Apps to Help Keep Track of What Your Kids Are Doing Online

Though open communication is best, these tools can help parents who want a little extra control. By Christine Elgersma
Apps to Help Keep Track of What Your Kids Are Doing Online

As kids become more independent, we want to foster their sense of responsibility and give them room to prove themselves. But it can be difficult to navigate this natural separation, especially when kids are doing who-knows-what on their devices. There are constant questions: Where are they? Who's contacting them? What are they doing online? Since tweens and teens are often tight-lipped about their lives, it can be tricky to get clear answers.

Though direct communication is always best, and the conversations around online safety and digital citizenship should start long before a kid becomes a teen, there are occasions when parents feel it's necessary to monitor what kids are doing on their devices. Maybe they've broken your trust or you're worried about their safety. Whatever the case, there are tools to track what your kid is up to. Be aware that spying on your kid can backfire and that kids can find a way around just about any type of tracking. But if you're at the end of your rope or just need extra help managing your kid's digital life, then one of these tools might work for you. To get more information, check out our advice about cell phone issues, including basic parental controls, and less invasive (and expensive) ways to limit access to content.

Bark: Similar to VISR (see below), kids and parents need to work together to hook up accounts to the service. It also analyzes all device activity and alerts parents when a problem is found. If they get an alert, parents will see the content in question and get suggestions on how to handle it ($9/month).

Circle Home and Go: This app manages the Circle with Disney device, which pairs with your home Wi-Fi and controls all Wi-Fi-enabled devices. Can create time limits on specific apps, filter content, set bedtimes, and restrict internet access for the whole house or for individuals. Circle Go will let parents filter, limit, and track on networks outside the home Wi-Fi (the Circle device is $99, the Circle Home app is free, and the Circle Go service is $4.99/month for up to 10 devices).

Limitly: If screen time and specific app use is your concern, this system might work for you. It lets you track your kid's app use and limit time using the device or certain apps (free, Android-only).

Pocket Guardian: Parents get alerts when sexting, bullying, or explicit images are detected on your kid's device, though you won't see the actual content or who it's from. Instead, the alert can prompt a conversation, and the app offers resources to help ($9.99–$12.99/month).

Trackidz: With this program, you don't see specific content from your kid's device, but you can track app installations and use, block browsers and apps, manage time in apps and on the device, block out device-free time, grant bonus time, track location, get an alert when your kid's phone is turned off, and see your kid's contacts. It also claims to detect cyberbullying by tracking when your kid's device use drops dramatically, which can indicate avoidance. Setting up a geo-fence lets parents track a kid's location and alerts them when a kid has gone outside the boundaries, and a kid can tap the power button to send an emergency message to parents (currently free, but will be $6.99).

VISR: For this one to work, a parent needs the kid's usernames and passwords, so be aware that it's easy for kids to set up dummy accounts. Once enabled, the tool analyzes posts and emails for bullying, profanity, nudity, violence, drugs, and late-night use and sends parents alerts when anything iffy is detected (currently free, but will be $5/month).

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About Christine Elgersma

Christine Elgersma works on learning and social media app reviews and parent talks as Senior Editor, Parent Education. Before coming to Common Sense, she helped cultivate and create ELA curriculum for a K-12 app and... Read more

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Comments (13)

Teen, 14 years old written by Whyshoulditellu

I'm 14 don't bother with parental controls my dad set one up and about 2months later I could it out and took it down, imagen if your mom/dad watched everything u did and judged it...
Parent written by Jsivaches

This is what's wrong with parents nowadays; the need to track everything. While that can be good in some cases you have to let your kids have some online privacy! Even if you pay for it that doesn't mean that you should have complete control and not give your kids any online privacy! Maybe they're too embarrassed about something and don't want their parents to know? Instead of tracking and censorship talk to them and agree on something both of you like. Like say you want 1 hour tv but they want 2; compromise and agree on 1 1/2 hours. It'll keep both parties happy rather than a rivalry.
Parent of a 8, 10, and 13 year old written by Mom of 3boys

