, without constant nagging.

Experts recommend keeping in mind three basic guidelines:

Set clear rules. Cell phone users ages 8 to 12 are especially eager to please their parents, said Moreno. “We found that kids really want to interact with parents about rules and what they are supposed to do,” she said. “They are hungry to have that conversation.” Teenagers need concrete rules, too. Determine, for instance, how much time they should be permitted to spend on the phone on weekdays and weekends, particularly on social networking, entertainment, and games. Curb screen time at night when kids need sleep. One recent study of 8- to 11-year-old kids found that those who were active for at least 60 minutes a day, slept nine to 11 hours each night, and spent no more than two hours a day on recreational screen time scored higher in language, planning, and other mental task tests than kids who met none of the three criteria.

Designate screen-free times and/or screen-free zones. Recognizing that not all screen time is equal—students may need to text their friends about a homework assignment, or use an educational app to study—the AAP has moved away from recommending specific restrictions on the amount of time kids spend on screens. Rather, it recommends that parents designate screen-free times, such as during dinner or in the car, and, if possible, screen-free zones, such as in the bedroom. Importantly, parents, as role models, should follow this guideline, too.

Keep the conversation going. Parental controls are not a substitute for talking to your kids about technology—nor are they possible to “set and forget.” But parental controls do provide an entry point to discussing how and why to use a phone. For instance, some parental controls provide reports that break down how your kid is spending time on their phone, which can be a starting point for a conversation.

The New York Times, Wirecutter’s parent company, offers a guide on how and when to limit kids’ tech use, from infants to teens. The American Academy of Pediatrics provides a tool to create a family media plan, including a calculator that determines how much time a child should be allowed to spend on screen time, balancing it against the amount of sleep and active time a child needs. Common Sense Media answers commonly asked questions about screen time, researches how children are using technology, and gives parents tips and advice on healthy technology use.

What kind of parental controls do you need?

The parental-controls market is a large and open-ended one: Some specialize in blocking pornography and other inappropriate content, others claim to monitor social media for cyberbullying. Under pressure from parents and shareholders, as well as a digital-addiction awareness movement among Silicon Valley movers and shakers, both Google and Apple have recently rolled out free parental controls. (Apple, for its part, has said that it began developing Screen Time before the letter from shareholders).

Christine Elgersma, a senior editor at Common Sense Media, recommends that parents start with the least invasive controls. Though parents naturally have the urge to keep their kids safe, they also have to give their kids room to make mistakes and figure things out on their own. “It’s how they learn,” she said. Some experts also warn that heavy surveillance could undermine your relationship with your child. Anya Kamenetz, author of The Art of Screen Time: How Your Family Can Balance Digital Media and Life, suggests thinking of parental controls as scaffolding that can help kids develop self-control so that they can eventually manage how they use their phone on their own. “You’re not going to be twiddling with the knobs [on parental controls] when your child is in college,” Kamantez said.

Plus, even if you install the tightest parental controls, kids can circumvent them—for instance, just by borrowing their friend’s phone. Kids are resourceful—just ask this dad, whose 7-year-old figured out a loophole to bypass his iPhone’s app time limit almost instantly.

What about flip phones, smartwatches, and other parental controls?

In lieu of a smartphone, some parents have opted to purchase simpler phones—commonly called feature phones or “dumb phones”—or smartwatches, such as Verizon Wireless’s GizmoWatch, which tracks the child’s location and allows the child to call or text up to 10 designated people. These devices have been recommended by the organization Wait Until 8th as a beginner step to owning a cell phone, and we plan to review them in a future guide. But we expect that as parents upgrade to new phones, they will be inclined to pass down their old ones. Smartphones also have some advantages: Parents can track their child’s location, while kids can use it to take pictures, look up directions, and use study apps.

In addition, some parents have turned to hardware at home to manage their child’s screen time, such as Disney’s Circle, which limits access through your Wi-Fi router. Although Circle does offer a way to keep track of your child’s phone outside your home, it is an extension of Circle’s home product, so we did not to test it for this guide. Our picks for Wi-Fi router and Wi-Fi mesh networking kit both include Circle functionality.

