When a kid gets an iPhone, things can go from fun to problematic quickly. A parental control app helps to keep screen time in a healthy, age-appropriate zone. However, apps that run just fine on Android don’t always work so well on iPhones. Here are the Apple-friendly ones.
Feel better about your kid’s TikTok obsession with NetNanny’s social media feed filters and live web monitoring.
It doesn’t matter what age your kid is: Whether it’s their very first phone or their fifth, parents are going to worry about what’s behind that scrolling and tapping. Parental control apps have come to be a convenient compromise between kids who really don’t want to hand over their phone and parents who really don’t want to have to confiscate it.
How do parental control apps work?
At their core, parental control software lets you monitor your child’s phone, tablet, or computer remotely. Corresponding apps are downloaded both on the parent’s device and on the child’s device. From there, parents can do anything from monitor internet searches and browsing history, block inappropriate or distracting apps, or limit screen time all together. It’s a less invasive and more respectful method than physically snooping through their phone or computer — and when kids know that their activity is being watched or managed, good habits might stick better.
Worries of kids turning into technology zombies certainly aren’t new, but 2020’s mass migration to virtual learning and more parents staying home pushed the issue: How can I *safely* plop my kid in front of a tablet for half an hour so that I can do something without interruptions? You’re pretty much in the clear as long as you choose a high-quality children’s show. Instead of hoping that they don’t figure out how to search on Netflix, parental control apps can disable everything but educational and age-appropriate content altogether.
Apple’s Screen Time vs. third party parental control apps
A 2019 sweep of third-party parental control apps on the App Store severely curbed functionality on some of the most popular downloads. Around the same time, in response to accusations that its devices were too addictive, Apple unveiled Screen Time: An iOS-specific screen time tracker that parents could utilize to mitigate their child’s usage. Apple claimed that the competitors put individuals’ privacy at risk, though Apple does like to do things the Apple way — but we digress.
The restrictions have all but killed apps like OurPact, Famisafe, and Qustodio (hence the onslaught of one-star reviews from the past year). Many are still available to download but aren’t as holistic as they are on Android.
Kaspersky Lab, which has a feature that lets you know if stalkerware has found its way to your phone, also isn’t available on iOS — but that’s because it’s already harder for hackers to install such malware on iPhones. This is the same reason that many parents choose a Chromebook as their kid’s laptop.
The controls baked into iOS will suffice for a lot of people. They can set screen time limits, block certain apps and websites, or restrict new downloads or things with an explicit content rating altogether. But Screen Time becomes useless pretty quickly if the parent or child has an Android, if the parent and child share a device, or if kids crack the code on how to get around limits that have been set — that happened almost immediately.
Which parental control apps work best on iPhones?
Families with multiple kids, people sharing one device, or a hectic schedule that would benefit from geofencing — a GPS feature that blocks certain apps when your kid is within a certain geographical area or alerts you when your kid leaves a certain geographical area, like school or sports practice — might just need a little more oomph.
Fortunately, whether they somehow flew under the radar of Apple’s cutbacks or debuted in the App Store later and weren’t affected, there are still a handful of solid parental control apps to choose from. Most cover the basics: setting time limits or recurring schedules, sending activity reports of which apps are used the most, blocking or deleting sketchy or distracting apps. A few offer more hardcore measures like geofencing or call, text, and contact monitoring.
Use parental controls as a safety tool, not a spying tool
Some parents suggest downloading one of these apps on your kid’s phone without telling them. Here’s our take: Don’t do that. We’d be remiss to omit the possibility of loopholes for kids to look for if they know the app is there, but monitoring their activity behind their back feels like rebellion or resentment waiting to happen. Depending on how much of the content on your child’s device that an app can see, it could quickly become a breach of privacy.
Instead, try to agree on a screen time routine and a list of apps and websites that are appropriate. Letting them in on the process can build trust rather than diminish it. Plus, their understanding of why TikTok and Instagram are blocked during homework hours or at bedtime can help them learn a solid set of cyber safety habits.
