In today’s technology-driven world, very few children and teens don’t have phones, and before long, their parents will give in to their persistent requests for a phone—particularly, a smartphone. (It’s pretty rare to hear of a child who asks for a Nokia 3310 instead of an iPhone X).
If you are one of those parents who granted their child’s wishes, you might be wondering if you made the right choice. You are most likely aware of the countless security risks associated with mobile phones. Like you, I’m constantly thinking about how to monitor my child’s phone just in case they get in trouble online.
It’s a fact that some children do not willingly share what’s going on in their lives with their parents, especially when there’s something serious and negative involved. To get around this, parents may need to “spy” on their children’s phones in order to keep them safe.
Before you give her a phone, make sure that you have a discussion about the responsibility that comes with this privilege. Let them know what you expect from them in exchange. But if you’re craving to know more about their online activities, you should be aware that there are applications (apps) online that will give you the ability to monitor your kid’s phone.
This article covers the dangers that come with a phone, when not to and when to spy, and apps you can use to keep an eye on your child’s phone and internet activities.
Reasons Why Parents “Spy” on Their Kid’s Phone
There’s an alarming rise in problems associated with children’s use of mobile phones. A lot of them—things like youth suicides and kidnapping—are so serious that many experts advise parents that monitoring their children’s activities is an absolute necessity of parenting today.
While others view parental monitoring as an invasion of the child’s privacy, the truth is most kids don’t fully understand the repercussions of their actions online. They don’t necessarily see behaviors like stalking and sexting as unacceptable until something serious happens. For things not to escalate, parents need to act now and get involved—even if it means they have to check on their child’s phone.
You never know when installing a tracking app or opening your child’s messages will save a life.
A. According to Experts, Children Are Vulnerable
According to Google’s Eric Schmidt, children exist in only two states these days; they’re either “asleep or online.” This is not good news for parents who constantly worry about the things their kids do on the web. With most phones having the capacity to connect to the internet, there’s no wonder that children spend more time online than doing other things.
Parents have every right to be concerned considering that this is an especially vulnerable time for kids. Studies found that children who have low self-esteem and less adult supervision are more prone to be groomed by online predators and have higher risks of being addicted to the internet. The risks get worse when parents are not aware of what is happening to their children. The following are some of the dangers that kids encounter online and bad habits that they can form when they spend too much time on their phones.
B. Online Dangers for Children
Cyberbullying is a widespread experience among young people. A survey of 14-to-24-year-olds found that 50% have experienced some form of bullying online, including betrayal and spreading misinformation. Up to 43% of children reported being bullied online, with 1 in 4 experiencing it more than once.
Kids are aware it’s happening around them, but they may not fully grasp the consequences of these actions. More often than not, teens and kids are perpetrators of bullying themselves. Only 25 percent of children think about the effects of the things they post about others online; only 28 percent expect that they could get in trouble for cyberbullying.
Because most kids have phones that they use to connect online, mobile phones are the most common medium for cyberbullying. This is one good reason why parents need to check on their kids’ phones.
2. Sexual predators
Online predators are another reason why parents need to monitor their kids’ activities online. The FBI warns that parents have to review their children’s use of smartphones. Parents have to be the ones to educate their children about predators and imposters on the internet, especially since children aged 12 to 15 are most in danger of being contacted by a sexual predator online. Statistically, one in seven kids will be approached on the web.
Sexual offenders make use of many popular apps that kids frequent just to find their targets. A study found that most predators approach kids on chat rooms, social media like Facebook, or through interactive games like Minecraft and World of Warcraft. They are usually very good at gaining a child’s trust through various means like establishing something in common with the child or pretending to be a child. Our kids need to be warned that not everyone they meet online is who they say they are.
Cyberstalking is a repeated pattern of harassment that causes a child to fear for her safety. It involves text messages, emails, or chats on social media sites sent to make the child uncomfortable and intimidate her with physical or emotional harm. They usually threaten to ruin her online reputation.
