“I don’t have time to do the research.”
Four years ago, that line from a parent planted an idea. That idea became Protect Young Eyes.
If you type “parental control apps” into the Apple App Store, you are greeted with many options. It’s an overwhelming list for a too-busy parent.
Who has time to research all of them? You already only sleep four hours a night and in spite of your beautiful calendar app, you still left your son at soccer practice last week.
This is where Protect Young Eyes steps in! We exist to help parents like you save valuable time by doing the research for you. We care DEEPLY for families.
Which is why we spent over 50 hours dissecting 13 of the most popular iPhone parental control and device monitoring apps on the market today.
The victims of our iPhone parental control testing include (in no particular order) include:
- Covenant Eyes
- Ever Accountable
- CleanBrowsing DNS
- Apple’s Screen Time (new with iOS 12)
[Note that Net Nanny isn’t in the list. I believe their time has passed. Previous experience on mobile was really poor, so we don’t ever recommend them and didn’t bother testing it again.]
We tried hard to beat them, thinking like a motivated, hormonal, tech-savvy 13-year-old boy who wants to make sure mom doesn’t follow his digital footprints.
Yea, we know that kid well. We’re pretty confident you won’t find a more comprehensive and caring analysis than what we’ve done over the past three weeks.
In fact, here’s a screen shot of just one small section of our 86-row (!) testing spreadsheet. Admittedly, we do have a strange, nerdy love for a good spreadsheet (Excel is our CEO’s love language).
We’re publishing this blog post RIGHT NOW because with Christmas here, we’re on the verge of millions of kids opening up millions of digital devices. We thought it was important for parents to get the right protections in place.
Note – although we’ve had certain parental control solutions we’ve recommended during 2018, we started with a fresh slate and performed our test objectively, fully willing and ready to start recommending something new if the evidence pointed in a new direction.
What are Parental Controls? Some Key Definitions.
Before showing you the results, it’s important to define a few terms.
- Filtering – blocking the junk through content categories (e.g., gambling, violence, lingerie, adult, etc.), a blacklist, clean DNS, or a combination.
- Monitoring – keeping track of digital behavior and reporting it to someone else. Often used synonymously with Accountability (although Accountability often also implies a strong relational aspect with a friend who is helping or a parent who is guiding). This could mean monitoring websites, words, or actions. There are very, very few reliable monitoring/accountability solutions available because of the technical complexities involved. In other words, it’s easier to block a list of junk than it is to keep current on the different demands of different operating systems in order to capture and report on how someone is clicking. Covenant Eyes, Bark, Accountable2You, and EverAccountable are examples of monitoring companies (Covenant Eyes also has a filter, which is unique to have both). Bark is also a monitoring company that focuses on themes and words, which you can read more about below. They purposefully don’t block or filter anything.
- Mobile-device management (MDM) – this is a tool used by some parental control companies in order to exert greater control over the device. It means loading a “profile” onto the phone, which digs into a phone’s operating system.
- Virtual private network (VPN) – a VPN is used by some parental control companies to dig deeper into the device’s internet traffic and in the case of a sneaky teen, also used to evade parental controls.
Related Post: What’s a VPN and Why is there One on my Kid’s iPhone?
Results from our 2019 iPhone Parental Control App Testing
(This is just the summary. We include an insane amount of detail further on if you’re interested.)
- For kids in pre-school, elementary school, and middle school, we believe the overall best parental control solution for DEVICES is Mobicip. A close second place is Boomerang. There are more details about both of them below. Mobicip uses a MDM/VPN strategy which does get in the way for some families, while Boomerang does not. Both are solid.
- For kids in high school, college, and adults, we believe the overall best accountability solution for DEVICES is Covenant Eyes. There are more details about Covenant Eyes below (*).
- Regardless of age, for families with kids that use social media, texting, email, or manage a YouTube channel (all of which are typically untouched by parental control solutions), Bark is the best (and only) monitoring solution. We provide more information about Bark below (**).
- For the router, Circle with Disney is popular for a good reason – it’s pretty good. It struggles to prevent all pornography, which means it must be paired up with CleanBrowsing’s clean DNS. See further explanation below about Circle (***).
*Full disclosure time. Our CEO and founder, Chris McKenna also does marketing for Covenant Eyes. But, setting that aside for a moment, consider the evidence. Some of you reading this might have seen their recent emails about machine learning and Screen Accountability. They’ve been doing R&D for this project for three years. We’re confident that leadership at Accountable2You and Ever Accountable also care deeply about helping their customers live porn-free. But Covenant Eyes seems to be leading the way by staying ahead of the technology curve, creating reports that are actionable (and getting better), writing adult-level educational content, and investing in a call center with >60 humans answering calls 6 days a week. And no one has been doing it longer (17+ years).
**Bark is the ONLY solution we recommend for monitoring social media. Why? Because they’re the ONLY solution that effectively monitors social media. iOS creates a lot of monitoring limitations, but for what can be monitored, Bark is the only one doing it. Oh, and it’s a solution that works with everything else because they don’t rely on MDM or a VPN to do their work.
