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Parental control tools

Photo by Olivier Le Moal

Parental control: Does monitoring work?

So, you’ve done the deed. You’ve handed your kid their first smartphone and/or allowed them to register for a social media account. 

You’re not alone in taking this momentous, if scary, step. According to surveys by Pew Research Center, nearly 95% of America’s kids aged 13-17 have access to a smartphone. And, Common Sense Media reports that the average age when a kid gains access to at least one social media account is 12.6. 

How can you keep your kids safe, or at least stay abreast of what information they are accessing and to whom they are digitally communicating? Monitoring systems or devices may provide some measure of control for parents – although experts stress they are not foolproof. They also advise parents to be open, rather than covert, about monitoring kids’ device, internet, and social media use. 

Be up front 

“It’s important that parents not use these tools to spy on their kids,” said Dr. Katie Davis, associate professor at the University of Washington, director of the UW Digital Youth Lab, and author of “Technology’s Child: Digital Media’s Role in the Ages and Stages of Growing Up. “Ideally, installing and using them is part of an ongoing conversation between parent and child about the opportunities and challenges presented by phones and social media. 

“Parents have every right” to kids start off slow when it comes to technology independence, says David. And to maintain a lot of involvement at least in the early years. Kid-oriented operating systems and parental monitoring apps allow kids to gradually gain experience with networked communication within a supportive community. And that, says Davis, is what grows healthy, rewarding technology use.

Parental control systems and apps 

What monitoring programs are best? Parental control systems are abundant out there and most do similar things. The ones below were suggested by Common Sense Media, Davis, and other expert sources: 

Terracube Thrive, Pinwheel, Bark 

Terracube Thrive, Pinwheel, and Bark smartphones are designed for kids 8 to 17. Parents can monitor text messages, social networks, emails, and other mobile activities. They can set limits on everything from what kids can access online to who they communicate with to how much time they spend on the phone.


An Internet filtering system, Circle allows parents to monitor across all their kids’ devices, tracking the use of games, streaming services, and websites. Parents can set limitations or restrictions, set rewards for positive digital behavior, and help kids focus on tasks and more.


The TeenSafe monitoring system allows parents to oversee Apple or Android phones and stay in the loop on exactly how their child is using their phone, who they are messaging or calling, what apps they are engaging with, and more.

Web Watcher

Web Watcher is a monitoring program that allows parents to view all data recorded on a child’s phone while also identifying risky behavior.


Qustodio Software allows parents to track calls and SMS, monitor internet use and activity, etc. Parents can get detailed daily, weekly, and monthly reports of a child’s online activity. 

Parents beware

Caroline Knorr, parenting editor at Common Sense Media and author of “Parents’ Ultimate Guide to Parental Controls” warns parents: “Kids can undo parental controls. In fact, the directions on how to get around them are easily available on the internet.”

And that is why Emily Cherkin, founder of The ScreenTime Consultant based in Seattle, does not recommend parental control tools like the ones listed above.

“I don’t endorse any,” says Cherkin, a former middle school teacher who works with parents, companies, and schools to help them become more intentional about the use of technology. Her book, “The Screentime Solution: A Judgment-Free Guide to Becoming a Tech-Intentional Family” is expected in January 2024.

“They are expensive, they are a ton of work for parents, and they do not displace parenting and mentoring,” Cherkin adds. “So often this is what parents think will be the secret sauce to solving the screentime challenge. It is most definitely not. I don’t recommend parental controls, I recommend parenting. Controls, monitors, and software will NOT protect children. Broadly, if parents want to test a tool to use on their kids, I always recommend they try it out on themselves first.”

For more information about safe media use and kids go to Common Sense Media and click on Parenting Tips & FAQs.

More at Seattle’s Child:

Kids and phone: Some things to think about

Seattle Police Give Tips to Keep Your Kids Internet Healthy

About the Author

Cheryl Murfin

Cheryl Murfin is managing editor at Seattle's Child. She is also a certified doula, lactation educator for and a certified AWA writing workshop facilitator at