How we picked and tested

Based on our research and interviews with experts, we determined that parental controls need to include three key features:

  • Ability to manage and monitor a child’s device easily: Parents should be able to change settings, receive notifications, and view usage remotely, ideally through a app with an easy-to-use interface.
  • Ability to cap a child’s daily screen time: The best parental controls allow you to set time limits on individual apps, categories of apps, and general device use, and give you the flexibility to instantly block or allow access to an app or the device with one touch (or at the request of the child). Most, however, provide only a subset of these capabilities.
  • Ability to set a schedule that automatically blocks phone use: Parents should be able to assign at least one time period—bedtime, for example—when phone functionality is disabled. The ability to make multiple schedules is a bonus.

Additional features that we feel are useful but did not weigh as heavily:

  • Web and content filtering: All of the apps and parental-control options we considered offer some sort of filtering, some by age and content ratings, and others by categories such as pornography, violence, or other inappropriate and adult content. We did not extensively test how well the filters worked, except to note if they were easily bypassed. The reality is that most filters are far from perfect, as they don’t catch everything and kids can find ways to bypass them.
  • Location tracking: Because other apps on both iOS and Android devices can track the location of another phone, this feature is convenient, but lack of it was not a dealbreaker.
  • Usage data and analysis: Being able to see which apps their kid is using and for how long can be useful for parents, but may be an unnecessary level of detail for some.

Because we see parental controls as a starting point for managing your child’s first smartphone, we did not test or seek out more invasive features such as text message, email, or social media monitoring.

To determine our finalists, we surveyed parents and studied recent reviews and reports on parental controls. We narrowed the list down to:

Apple Screen Time

Google Family Link

Net Nanny

Norton Family

OurPact

Qustodio

unGlue

To test the parental controls, we installed them on an iPhone 6 and/or our 2018 pick for the best budget Android phone, the Nokia 6.1. Because many kids end up with their parent’s older phone after their parent upgrades, or with an inexpensive new phone, we wanted to see if the parental controls could be used on older and cheaper phones. I used an iPhone X as the parent phone.

We spent about 30 hours installing and examining the parental controls one at a time. We set daily caps and bedtime schedules on the phones, and handed them over to our kids to see if they worked. We tested the apps’ ability to block popular apps such as YouTube Kids, as well as less popular kids apps, such as Hatch and Pululu, digital pet apps that can run offline.

We also spent time looking at how the parental controls managed Web searches, text messaging, phone calls, location tracking, and the ability to download or delete apps. Two Wirecutter staffers also tested the picks using an iPhone XS, iPad Air 2, Google Pixel 1, and Samsung Galaxy S9. We did not test on an Android tablet because our preferred budget alternative to the iPad is the Amazon Fire HD 8 Kids Edition, which has good built-in parental controls.

Our pick for iOS families: Apple Screen Time

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Photo: Kyle Fitzgerald

Now that Screen Time is part of Apple’s iOS 12, it’s hard to see a reason to pay for additional parental controls for a child’s iOS device. In addition to being free to users of compatible devices, no other software for the iPhone or iPad offers parents the same window into their child’s screen time habits—or is as effective a way for parents to customize how they want to manage it—because it is so tightly integrated with the operating system itself. We found that third-party parental controls we tested for a child’s iPhone or iPad simply did not compare with what Apple’s Screen Time can do.

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With Apple Screen Time, you can set time limits for usage by app category (left) as well as content or ratings restrictions (right).

As with other parental controls, Screen Time lets parents set a daily limit on the amount of time their child can spend on their iPhone, as well as automatically shut the phone down at bedtime. But unlike third-party iOS apps like OurPact, Qustodio, and unGlue for the iPhone, Screen Time provides parents with a deeper look at how their child is using their device, such as how much time their child spends on social networking or entertainment apps. Compared with third-party apps, Screen Time also gives parents the most flexibility to manage how much time their child spends on certain kinds of apps; for instance, parents can allow their child to read ebooks for as long as they want, block all games, and limit social networking to an hour a day. In comparison, the premium version of OurPact, the next best set of parental controls for the iPhone, allows parents to only block or always allow individual apps; they can set only one schedule that applies to all other apps.