Here are the best parental control apps for iPhone in 2020:
Top-notch web filtering • Social media and TikTok feed filtering • Friendly and easy to understand on the child’s end • App guides you through the installation process • 30-day log of location history, web history, and screen time
No call or text monitoring • Screen time limits must be set on a daily basis • Steep pricing plans limited to five or 20 devices
A newly-rebranded app that looks great, provides a ton of detail, and is approachable on the kid’s end.
1. Net Nanny
Feel better about your kid’s TikTok obsession with NetNanny’s social media feed filters and live web monitoring.
When duking it out in more general parental control software lists, Net Nanny is frequently dubbed “best for iPhones.” It’s clear by now that Apple’s iOS doesn’t always support smooth operation of parental control apps, and Net Nanny (AKA Zift) is one of the only ones that achieves near parity on both iOS and Android devices — but it’s so much more than the app that runs decently well on an iPhone.
The shining function here is web and app filtering, and there are a few ways to make sure nothing slips through the cracks: block or receive an alert for all apps and websites that fall under categories like “weapons” or “provocative content,” manually choose websites to hide, or leave it to Net Nanny’s real-time scan to determine if a site is appropriate.
As of August 2020, NetNanny’s social media coverage extends to the actual feeds of apps like Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Tumblr, Twitter, YouTube, and yes, TikTok. The “Protect” setting will take restrictions you’re already using for web filtering (like weapons or provocative content) and works to keep posts that fall under those categories off your child’s feed. (All other social media will either have to be completely allowed or completely blocked.)
But keeping track of every single app on an older child’s phone may not be necessary. You could instead opt for App Advisor, which will only notify you when an app involves potential risks like location or photo sharing. The option for a temporary time boost without altering the official settings is nice, too.
Uses Google’s tried-and-true location services • Suggests trusted apps (like teacher recommendations) • Easy linking with existing Gmail account • Design is cleaner and more modern than competitors • Can ring a lost phone that’s on silent
Doesn’t filter inappropriate content on its own • No way to block phone numbers • Lots of bugs • Controls can’t be linked to school email accounts
Google’s take on app monitoring and screen time management is a rare case where free gets you more.
2. Google Family Link
Set digital ground rules and use Google’s location tracking without committing to a monthly fee.
The “you get what you pay for” mantra usually applies to parental control apps — the free versions of apps with optional premium subscriptions are purposefully meager to get you to pay. But when it’s Google that we’re talking about, simplicity doesn’t mean skimpy. Family Link covers screen time limits including bedtime schedules, app management like activity reports and a requirement for parent approval for new apps, a website blocker, and location tracking (as long as they have their device on them). Setup is a breeze for anyone who already has a Gmail account, though the controls gets tripped up when school email accounts and Google Classroom are thrown into the mix.
Family Link doesn’t get involved with the phone numbers that your kid is iMessaging or calling. For parents who don’t want to helicopter too much (or kids who don’t have anyone to call, anyway), this works — but parents who definitely want to be able block certain numbers would have to be holding the phone to do so. Texting apps like Kik and WhatsApp can be disabled, though.
First six months are free • Extends protection to antivirus, personal data, and webcam hackers • Comes with access to a VPN
Can’t be downloaded on Macs • No geofencing • Limited to five devices
Norton 360 Deluxe extends antivirus and hacker protection to Norton’s one-off parental control app.
3. Norton Deluxe 360 + Family Premier
Norton’s combo of antivirus, dark web monitoring, and parental controls covers all of your bases.
Norton Family Premier (without antivirus):
Five devices with Norton 360 Deluxe:
These controls are essentially identical to , a $49.99 per month one-off software with its own app. Norton 360 Deluxe would usually run you $99.99 per month, but has been on sale for *checks notes* $39.99 per month as of late. Unless you already have antivirus software that you really like, paying $10 less per month for both ends of the spectrum seems like a no-brainer. (To clarifiy, Norton Family comes free when you have Norton Deluxe 360.)