There’s an important distinction to make between Bark and other solutions here. Bark is not a parental control solution. At least not in the traditional sense. It isn’t designed to PREVENT behaviors. Instead, it’s a parental ENGAGEMENT solution, which is designed to report on behaviors so that parents know when to get involved. Bark uses a complex algorithm to detect when kids use certain words like “suicide,” “whore,” and a whole list of other terms.
This notion of engagement is similar to the accountability relationship promoted by organizations like Covenant Eyes, Accountable2You, and Ever Accountable.
***A specific note about Circle (with Disney). Millions of people use the white cube, which “sniffs” wireless traffic and unpacks it before it gets to the router. It was truly a game-changer when it was released. But, stepping back and taking an objective look, it’s great for 3 things:
- Controlling what apps kids use,
- How long they use them, and
- Controlling who is using your home’s WiFi.
And guess what? It does those three things better than most. BUT (and this is key) Circle is horrible at content control. For a highly motivated kid who wants to look at porn, they can easily do so without being caught.
Moral of the story – if you use Circle and Circle Go (their DEVICE-level solution), then you must layer in something to block bad stuff, like CleanBrowsing, on both the router and the iPhone (which we explain in great detail in our popular DNS blog post).
Related post: How to Block Porn on Any Device for Free
This grid shows what solutions we recommend by age/stage of life and related cost. It’s just a different way of organizing our results (if you click the image, it will take you to a media file that you can pinch/expand more easily). Be sure to take it all in – including the * and ** notes underneath the grid, which are really important.
More Details About iPhone Parental Control Apps We Tested
- Strength – It is the smartest filter we tested. It’s able to sort through explicit content within Pinterest (which NO ONE does), force YouTube restricted mode through a browser, and allows for safe search to be locked in seven different browsers (more than anyone).
- Strength – Mobicip has always had the greatest control for parents over YouTube and their recent parent app updates show parents the exact YouTube videos that were watched.
- Strength – It works on many of the operating systems that parents desire, including Chromebooks.
- Weakness – because it uses a VPN, this means it does not work with a lot of other solutions, like Circle. See the “Layering” section below for more details.
- Weakness – at times, it drags down device speed and App Store review comments support this.
- Weakness – after a device block time, apps are replaced alphabetically instead of how they were previously organized. We’ve been told this is being fixed.
- Cost: $49.99/year for a family (which is very reasonable).
- Free trial: 7 days.
- Also works on Android, Kindle, Chromebooks, Mac, PC
- Also worth noting – our testing uncovered a bug in Mobicip’s coverage of the DuckDuckGo browser, which allowed it to be used outside of safe search. Mobicip’s leadership quickly fixed the problem, which we were very pleased with.
- Strength (when compared to Mobicip) – they don’t use a VPN and for some families that’s what they need.
- Strength – they promise a world-class filter with SPIN and it is very safe. Which leads to a weakness because as kids grow up, it might be too restrictive. Their leadership is close to releasing additional category toggles for parents, which will help.
- Strength – very reasonably priced ($30.99/year for 10 devices). They also have a 14-day free trial.
- Weakness – it has been the recent victim of Apple’s limitations on certain parental control companies, hampering their ability to exert time management controls. This could continue to hamper them (and actually spread to other, similar organizations like Qustodio and Mobicip which we are watching – OurPact was just stung by it this month).
- Weakness – currently, it’s only available for iOS and Android, but they’re working on a Chromebook solution which would really strengthen their offering.
- We’ve explained its strengths above!
- Comments from users include requests from parents to have the ability to choose their own keywords for flagging. Think of it as a individualized “flag list.” We agree that would be awesome, but we also know that due to the complexities of machine learning, it would be almost impossible. It’s also worth noting that Bark doesn’t just flag keywords. The algorithm analyzes context to prevent over-flagging. Without context, there could be too many “cry wolf” situations that damage their promise of helping parents and school leaders get involved at the right time.
- Also works on Android, Chromebooks, Mac, PC.
All three of these solutions are strong. Here are more details about the rest of the group.
Details About the Other iPhone Parental Control Apps We Tested
Qustodio – their parent app is organized beautifully, but their customer service isn’t good, their content filtering failed most of our testing, and it didn’t keep as much detail about browsing history as we would have liked. More details:
- I sent them a question and it took them six weeks to get back to me. For parents who need faster answers, this is unacceptable.
- If you use Qustodio, understand that their “”Enforce Safe Search” toggle is not trustworthy based on our testing. Kids can still easily get to porn images that aren’t reported as porn. For example: Imgur, Pinterest, Reddit, Tumblr, Twitter, Google (unlike Mobicip and others, Qustodio fails at “related image” Google searches that quickly get pornographic), Yandex (search engine), Dogpile (search engine), AOL (search engine), DuckDuckGo (search engine), Ecosia (search engine), Startpage (search engine), and Flickr.
- Therefore, if you’re a Qustodio family, you need to blacklist the sites above if you want better protection against viewing inappropriate content.