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Screen Time allows you to set time limits by increments as as 1 minute (left) as well as by day, and also to schedule what the company calls Downtime, a period when most phone functionality can be disabled (right).

Screen Time is already part of iOS; you can enable it in the iPhone’s settings. Kids will first need their own Apple ID, and you will need to turn on Family Sharing on your phone and your child’s if you want to manage your child’s phone remotely. Once the parent’s and child’s iPhones are linked, the child’s profile will appear as a tab inside the parent’s Screen Time. Inside the child’s profile, parents can manage the child’s daily access to the iPhone, including:

Daily allowance: Under “app limits,” parents can cap how much time—by minute and/or hour increments, up to 24 hours, and by day of the week—their child spends on the iPhone overall or by category of app. Screen Time groups apps into nine categories, including entertainment, games, social networking, education, and productivity. Once their child reaches the limit, the apps are blocked and the child must request additional time from the parent. In addition, parents can limit how much time their child spends on individual apps each day. To do so, click on the daily screen time report, scroll down to “Most used,” tap on “Show apps & websites” if it’s set to “Show categories,” click on the particular app you want to manage, and set an individual time limit.

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Screen Time displays a stacked bar chart (left) that shows how much time has been spent on specific app categories. You can set time limits on individual apps by selecting the desired one under “Most used.” The selected app (right) shows usage, category, and other information.

Bedtime: Called “Downtime,” parents can set a schedule for the iPhone to be disabled automatically, such as beginning at bedtime and lifting the next morning. All of the phone’s apps—except those set as Always Allow—will darken, requiring parental permission for access. Kids can send a request to their parents, which pops up as a notification on the parent’s phone; parents can grant or deny the request remotely or manually enter the screen time password on their child’s phone to allow additional time. Phone calls can still be made during Downtime, and the clock can also still be accessed.

Reports: Parents can monitor their child’s screen habits daily with a colorful bar chart that breaks down how much time their child spends on each app category and a list of the individual apps that they’re spending the most time using. Parents can also track their own screen habits (Screen Time is automatically included in iOS 12; you can turn it off if you prefer not to track your personal iPhone use). This feature can be a starting point for parents to talk to their kids about how best to use their phone—and when to put it down. The data that Screen Time collects is saved to your phone and your child’s phone and is not shared with Apple.

Inside Screen Time, parents can also manage the content that their child can access. For instance, they can prevent the child from downloading new apps or making in-app purchases, or allow it. They can also block the child from adult websites, as well as set age restrictions for content from music, videos, and books.

The New York Times (Wirecutter’s parent company) tested Screen Time with a 14-year-old girl for three weeks, and managed to cut her iPhone use by half, from six hours a day during the first week to about three hours a day by the third week. “These early results should be welcome news to people who are growing increasingly concerned about long-term addiction to smartphones,” Brian X. Chen concluded in his review. “There have been other ways to limit use, including apps like Moment, which have many of the same features as Screen Time. But none of them have been embedded into a phone like Apple’s new software.”

Our pick for iOS: Flaws but not dealbreakers

Screen Time has plenty of room to improve. One of the chief complaints from users is the difficulty of setting it up, which isn’t as intuitive as it should be—other parental controls, for instance, simply require you to download an app on the child’s phone and sign into your account. Geoffrey A. Fowler, a columnist for The Washington Post, complained that this was just one of too many decisions that a parent must make with this new feature of iOS 12. On the one hand, it allows parents to customize Screen Time for their child, but at the same time, “Apple treats parents like IT administrators for their kids, saddled with a zillion choices to make and knobs to adjust,” he writes in his review.

Although apps like Qustodio provide guidance during installation, with Screen Time, you have to look up any kind of instruction. I seemingly went about it backward: I created my child’s new Apple ID before I set up Family Sharing, and was confused about how to connect our phones; it is easier if Family Sharing is already turned on in your phone.

