Cyberbullying, inappropriate content, too much screen time, cyber predators, and depression. Unfortunately, many kids, tweens and teens are facing these scenarios every day. And they are facing them through their devices. Because let’s face it, they are on their devices a lot. Drive past a school bus stop in the morning and you’ll see a fair amount of kids waiting for the bus on their phones. And as parents, we worry. Worry about what they are searching, who they are texting, what videos they are watching, whether they are online too much…yep, we worry. And with everything going on in our child’s life, and our own, a little help in the department of device and online monitoring can be extremely helpful and can also take away a small portion of our worry. Enter parental control apps.
Parental control apps came about as a way to help parents monitor their child’s device and online activity and help parents help their children make good choices. We took some time to look into four popular apps with the goal of sharing the good and the bad of each of them. Fair warning, none of the apps are perfect and handle every component of security that you may be hoping for.
Bark ($99.99 per year)
Of the apps we looked at, Bark seems to have the most capabilities. Currently, the functionality covers text messaging, email, YouTube, most social media platforms and app monitoring. In a nutshell, Bark tracks conversations and content looking for harmful elements or concerning interactions. The app sends automatic alerts if an issue is detected and also offers recommendations from experts on how to talk to your child about the potential danger that has been flagged. Bark must be installed on your child’s device in order to function, and some social accounts may need to be connected separately.
- Bark screens content for cyberbullying, sexual content, drug, and alcohol-related content, violence, depression, risky app/website usages, weapons and more
- Settings can be adjusted based on the type of concern
- Step-by-step instructions on installation
- An unlimited number of devices can be tracked
- Monitors 24 different social media platforms
- Installation can be challenging, especially on iOS devices
- Website blocking is not covered.
- No screen time limits.
- It does not offer GPS tracking.
The reviews on Bark are mixed, with parents either loving it or having concerns. The biggest concerns, based on reviews, are that the set-up can be challenging (this seems to be the biggest concern), setting it up on iOS can take an extended period of time and a manual installation needs to take place with certain social media accounts (on iOS). The parents that provided a positive review of the app, are typically over the moon happy about it.
Google Family Link (Free)
Google Family Link functions as digital ground rules for your child and provides activity reports on where your child is spending the most time online. The app also allows you to approve or block app download requests from your child and hide apps. In addition, parents are able to set time limits and a “bedtime” for the device through this app and it offers the ability to locate your child through the app if they are carrying their connected device.
- Ability to set screen time limits
- Ability to approve or block apps from your child’s device.
- Offers teacher recommended apps to guide children toward online learning
- Activity reports show where time is being spent
- Does not monitor online activity, beyond the length of time in use
- Device must be on and connected to the internet for tracking
- Apps that run in the background are not tracked (ex: music or messaging)
Again, we’ve got mixed reviews, with some concerns. The biggest issues noted are that the app is hard to install, the system updates are slow and that some kids have found a way to bypass the app altogether.
Circle ($99 per year)
Circle is a combination in-home device, plus an app. Once purchased and installed, users can set time limits for websites, platforms, and games. The filters allow you to restrict inappropriate content, monitor site usage and compare usage. Because the device connects to your in-home WiFi, you are able to manage smartphones, tablets, computers, smart TVs, gaming consoles, streaming devices, and smart assistants within your home. The Circle Parent Control app enables you to monitor devices when they are outside of your home.
- Ability to set screen time limits
- Ability to monitor many devices within your home including smartphones, smart TV’s, gaming consoles and streaming devices
- Does not monitor text, phone calls or iMessages
- Requires an annual subscription to access premium features (time limits, pause, bedtime, off time, rewards, location)
- Requires a home device and the app to monitor activity outside of your home
There’s a mixed bag of reviews, but they skew more towards the negative than the positive. The most prominent issues are that the device slows down your home WiFi, the app uses up battery life and the “bedtime” mode can malfunction. There are also quite a few comments that simply indicate that users did not like the app.
As an aside, from a reviewer’s perspective, their website isn’t very easy to understand. It takes a bit of digging to really figure out that this is a combination device/app, and what it actually monitors.
Qustodio ($54.95 – $137.95 per year)
Qustodio is a monitoring tool that enables parents to block inappropriate content, set a time schedule or limits, for time online, and set time limits for games and apps. The app can also monitor what your child searches for and watches on YouTube, monitor the time spent on social media and track calls and texts (Android only). There is also a panic button functionality for Android devices only. The pricing is based on the number of connected devices: a small plan that protects up to 5 devices, a medium plan that protects up to 10 devices and a large plan that protects up to 15 devices.
- Ability to set screen time limits
- Ability to block inappropriate content ]
- Ability to set time limits for games and apps
- Monitors YouTube searches and what is views
- Some functionality is only available on Android
- Does not monitor content on social, only time spent on social
The reviews are mixed again for this app but skew towards the positive. The concerns expressed include that the customer service is not great; each game has its own time limits enabling kids to switch from game to game to game, the time limits are a permanent schedule (not flexible) and that some kids have found a way around the app altogether.
Parental control apps are a personal preference and a personal choice. When looking at these apps and considering what might work best for you, think about the information that would be most beneficial to you. If it is screen time monitoring, Google Family Link might be worth considering. If it’s content monitoring, then you might want to check out Bark. Whatever you decide to check into, keep in mind that no solution will cover all aspects of online monitoring and that there will likely be a few bumps in the road. But, if the app can help you, the parent/guardian, help your child make better online decisions, and give you a tiny break from worrying, then those bumps aren’t the worst thing in the world.