In most cases, the stalker is a friend, classmate, or someone the child knows. In some cases, it could be a stranger who sends anonymous messages, comments, or threats. Children who are victims of cyberstalking worry about their safety, but they may not open up to their parents for fear that the stalker will stay true to their threats.
4. Health issues
A lesser-known hazard of mobile phones is the microwave radiation (MWR) they emit. MWR has been linked to cancer, including malignant brain tumors. WebMD reports that children absorb more MWR than adults because they have thinner skulls. This is why parents need to warn their kids to avoid overusing their phones.
In addition to the harms caused by radiation, children who use phones pay less attention to the road. While their sights are turned on their phones, the chance that they will get hit by a car goes up 43%, making it terribly unsafe for them to walk on the streets.
C. Bad Habits Kids Pick Up Online
1. Inappropriate content
With the ease of internet access, kids are just a few clicks away from finding inappropriate content online. Even when they’re not looking for this type of content, they may stumble upon an obscene website when they accidentally click a redirect link or type the wrong web address.
Young people like sharing posts online and some of these posts may contain hate speech in the comments or in the post itself. For those who use social messaging apps, sending nude pictures and pornographic content is simple to do. With no one policing the kind of content kids can share, they may end up thinking this is normal behavior for them.
2. Sexual encounters through dating apps
Surprisingly, one in six teenagers is on Tinder, a popular dating app designed for adults, with 50% of them aged 15 and under. A survey also found that many children spend around 10 hours on Snapchat, an app where people commonly send sexual images to partners and strangers.
Dating apps and image-sharing sites like these two make it easier for kids to engage in premature dating and eventually risky sexual behavior. Without adult supervision, children have no way of understanding that this kind of behavior is not healthy for them and their future relationships.
3. Social media addiction
Children spend too much time on social media. A non-profit organization found that 70% of 12-to-17-year olds said they check social networking websites every day. Of this number, more than 90% saw someone smoking, drinking, or using drugs on Facebook.
You know that your child is addicted to social media if their happiness depends on the number of likes and comments they get on their posts. A study actually found that many adolescents these days measure their social status by the kind of response they get online.
Children as young as eight suffer emotional risk from using apps like WhatsApp, Instagram, and Facebook. There’s nothing wrong about using these apps occasionally but when it’s controlling children’s use of their time and their emotions, it’s a problem.
When Not to Spy
There are cases in which it’s possible not to spy on your child. The point of checking your child’s phone is to make sure that she’s not engaging in any of the dangerous activities described above. It’s especially necessary when you notice a shift in your child’s behavior or if you suspect they’re not telling you everything when you ask, “How’s your day?”
For some kids, however, trust has been established. If your adolescent child is responsible, fulfills her promises, and is honest about where she is and who she’s with, then it’s okay to loosen the reins a little bit. Show her that she’s earned your trust. You can even tell her that you’re giving her space for being trustworthy. You should be true to your word and stop monitoring her phone, but let her know that the same restrictions are in place and that you have the right to resume ‘spying’ if you have a reason to do so.
When Spying on Your Child Is a Necessity
The whole game changes when you find a reason to spy on your kid. Just like how a single can of beer can set you off to a search of her room, a single incriminating text or a questionable picture may prompt you to monitor her digital activities. Her behavior is also an important indicator. If you notice your child acting withdrawn and reclusive without an apparent explanation, her online life might reveal the answer.
When it comes to protecting your child, there’s really no need for a reason to come up. If you think that your kid needs to be monitored, then do so. If it will give you peace of mind to know what your child is doing, then, by all means, install an app that will update you about her online activities.
When to Tell Your Child That You’re Spying
A. Tell them right away.
Children, especially teens, may have an issue with their parents monitoring them. Parents may have an easier time establishing rules with younger children, or those aged 12 and younger. They see owning a phone as a privilege than a right.
Teens, on the other hand, need an explanation for the rules. They are more likely to follow them if they understand the reasons why you want them to follow certain rules. For both age groups, it’s up to you as the parent if you want to inform them that you’ll be monitoring their phones. If you decide to do so, you should tell them right away rather than waiting for a long while.