A menu of 40 web filtering categories (compared to 10 to 15 on competing software) will block or warn your kids about sites they shouldn’t be on. These range anywhere from sites themed around drugs and explicit content to file sharing and online chat, which comes in handy since kids tend to use way more messaging apps than adults even know exist. If an important website (like one to share documents for school) is accidentally blocked, you can reverse the setting directly from the notification.
Safety features revolving more around personal data include real-time malware threat detection, a password manager, and Safecam, which notifies you if cyber criminals try to access your webcam. Norton also scans the dark web in the background to ensure your personal info isn’t floating around.
Won’t show parents a child’s content without the child’s permission • Smart keyboard advises kids in real time • Alerts parents about risky apps and memes • Actively scans for toxic or inappropriate messages • Uses AI to monitor mental health
Might be too lax for some parents • No geofencing • Not many U.S. reviews (yet)
Instead of just controlling what your kid does on their phone, this unique app gives guidance with a smart AI keyboard.
Surveillance — not spying — is the idea behind this AI app that values privacy and encourages safe choices.
Artificial intelligence takes center stage to clock how safe or risky kids act when presented with lewd content. This Safety Indicator goes hand-in-hand with the app’s claim to fame: a real-time smart keyboard that gives children advice as they search for content online or message others. The software scans everything sent back and forth, dropping a warning if the AI detects bullying, grooming, or sexting. Breathing exercises are offered if a kid indicates that they’re feeling anxious.
Creators unveiled a beta anti-sexting feature right around the time that the company found that sexting among kids had risen 183% during lockdown. Like the smart keyboard does with words, SafeToNet scans for inappropriate imagery and immediately blurs it out. The software can also step in to block the camera if it senses racy or impulsive texts. The site asserting that no one sees what your kid is typing, sending, or receiving. It won’t even show parents a child’s content unless the child gives the go-ahead.
As for traditional settings, parents can customize app allowance for a certain period of time or permanently, lock devices during homework time or bedtime, and receive alerts if sudden changes in usage signal depression or aggression. SafeToNet keeps an eye on trends and lets parents know about new apps and memes that might be inappropriate.
App is color-coded, modern, and intuitive • Also works with gaming consoles and smart TVs • “Bedtime” turns off internet access at a certain time each night • Less-invasive option for older kids • Great for Chromebooks, too
Requires an extra device (Circle Plus router) • Lots of loopholes • Limited to one profile per device • Reports of slow internet connection after setup
Keep an eye on how kids use the internet at your house without prying into location services.
5. Circle Home Plus
Instead of downloading software, Circle is a WiFi-based monitoring solution with a clean, color-coded app.
Circle Home Plus (hardware device):
Limiting connectivity to WiFi only is a common way for parents to mitigate what a child (often younger ones) can and can’t get into on their phone or tablet. In this case, Circle Home Plus would be ace: It’s a filter for your home WiFi that monitors behavior, has control settings, and presents it in a clean dashboard that is super easy to navigate. The $9.99 monthly subscription works in tandem with Circle Home Plus (the hardware device that looks like a Bluetooth speaker). Setup on each device is time consuming but the overarching account can be synced to the Circle Home Plus with a QR code.
Each profile is color-coded based on age filters: kid, teen, adult, and none. The “kid” platform lists supported apps like Cartoon Network and TikTok, but you can toggle these on or off and add custom URLs. Turning on “Bedtime” turns internet access off at a certain time each night, but doesn’t affect any offline games or books. Once kids leave your home’s WiFi range, the limits that you’ve set are extended with a local VPN.
Actual activity and history reports are vague. Circle can report specific URLs that were accessed but can’t narrow down queries on Google or YouTube. Circle also stays out of all things call or text related.