Finding certain information—like how specific apps are categorized—involves too many clicks. You must tap on the report of daily screen time use, scroll down to “Most used,” and click on “Show apps & websites” if it’s set to “Show categories.” It’s also not obvious how to set time limits by individual app, but, as described above, parents can do that by looking at individual app usage in the daily screen time report.

Screen Time also doesn’t have an easy “on/off” switch to completely disable a child’s access to their phone. Other parental-control apps, including Google Family Link, OurPact, and Qustodio, have a “lock/unlock” or “block/unblock” button that you can tap to block your child’s access to the phone at any moment. On the iPhone, this requires an extra step for parents, and afterward they’ll have to go back and reset the original Downtime schedule.

A recent test of Apple’s content filters also found that they blocked longtime sex education websites, but allowed racist and questionable websites to appear in Web searches. We assume that Apple will continue to fine-tune its content filters, and acknowledge that filters, in general, can’t catch everything.

Parents should also know that the default setting for the iPhone’s restrictions for iTunes music, movies, and television shows—even though it recognizes that the iPhone belongs to a child—are explicit and NC-17. Parents must go in and manually change the restrictions if they want them to be more age appropriate. (Also note that the filters apply only to the Safari browser and iTunes content. Parents still need to check the content filters on individual apps; for instance, in the Netflix app, parents need to designate that it is for kids only.)

If parents want to track their child’s location, they can’t do so with Screen Time, but they can locate their child with Apple’s Find my Friends app, which they have to set up separately.

Because it is part of iOS 12, Screen Time can run only on iPhone 5s models or newer. If you have an older iPhone, you can still set up some parental controls, such as requiring permission to download a new app, but you won’t be able to track and manage your child’s screen use in the same way. This is a disappointment because many older iPhones can still be used, including iPhones that are more than five years old.

Finally, kids have already found ways to get around some aspects of Screen Time, such as one child sending YouTube links to himself on iMessage, and watching them after his entertainment time limit was up.

Our pick for Android families with kids under 13: Google Family Link

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Photo: Kyle Fitzgerald

Google Family Link is best for families with children under 13 in Android-dedicated households, or for kids who have an Android phone even if their parents use iPhones (a not-uncommon situation because budget Android phones are plentiful). It’s free and works better than most of the apps we tested, but because Google allows 13-year-olds to have their own accounts and opt out of filtering, Family Link is limited to younger kids. Keep in mind that parents with an iPhone can manage their child’s Android phone, but the reverse (a parent using an Android phone to monitor a child’s iPhone) is not possible. With Google Family Link, parents can limit how much time their child spends on the phone daily and block access to the phone at bedtime. The app also provides weekly and monthly reports on usage.

To use Google Family Link, the app must be downloaded to both the parent’s and child’s phones and then connected using separate email accounts for each. The process is more intuitive than with Apple’s Screen Time and Qustodio, our other picks, and took only a few minutes. In our test, we downloaded the parent’s app on an iPhone X and the child’s app on an Android Nokia 6.1. The Google Family Link client for kids is not available for iOS, and when we tried to install the parent app on our child’s iPhone 6 with the device set as the child’s, it would not let us complete installation.

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With Google Family Link, you can set limits on daily phone usage and also schedule bedtime to disable access to your kid’s phone at the appointed hour.

With Google Family Link, parents can set a daily limit for screen time. Parents can also see how much time their child spends on individual apps, and block specific apps. After seeing my kids spend close to an hour on YouTube Kids, for instance, I blocked it, which made the app disappear from the phone. (Once I unblocked the app, it reappeared). Unlike with Qustodio, however, parents can’t limit the time spent on an individual app; they can only block the app.

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Google Family Link lets you see how much time your kid spends on each app and allows you to block apps. You can also lock and unlock access to the phone with one touch.

Like Qustodio, Google Family Link also allows parents to set a bedtime, automatically shutting down access to the smartphone at the appointed hour. The only way to unlock the phone once it shuts down is through a parent access code, retrieved from the parent app, which expires five minutes after it was generated. In addition, Google Family Link can lock and unlock the child’s phone remotely, with one tap. Conveniently, parents can also track the location of their child’s phone within the app.