As soon as you buy her the phone, tell your child that her phone is being monitored. Again, the decision to tell them depends on you. Some parents choose not to tell their children as another safety precaution. If they don’t know about the ‘spying’ software, they won’t go through ridiculous lengths to circumvent the system.
B. Explain why you’re monitoring them.
You have to be clear with your child that the main reason for monitoring them is safety, not mistrust. You shouldn’t make them feel like you expect them to chat strangers the moment you hand them a smartphone. They have to understand instead that there are real-life dangers in accessing the internet. Use examples of celebrities or ordinary people who were stalked, bullied, or got in trouble for something they posted online.
Older children may think that they don’t need this kind of protection. The truth is they are more at risk of encountering online dangers, so it’s their best interest if parents will monitor their activities. For kids who dislike the idea of monitoring, you have to stand your ground that this is a necessary condition for them to keep the phone.
What to Do to Monitor Your Child’s Phone
A. Establishing Rules Early On
1. Make a contract.
One way to make monitoring your child as smooth as possible is by creating a “smartphone contract” with her. This agreement should lay out what your kid can and cannot do with her phone. For example, you can make her promise not to text and drive or use the phone while in class. Whatever you consider as important rules to be followed should be written down in this contract. Make the contract as soon as she gets the phone.
You would also increase the success rate of the contract by getting your child’s input. Ask them what rules she thinks should be added to the contract and why these rules are important. If she understands the reasons behind the rules, the more likely she will follow them.
You should also be realistic in that you cannot expect your child not to text her friends or your teenager not to access Facebook. When setting up the rules, try to consider what’s typical for children her age and what’s safe for her to use.
2. Discuss inappropriate content.
It’s important to have an open line of communication with your kids. They have to know that there is absolutely nothing they can’t talk about with you. Reassure them that they will not be punished if they tell you about any problems they encounter online or anything that makes them uncomfortable.
To keep their online interactions clean, have a serious discussion with them about inappropriate content. Let them know that it’s wrong to post, share, or endorse any content that contains sexual images (or to younger kids, “photos of people without their clothes on”) and racist, homophobic, or rude comments. They should also avoid anything that features illegal activities like underage drinking, smoking, and drugs. They have to understand that there are serious consequences when they get involved in these things.
B. Choosing What Applications They Can Use
You have the right to decide what online applications your child can use. Do some research before you let them download anything. Most of the popular social media sites have the age restriction of 13, but parents can decide to set the restriction higher for as long as their kids are minors.
If you think that an app, game, or site may be dangerous (e.g. higher chances of interacting with strangers), don’t let them put it in their phone or block it using the security settings. If they want to use any of the mainstream apps and they’ve reached the age limit, ask them why and what they want to use it for. Let them download the app if you deem their reason acceptable but not without having that serious discussion about inappropriate content first.
For younger kids, there are messaging apps specially designed for children aged 13 or younger. GeckoLife and Yo are two texting apps for children aged 8 and above that allow parental controls. Kudos is a photo-sharing app similar to Instagram but with built-in protection for kids.
C. Agreeing on Time and Frequency
Kids of different age groups use their phones differently. As such, there’s no ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to the rules you should impose. Being realistic about the needs and wants of your growing child will increase the likelihood that they will completely comply with your rules.
Here are some general guidelines on the rules you could set according to age group:
1. Ages 0-6: young children
This age group is too young to own their own phone, but they can still be drawn to electronic devices. It’s generally okay to let them have a supervised screen time of toddler and preschool-friendly shows and videos. Try to limit this time to 30 minutes or less each day.
2. Ages 6-12: pre-teens or ‘tweens’
Nowadays, children as young as six get their own phone. At this age, kids are interested in cartoons, games, movies, and Youtube videos. It’s important to set a schedule for them as they normally don’t know when to stop. For example, you can set an hour before bedtime as their screen time curfew. No phones should be allowed after this time.