MMGuardian – they provide a serviceable browser that struggled with non-traditional search engines like Yandex, DuckDuckGo, Dogpile, and AOL. It is very reasonably priced, but lacks other YouTube and app-level control that is so strong in Mobicip. It’s only available for iOS and Android.
Netsanity – it has a lot of really nice features, but their content filtering failed most of our tests and it’s really expensive when compared to Mobicip or Boomerang ($99/year for only two devices).
OurPact – parents love this app, evidenced by hundreds of thousands of downloads. Their strength is having a 1-device free version that includes a button that shuts off access to the phone and a paid version that is still really inexpensive ($6.99/month). Here are more details:
- It only works on iOS and Android and it looks like Apple’s recent moves are going to require OurPact to remove its OurPact Jr. child app and could do other damage to its value.
- It failed almost all of our filter tests. Badly. The “Safe Search” toggle is not trustworthy based on our testing. The list is similar to Qustodio, whereby a semi-motivated junior high kid can still easily get to porn images that aren’t reported as porn. For example: Imgur, Pinterest, Reddit, Tumblr, Twitter, Google (unlike Mobicip and others, OurPact fails at “related image” searches that quickly get pornographic), Yandex (search engine), Dogpile (search engine), AOL (search engine), Ecosia(search engine), Startpage (search engine), and Flickr.
- Therefore, if you’re an OurPact family, you might need to blacklist those sites above to achieve better protection against inappropriate content.
Accountable2You – it’s 100% accountability. No filtering. It’s just not enough for protection-minded parents. There’s no safe search toggle and a lot of our edgy searches that turned up questionable content weren’t even flagged by their iOS VPN as explicit. The website says, “We do not stop a user’s activity, but ensure it is reported to accountability partners.” And we found that this just wasn’t true.
On the positive side, Accountable2You is the only software solution that has downloads for seven platforms, including Chromebooks, Kindle, and Linux, and it monitors some text within Snapchat, which is great.
Apple’s Screen Time – this comes free on every iOS device (iPhone, iPad) and we promote it as a great layer along with other solutions, as shown in the Age-Solution grid above. If you have iOS devices, then you should ALWAYS have at least a few aspects of Screen Time enabled.
Related Post: How do I set up iOS 12 Screen Time?
If you’re a family that depends on the content restrictions in Screen Time because they’re free, then these are sites that you will have to blacklist (called “Never Allow”) in order to prevent unmonitored access to pornography:
- Imgur, Pinterest, Reddit, Tumblr, Twitter, Yandex (search engine),Yandex.ru, Yandex.com.tr, Yandex.ua, Dogpile (search engine), Ecosia (search engine), Startpage (search engine), and Flickr.
Ever Accountable – very similar to Accountable2You above, but without Snapchat or Linux coverage. It’s a good service, helping thousands of people live porn-free and they’re sporting a recent endorsement from Dave Ramsey. Because it lacks blocking and filtering, it’s definitely geared toward adults.
Their process for signing up for new service was definitely the easiest of any of the other solutions we tested. They deserve kudos for a great user experience. Being able to use Facebook or Google credentials was so easy.
If anyone is interested in more specifics from our spreadsheet with 86 rows of testing criteria, we’d be happy to share them.
Layering Parental Control Apps
Depending on what you’re most concerned about, protecting your family from digital danger might (and often) requires using more than one solution. We’ve shown this in the “Age-Solution Parental Control Grid” above where using, for example, Bark, Apple’s Screen Time, and Covenant Eyes for your high school child can be very effective.
But, not all solutions play nicely in the same sandbox. For example, as we pointed out above, anything that uses a VPN renders it incompatible with most other solutions.
In the specific case of Mobicip’s VPN, this means a device using Mobicip isn’t controlled by Circle and/or won’t obey the clean DNS you might use on your router with CleanBrowsing. But, in that case, maybe you still put CleanBrowsing’s clean DNS in the router and you still connect Circle to your router in order to control others who use your WiFi, like neighborhood kids, babysitters, visitors, friends, etc.
We’ve created the following compatibility grid to help. Warning – in spite of our best efforts, there’s a decent chance you’ll find an exception to our testing. If so, please just let us know. We’re far, far from perfect! (if you click the image, it will take you to a media file that you can pinch/expand more easily)
What Parental Control App is Right for Your Apple Family?
This blog post is intended to be a flashlight that shines in a general direction. Are you a family that uses Qustodio and loves it? GREAT! Just be aware of its weaknesses and compensate where needed. You’re not a bad parent if you don’t take our advice.
We care deeply about families. The point is to do something. And, since we know many of you don’t have a spare 50 hours to do the research, we hope this post makes your decision-making a little easier.
Still have questions? Leave a comment below and we’d be happy to help. (And, we hope to test Android solutions in January 2019!)
*There may be affiliate links in this post because we’ve tested and trust a small list of parental control solutions. Our work saves you time! If you decide that you agree with us, then we may earn a small commission, which does nothing to your price. Enjoy!