Inside Google Family Link, parents can also require kids to seek approval for any in-app purchases, purchases in the Google Play store, or downloads of new apps. Note, however, that it blocks only in-app purchases of content such as a virtual sword; blocking does not apply to purchases of actual goods inside shopping apps. The app stopped us from purchasing gold coins in the digital pet game Pululu, but it did not prevent us from making a purchase in the Etsy app. Like all of the parental controls options we tested, Google Family Link blocks mature sites and content, but in this case, the default settings are set to mature and requires a parent to change them manually. (Google also cautions parents that “no filter is perfect, but this should help hide sexually explicit and violent sites.”) Note, again, that the filters apply only to Chrome, Google’s browser, and Google Play. Parents still need to check the content filters on individual apps; for instance, in the Netflix app, parents need to designate that it is for kids only.

By using Google Family Link, parents can choose to block Google from collecting data on their child and their child’s activities (the default setting is to allow data collection). You can review this in the Google Family Link app by tapping on “manage settings,” “more,” and “manage Google activity.” From there, parents can decide if they want Google to track and save their child’s browsing history, their activity on apps, location, YouTube viewing and search history, contacts, calendars, and video and audio activity. Google says that the data it saves is used to improve its services.

Our pick for Android (under 13): Flaws but not dealbreakers

Once your child turns 13, they can opt out of Family Link. The reasoning, Google says, is that kids are allowed to sign up for their own account on Google once they turn 13. (Likewise, 13 is the age when kids are allowed to sign up for Facebook, Instagram, and other sites, per the Child’s Online Privacy Protection Rule.) Google’s approach doesn’t make sense, said the New York Times’s Brian X. Chen in a 2017 review. “I would argue that Google should design a policy with parents’ best interests in mind. It could let the parent decide when the child has demonstrated safe, responsible smartphone use and graduate from all restrictions. That might happen when the child turns 13, 15 or even 17. But the children should not be allowed to strip away settings just because they turn 13.”

In a statement, Google said:

Our approach is to give parents and kids transparency, and encourage a family conversation around this moment. We send emails to parents and teens-to-be beginning a month before the child’s 13th birthday. Those emails inform both the parent and child of some of the changes that will take effect if the child decides to graduate. For example, the parent will no longer be able to use Family Link to manage the child’s account, and features like screen time limits, location sharing to parent, and bedtime settings will no longer work. This is something we continue to get feedback on and will continue to consider the best approach.

Our pick for Android families with kids 13 and up: Qustodio

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Photo: Kyle Fitzgerald

If your child is 13 or older and uses an Android phone, the paid version of Qustodio is your best bet. The lowest-tier annual subscription ($55 at the time of publication) covers up to five devices (the middle tier offers 10, the highest tier 15). Discounts are frequently offered on its website. Like Google Family Link, Qustodio is an app that parents download on their iPhone or Android phone, as well as on their child’s Android phone. Unlike with Google Family Link, you use the same email account to set up the app on both devices.

Qustodio offers the most features and flexibility among the third-party parental-control apps we tested. The paid version allows you to set multiple schedules, limit overall phone use and specific app use, and block phone and app use. It also gives a much more detailed breakdown of your child’s phone use than Google Family Link and allows you to monitor texts, emails, and Facebook activity. Keep in mind, though, that many experts warn that this level of monitoring is not actually good for kids.

Qustodio also offers a free version, which can be used on one device. With it, parents can set a schedule and determine how much time—by 15-minute increments, and up to 24 hours—their child spends on the phone daily. The free version also includes reports for parents, as well as the Web filter, but little else.

The paid version offers more insight and management tools. Qustodio is one of the few apps we tested that allow parents to set more than one schedule, an advantage over Google Family Link. On a grid, parents can block out the hours they want to shut off access to the phone, such as bedtime, during dinner or while the child is at school.

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Qustodio allows you to schedule time limits, logs all of your kid’s phone activity to the parent feed, and lets you lock Web navigation or the phone with one tap.