Help them plan their days out. Make sure that they have time for physical activity and spending time with family and friends instead of being on their phone all day. You can also prohibit the use of phones inside the bedroom as most inappropriate online activities happen at night when they are alone in bed.
3. Ages 12-18: teens
By this time, your child is familiar with most social networking apps and maybe using a few of them. If you haven’t supervised their screen time before this age, it might be difficult to change their habits now.
If you have successfully regulated them before, this is usually the stage when you give them more freedom (e.g. lifting the screen time curfew for older teens). You don’t need to let go of the reins completely as you still have a say on what they are allowed to use or view.
You can assign ‘technology-free zones’ in your home, including the dining room and family room. They shouldn’t be allowed to bring phones, tablets, or laptops to these locations, especially when the family is spending time together.
D. Lead by example
No amount of reminders or rules can shape your child’s behavior if you don’t minimize your phone use yourself. Try to lead by example by limiting your own screen time and remaining device-free for certain times of the day.
Just as you expect them not to have their phones on the dinner table, you should try not to have your phone either. This is how your child knows that the rules are important to you too.
How To Track Your Child’s Phone Without Them Knowing
Again, parents don’t really need a reason to monitor their children’s phone activities. It’s part of responsible parenting to know what your kids are doing in every stage of their lives.
With a lot of online activities done in secret chats and disappearing images, most parents want to know what their kids are up to and sometimes this is convenient when they don’t know about the monitoring. This lessens the possibility that they will hide their true social media accounts or remove any tools installed for their safety.
It’s normal these days to have child-tracking apps and software installed on kids’ phones and virtually any electronic device. Most of these packages work for both iPhones and Androids. Most require installing a software on the phone, but some will allow you to track the device remotely—ideal if you don’t want the user to know she’s being watched.
If you’re worried about legal repercussions, parents of minors can track their kids’ location and activities without requiring permission from anyone—including the child. If you want transparency with your child, however, we encourage you to inform them that they’re being tracked. This might prove useful if they find themselves in trouble and needing your help.
Best Apps to Monitor Your Child’s Phone
Child-tracking software or parental control apps help parents monitor their children in these tech-oriented, uncertain times. With these apps, you can filter web content, track your child’s location, set time limits, and block risky apps from being downloaded into your child’s phone.
There are some apps with extra features like geofencing and so much more, while others have certain limitations in terms of device compatibility. We indicate below if a package is available for mobiles only. Most of these apps are paid, but some have free versions and we feature them below. Now check out the best parental control apps below arranged according to their yearly costs:
A. Best Paid Parental Control Apps
Kaspersky Safe Kids does almost everything you need from a parental control app. It blocks apps, filters web content, and schedules your kid’s phone use. It can be installed in any number of devices in your home and works well with Macs, PCs, Android, and iOS. It also offers the all-important geofencing, or the use of GPS or radio-frequency like Wi-Fi to set up virtual boundaries around a location specified by you. Apps with geofencing will notify you when your child enters or leaves the location.
Price: $14.99 a year (unlimited devices)
Boomerang is a reliable app that tracks your child’s mobile, web, and app activities. It also makes use of geofencing, settings for emergencies, and Youtube app monitoring. It’s available for Android and iOS but not for Macs or PCs, so it’s mobile-only.
Price: $15.99 per year (one device); $30.99 (up to 10 devices)
A popular anti-virus software, ESET offers parental control for Android phones. Aside from the typical web blocks and app monitoring, ESET has age-based controls that allow you to adjust your child’s access to websites as they grow older. You can set time limits but your kid can request extra time from you. You can also send a direct message to your child to which she needs to respond to continue using the device.
Price: $29.99 per year (one device)
Locategy is a mobile-only parental control app for Android and IOS. It’s easy to use and offers basic app blocking and location tracking. It has a free model available for up to 3 devices with some limited geofencing features and one app block per device. Its premium plans offer more monitoring and more devices.
Price: Free and Premium: $20 USD per year (3 device licenses); $35 (5 licenses); $70 (10 licenses)
SecureTeen can be used to block inappropriate content like pornography, violent games, harmful images, and adult-oriented apps. It’s also designed to watch out for cyber bullies and stalkers. You can also block your kid’s phone from anywhere in the world in case of theft.