I see that you've changed the title from "apps to help you spy on your kid" to "help keep track of what your kids are doing online". I also saw that some users didn't appreciate tips to help us follow our kids actions/spy. I wanted to share that I absolutely appreciate tips like this as a parent. Of course, we should be talking up front with our kids about our expectations for them with the devices they have and monitoring them by their side. But I also believe that for younger kids and young teens, this type of close monitoring is completely appropriate. My son knows I am checking in on what he does with his phone, so its not a secret. I want to be able to talk to him about concerning actions now, so that as he gets older, I can give him more freedom. Now is the time to coach him through, and later he will need to use our guidance to sort it through more on his own. And unfortunately, I don't have time to seek and research these types on my own. I rely on the good advice, and balanced pro/con considerations offered here on CSM. Thank you and keep it up!
Educator and Parent written by seantm

Hello there, as a parent, educator, and longtime member of CSM, it is disappointing to see soyware promoted as a means of responding to children's behaviour. Yes, there are qualifications, and cautions give but ultimately it is the easy way out, or to be blunt - a cop out. It is a desperate, reactionary measure that presupposes the impossibility of all other responses. This reflects a mindset based on "either IRS" and absolutes and such thinking seldom results in resolution, and nearly never, in creative win-win outcomes. Potentially such dynamics not only endanger mutual trust and understanding, but also promote covert, inapproriate activity, not to mention, destroying opportunities for adult youth collaboration. Once more, it is a great disappointment, and I'm sorry to see this headlined at Common Sense Media.
Parent of a 13 and 15 year old written by Sunshiine

You're so silly. It's a tool, not a replacement. It so helps resolution. I am sad that your an educator and feel this way. Hope you're not working with Kids and Teens.
Parent of a 3 and 6 year old written by Jill Murphy

Hi Seantm, Thank you for your thoughtful response. As I mentioned to another commenter, we do not advocate "spying" on kids and made a poor Editorial decision when titling this article. That said, we want to offer families of all kinds the guidance they are looking for. Since some parents are seeking a more stringent option for monitoring, we decided to create a list of options for them. Again, I appreciate your thoughts and please know we took the response and feedback from this article very seriously. Kindest regards, Jill Murphy (Editorial Director, Common Sense Media)
Parent of a 14 and 14 year old written by lauren.whitehur...

We have a Circle and LOVE it. Our 14 yr old kids are totally in the know about it and while they don't like it very much, it has enabled great conversations with them about digital citizenship. Essentially, we went from sneaking up on them to see what was on the screen to having a view in and some control; but the biggest value is the data it gave us to be able to talk about online use and choices together.
Parent of a 11 and 15 year old written by Doreen M.

My son and I both love the Life360 app. As a parent, I can also find him as know teen goes anywhere without his cell phone. He love the app because he can always check to see where I am, especially when he is waiting on me to pick him up. He does also use it to see how much more time he has to play xBox before his Dad comes home to make him do his chores.
Adult written by Erma Bombek

I appreciate Common Sense Media's efforts to protect kids' privacy, and totally support "sanity, not censorship". When I see an article titled "Apps to Help You Spy on Your Kid", I wonder how that fits in with respecting kids' privacy, and raising responsible digital citizens?
Parent of a 3 and 6 year old written by Jill Murphy

I appreciate your comment, Erma. It is not our policy to endorse "spying" on kids and made a poor Editorial decision in titling this article. That said, since there are parents out there looking for a more stringent option, we want to offer every family the guidance they are asking for. (Jill Murphy, Editorial Director for Common Sense Media)
Parent of a 11 and 15 year old written by Doreen M.

Would your rather the title be "Apps to help you Monitor Your Kid?" As the parent who pays the bill and is LEGALLY and financially responsible for what my son texts or does with him cellphone, he has no privacy except what he is given. Parents do need to balance their child's need for space but the court has already stated that the parents can and will be held responsible up to and including being given jail time.

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