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The best parental control apps to keep your children safe and monitor their smartphone use

Whether they have an Android or Apple device, there are options for both to keep an eye on their screentime

Screentime can be a source of frustration and tension between parents and children. The gap between what they want and what you think is appropriate can be an ever-growing chasm, particularly since Covid smashed all expectations of what was a reasonable amount of time to spend on your digital life. With school, social life and work all going online, at least partly, it is inevitable that screentime has crept up from pre-pandemic times.

But we still need to keep an eye on things. Too much time on smartphones can be bad for all of us, but particularly for younger children. A study by the Economic and Social Research Institute, published in 2019, found children who owned a phone at nine years old performed worse on standardised maths and reading tests.

It’s not just about time spent online, but what children are doing while they are there. In May, US surgeon general Dr Vivek Murthy released a new advisory on social media and its harmful effect on the mental health of young people, noting there were “ample indicators” that social media can pose a risk to the wellbeing of children, at a critical stage in brain development.

“Children are exposed to harmful content on social media, ranging from violent and sexual content, to bullying and harassment,” he said. “And for too many children, social media use is compromising their sleep and valuable in-person time with family and friends. We are in the middle of a national youth mental health crisis, and I am concerned that social media is an important driver of that crisis – one that we must urgently address.”


While some parents have decided against giving their children smartphones until they reach a certain age (for example, Greystones in Co Wicklow has a voluntary code among parents who have agreed to hold off until secondary school) that isn’t going to suit every family.

Screentime controls that give you the ability to monitor and control what your children are doing online are an important tool in helping to keep an eye on things.

These can vary from the freebie option built into every device, designed to allow parents to monitor and impose limits for their children, to more extensive subscription services.

The free option is a good place to start. You can see the time spent on the device, the categories of apps that can be freely accessed throughout the day – banning social media but allowing more educational apps – or even preventing the installation of new apps without express permission from a parent.

For Apple users, that means Screen Time; for Android, it is Family Link. Both offer you the ability to monitor how long the device is online, manage what apps can be accessed, and see its location. That can be anything from the time spent on the device to the categories of apps that can be freely accessed throughout the day.

Each system requires you to register the device to the child, and add them to your family, but both work in slightly different ways.

Family Link requires a parent app you can download to your own iOS or Android phone and a child app for the smartphone or tablet you want to monitor. It takes only a few minutes to install and set up before it is ready to go.

Apple’s restrictions, meanwhile, are built into its iOS mobile software. You can access your child’s usage information, manage their contacts, restrict apps and set downtime, all protected by a password. You can lock down the Safari web browser, for example, or stop them from installing new apps. But it will only work if both you and your child have iPhones. Where you might run into issues is when you have Android and iOS devices living alongside each other in the same house.

This is where the third-party services have a chance to shine. One of the best out there is Qustodio. Designed for use by children aged 13 and older, the service is cross platform, so it doesn’t matter if your child is on Android or iOS, or if there is a mix of both among the younger members of your family.

The fee-paying service offers a range of monitoring options, from social networks and tracking calls to monitoring text messages, although the latter applies only to Android phones. You can also designate certain periods of time as screen-free time – homework or dinner time – so your child isn’t tempted to get in some extra time online.

It costs less than the price of a coffee and sandwich every month for the basic protection, but if you are feeling a bit more flash with your cash, the premium version will offer more protection and customisation.

As an added benefit, Qustodio offers location-tracking for devices, including alerts if those devices stray outside set areas.

Another option is OurPact, which can also be used to monitor both Android and Apple devices. The name makes it sound like something everyone has signed up to, rather than having a parent’s will unilaterally imposed on a child. You can manage up to 20 devices from one account, covering phones and tablets.

OurPact includes a feature that gives your child the option of budgeting their screentime allowances during the day, which is handy when you need to give your child a bit more responsibility as they get older.

Strict parental controls will work well for younger children to help keep them away from inappropriate content, but as children grow up they need a bit more freedom. This is where no technology can replace the tried and trusted method: talking, keeping the lines of communication open and making sure that your child knows that they can come to you when they see something on their phone that upsets them.

Read more from our screentime series here.