In addition, the paid version of Qustodio allows parents to cap how much time their child spends on individual apps in 15-minute increments—going a step further than simply blocking individual apps, like Google Family Link. As with Google Family Link, parents can also turn off access to the phone with a single tap. The paid version also provides parents with greater access to their kid’s communications than our other picks do: they can view their child’s Web searches, read their text messages, block calls to and from specific phone numbers, and monitor their child’s Facebook activity (a feature that we did not test; it requires the child to authorize Qustodio’s plug-in). The parent’s feed logs any and all activity on the kid’s phone.

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Qustodio is one of the few apps we tested that allows you to set multiple schedules (left). The parent feed (middle) shows not only blocked apps, but also Web search terms and the phone’s location. The app’s location tracking was not very reliable sometimes, however (right).

Like other parental controls, Qustodio aims to filter adult content, including by categories such as weapons, drugs, and alcohol. We did not test the filters extensively; in a quick search, we did find that we were blocked from purchasing whiskey, getting information on gummy edibles, and logging into dating sites such as Tinder and Scruff. We were, however, able to find gun stores online and nearby. Qustodio lets parents know the keywords of a child’s Web search and if it was blocked. This information—along with the amount of time the child is spending on the phone and on which apps—can be sent to parents in a daily email report or viewed as a news feed in the parent’s app. Qustodio has a lengthy privacy policy on how it collects, uses, and stores your data, acknowledging that it may anonymize personal data for research or statistical purposes.

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Your child receives notifications when they reach the end of the time limit or when they try to access restricted content.

In a 2018 review of parental controls, Qustodio was PC Magazine’s top pick because it “boasts just about every feature you might want, including web content filtering, robust app blocking, and a detailed activity log” and it “lets parents take precise control over their child’s activity across desktop and mobile devices.” Of note, PC Magazine tested Qustodio’s Web filters and found that they were effective in blocking inappropriate content.

Our pick for Android (13 and older): Flaws but not dealbreakers

One feature that Qustodio lacks is the ability to block the apps that your child can download, which Google Family Link can do through its Google Play Store and Apple through its iTunes Apps Store. Qustodio does alert parents about new apps that their child downloads (which they can then block access to). Parents should also check any apps that have already been downloaded on their child’s smartphone before they start using Qustodio, as the service can block them or limit time on them but can’t manage purchases or any activity done inside a third-party app.

Although Qustodio offers the ability to track the location of the child’s phone as part of its paid version, doing so is neither as reliable nor as straightforward as it is on Google Family Link. On Android phones, parents must program the app to check the location of their child’s phone at regular intervals, the shortest being every five minutes. The most current location is displayed in a line on the app, above the parent news feed. However instead of showing the location on a map, as Google Family Link does, it merely lists the address. The trouble is, Qustodio seems to have a hard time identifying the actual address. Several times, instead of an address, it simply said “location unknown”; I had to click through to a map to pinpoint the approximate location. I also found that though I asked Qustodio to check the child phone’s location every five minutes, it didn’t seem able to do so; not all of the places that the phone visited were recorded by the app.

Finally, Qustodio is a good choice only for kids with Android phones. On the iPhone, the paid version of Qustodio is more limited: Although it can block a particular set of popular kids apps, such as Fortnite and YouTube, it cannot identify all apps on the iPhone. When our kids were playing Hatch, a digital pet game on the iPhone, for example, it could not stop them from playing it when time was up. The only way to stop our child from playing by using parental controls was to block access to the entire phone manually. Qustodio has a list of all of the apps it can monitor on the iPhone: as of this review, there are only about 70. On the iPhone, Qustodio also repeatedly and inaccurately claimed that our child was visiting Amazon; Qustodio notes that its feed reports some third-party advertisements or content. And because of Apple’s restrictions, not all of Qustodio’s features are available for kids on iPhones: Qustodio, for instance, can monitor text messages and phone calls only on Android phones. “If you are an Apple iOS user, do not buy the premium version,” cautioned a reviewer in the iTunes App Store, giving it just one star. “It does not offer any further functionality than the free version… The app itself also yielded very strange and confusing reports. It kept reporting that my kid was using Facebook when the app is not even installed on his device. Deleting this one for good.”