Price: $39.99 for a year for Android (3 devices)
Mobicip is a cloud-based parental control service that is compatible with major platforms, including the iPhone, iPod Touch, Kindle, and Nook. It can be customized to block your child’s access to online shopping, gambling, dating, liquor, chat sites, and other age-inappropriate sites. It has location tracking and scheduled screen time. The plan comes with five licenses by default, which means you can use it on five separate devices at once.
Price: $39.99 per year (5 devices)
Norton Family Premier is an award-winning parental control software that offers a wide range of control for parents. It’s specially designed to protect your kids from online predators by giving you advance warning on potential dangers around your kid. You can check the number of times they visit sites like Facebook and helps you manage the security setting of all devices. Plus, it gives a 30-day free trial.
Price: $49.99 per year (unlimited devices)
With Qustodio, you can monitor all your kid’s chat, text, and email messages without the need to jailbreak the phone, which preserves the integrity and warranty of the device. You can block specific web pages and browsers and see almost every activity on your child’s phone such as when they add a new contact and share photos and videos.
The app sends a daily or weekly report showing the various locations of your child and everything they accessed online. It also works in the background so your child wouldn’t even know it’s there.
Price: Small plan costs $54.95 a year ($96.95 and $137.95 for medium and large plans)
9. Net Nanny
Net Nanny gives you remote access to your child’s online activities. You can block specific websites as well as general types of websites like dating, pornography, nudity, or alcohol. There’s also keyword setting that will alert you if your child types a particular word or phrase like “porn” or “suicide.” This way, you know when you need to talk about this topic with your child.
Price: $39.99 per year (one license for Windows or Mac); $59.99 (5 licenses)
Spyzie has all the basics of spying apps, including app monitoring, location tracking, and parent alerts. It also sends screenshots of your child’s phone activity. It also boasts 95% customer satisfaction and endorsements from Forbes and Daily Mail. It works well with Android and iOS devices.
Price: $59.99 for a one-year subscription ($9.99 per month).
FamiSafe is a comprehensive remote-based monitoring app. It can locate your kid’s phone, access their browsing history, app usage, among others. This helps you guard your child against predators, harassers, and other online dangers. It’s compatible with Android or iOS.
Price: $59.99 per year ($9.99/month)
FamilyTime features SOS and Pick Me Up options for your child. It also has the basics of location tracking, geofencing, monitoring call logs, app blocking, screen time scheduling, and browser history tracking. It’s a mobile-only solution compatible with Android and iOS.
Price: $69 per year (5 devices).
OurPact is an easy-to-use parental control service with all the necessary features. With this, you can set time limits for your kids, block apps and websites, or control internet access in real time. It also has the unique feature of a virtual contract you can sign with your kid where the two of you can agree on the terms of using the smartphone. It reinforces the idea that it’s not their phone but a privilege granted by you.
Price: $84 per year ($6.99/mo for 20 devices)
One of the oldest child-monitoring apps, PhoneSheriff gives you access to your child’s phone activities and customize restrictions on the phone. This allows you to analyze where your child has been spending most of her time online and then set limitations accordingly. It works with Android devices but currently not available for iOS.
Price: $89 per year (3 devices)
WebWatcher lets you monitor your child’s phone use just like other parental control apps. Here, you can check if your kid is viewing anything inappropriate or talking to strangers online. You can also see lower-resolution versions of the photos in the device. Of course, it has call and text monitoring and GPS tracking.
Price: $99 per year with a discount ($129.95 original price for 1 license)
Bark has a comprehensive monitoring package. Along with email and text monitoring, Bark covers social media platforms. It checks messages for any signs of bullying and communication with online predators. It has an advanced algorithm that analyzes your child’s activity for reporting to you.