The competition

If your child uses an iPhone, and you use an Android phone, our picks may not work well for you. That’s because of the challenges of developing a parental-control app for the iPhone, which must be approved by Apple before it is offered in the iTunes App Store.

One popular option among parents we surveyed who have this situation is OurPact, which runs on both Android and iOS phones. OurPact offers three tiers: The basic tier is free, but limited in scope. You can apply it to only one child’s device and it has the ability to create only one schedule; parents can essentially only limit their child’s screen time at bedtime and not much more. The Plus tier offers unlimited ability to block access to the phone, but one parent we spoke with said her 13-year-old daughter, on her iPhone 8, bypassed it within weeks. The Premium tier, which we tested on both an Android phone and an iPhone, offers the most flexibility and control for parents.

With the Plus and Premium tiers, parents can create more than one schedule. They can limit access to the smartphone at night, as well as during dinnertime or other times. With the Premier tier, parents can also block or allow specific apps, like with Google Family Link and Qustodio, as well as track the location of their child’s phone.

OurPact has three main drawbacks: Unlike our picks, OurPact (on both iOS and Android devices) offers no data or analytics on a child’s screen habits. Parents cannot see how their child uses their smartphone, such as if their child is spending an inordinate amount of time on gaming.

The companion OurPact app, called OurPact Jr., is also not available on the iPhone, which means that parents whose kid uses an iPhone cannot set a daily allowance of screen time for their child. (Likewise, kids with an iPhone cannot use the OurPact Jr. app to track how much time they’ve spent on their iPhone, as they can with an Android phone).

Finally, setting up the Premium version of OurPact is difficult if your child owns an iOS device. To circumvent Apple’s tight controls on third-party apps, parents must download software on their computer, then connect the iPhone to their computer and install software that will allow the child’s iPhone to be linked with the parent’s smartphone. The process is confusing and clunky. However, the workaround means that, unlike the other third-party parental controls we tested for the iPhone (such as Qustodio), OurPact can accurately monitor individual apps on the child’s iPhone, as well as the location of the child’s iPhone.

Similar to OurPact, unGlue is a subscription-based parental control app that operates on both the iOS and Android platforms. More expensive than OurPact, unGlue stands out in that it allows kids to earn and save screen time in a “piggy bank” by completing chores or walking a certain number of steps, which may work better for some kids than others. unGlue also lumps all apps into “entertainment”; you can’t tell which apps are included under that umbrella or see the individual apps that your child is spending the most time on. On a child’s iPhone, unGlue also isn’t able to track apps that don’t require the Internet, such as Angry Birds.

We dismissed both Norton Family and Net Nanny because they were cumbersome to set up, with limited results. Norton does not offer an iOS app for parents, only a mobile-friendly website. Net Nanny’s iOS parent app isn’t an app at all, but simply a protected Web browser. Because parents are busy and manage so much of their lives (and their children’s lives) from their smartphone, the lack of a parent app was a dealbreaker for us.

With both Norton Family and Net Nanny, the software requires parents to disable the phone’s browser in lieu of their proprietary Web browser. Therefore, you would expect the browser to offer superior content filtering. On the plus side, both Norton Family and Net Nanny blocked access to adult content, as well as potentially dangerous topics for kids such as suicide, something the filters for Apple and Google did not do. On Net Nanny, however, we were able to stumble into a 4chan board with inappropriate content for kids within minutes; and though Net Nanny claims to be able to mask explicit language, none of it was blocked out.

Although both Norton Family and Net Nanny received positive reviews from PC Magazine, they are rated poorly in the Google Play Store and iTunes App Store. And though many of the poor reviews come from disgruntled children, one parent complained about Norton: “This app is an absolute joke. Child is txting away at school as I write this; while her phone is supposedly locked. Can not change any settings thru the parent side of things using parent phone- must be done from a computer. Available options leave much to be desired.”

This guide may have been updated by Wirecutter. To see the current recommendation, please go here.

When readers choose to buy Wirecutter’s independently chosen editorial picks, Wirecutter and Engadget may earn affiliate commissions.



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