Price: $99.00 per family (unlimited devices)
Mobistealth is one of the few parental control apps compatible with older phone models like Blackberry. It also works with major cell phone carriers. Your child doesn’t have to be using the latest Android devices and iPhones, but it’s compatible with those too. Similar to other cell phone trackers, this app monitors the phone’s calls, texts, emails, and chats. It also takes screenshots of the phone’s activities, among others.
Price: Pro Plan charges $149.99 per year (1 device)
18. The Truth Spy
The Truth Spy is a state-of-the-art parental control app designed for high-level spying on employees and spouses. Just like most monitoring apps, it tracks location, records calls and messages, views media files on the target’s phone, and even makes hidden calls to listen to your child’s surroundings.
Price: Premium $158 per year; Gold $184.99 (both allow 3 devices)
TeenSafe shows your child’s mobile correspondence, his apps and sites, text messages, and his location. It monitors a few select social messaging apps like WhatsApp and Kik. It works in the background so your child doesn’t have to know.
Price: $14.95 a month for unlimited devices (may get to $179.40 per year)
mSpy is one of the most used phone tracking apps in the world. It allows you to monitor your child’s calls, texts, apps they use, GPS location, among others.
It provides a web-based dashboard where you can view all of your kid’s activities. This dashboard can be accessed with a computer or a mobile device.
Price: Basic $99.99 per year (without app monitoring and geofencing); Premium $199.99 (all features)
TheOneSpy can track all kinds of activity on your kid’s phone. It also sends alerts to you and gives you the freedom to control the device remotely. It generates thorough reports and has video camera and microphone options to record surrounding sounds and visuals. It works with iPhones, Android and BlackBerry phones.
Price: $250 yearly (Android); $150 (iPhones); $50 (Windows monitoring)
B. Best Free Parental Control Apps
Most of these apps are free versions of premium apps.
22. Kids Place
Kids Place is a free parental control app for Android. It childproofs any phone by locking the home screen and call buttons and keeps your kid within the Kids Place launcher. It can disable Wi-Fi signals, making it impossible for kids to access the internet. If you want to let them use the internet, the launcher can filter web content. This is perfect for young children.
23. Mama Bear
Mama Bear is great for teenagers. This app allows parents to monitor social media activity and track their location.
An important feature of Mama Bear is monitoring teens’ driving. It alerts you if your teen goes over the speed limit or if they are using their phone while driving.
Price: Free (Paid plans of $5.99/mo if you don’t like ads)
Abeona is a fast and free child-monitoring app for Android devices. It lets you monitor your child’s online activities. You can message your kids and block unwanted apps. The app sends real-time alerts of any app launched on your kid’s phone. More importantly, it allows geofencing.
KuuKla is designed for Android tablets. It monitors all your child’s activities on the tablet as well as sets time limits on internet usage.
26. Screen Time
Screen Time (not to be confused with Apple’s built-in protection) lets you see your child’s media consumption on their Android phones. The free version shows your child’s web and search history, but you need to pay a minimal fee of $3.99 each month to get more features such as time limits and app blockers.
Price: Basic plan – Free (1 device); Premium $3.99 /month (unlimited devices)
Monitoring Your Child in a Dangerous World
A lot of parents can agree that it has become harder to monitor kids these days than it used to be. With all the temptations that surround them in the physical and now the virtual world, children will inevitably get in trouble online. It’s just a matter of time and a matter of us preparing them for that day.
It is no longer a question of whether we should or should not monitor our kids. Parents have the right to know what’s going on, while children need to understand that owning a phone at their age is a privilege that can be taken away if they prove themselves untrustworthy.
It’s also not a question of privacy as privacy is something that we gradually give our kids as they grow older. They have to show us that they are mature enough to not hurt anyone with their words or fall into the traps of dangerous people lurking online.
Luckily, with these modern dangers come contemporary solutions. Parents can now use cell phone trackers and parental monitoring apps to check their kids’ phone and web activities. With them, we can teach our kids time management, instill the importance of safe browsing, and even track them down in case of emergencies. As a mom, I can confidently say that I know how to monitor my child’s phone with help from these modern parental control apps.