Test: Parental Control Apps for Google Android, Apple iOS & Amazon Fire OS
It is now commonplace to see children of all ages carrying a smartphone. Even the youngest children from the ages of 5 or 6 confidently go on the Internet. AV-TEST tested whether parental control apps for mobile systems allow parents to rest easily or whether they need to still keep a watchful eye on how the devices are being used.
It is already relatively normal for children to have access to a smartphone. Children either use the device of a parent or now even have their own device. If worldwide surveys are to be believed, then approx. 25% of children in industrial countries already have their own smartphone by the age of 6. By the age of 12, this rate increases to over 90%. Many parents wish they had an appropriate app for parental control. The manufacturers Google, Apple and Amazon offer some parental control functions in their Android, iOS and Fire OS operating systems as a setting or as an additional app. But are these sufficient? Or are the special parental control apps better? This was precisely the question resolved by the laboratory at AV-TEST in the latest test.
11 parental control apps versus system protection from Android, iOS and Fire OS
The lab initially examined the solutions of the operating systems. To do so, it used the Family Link under Google's Android, activated Apple's iOS Parental Controls and switched on the protection functions under Amazon's Kindle Fire OS. The apps Safe Kids from Kaspersky Lab and Norton Family from Symantec underwent an enhanced certification test by the testers. Both are available as an iOS and an Android version. Both receive the certificate “APPROVED Parental Control Android 11/2018” and “APPROVED Parental Control Apple iOS 11/2018”.
For a simple comparison, parental control apps from the following manufacturers were also tested in some key functions: F-Secure, Kiddoware, McAfee, MMGuardian, Mobicip, Qustodio and Wantagetech Solutions.
For info: AV-TEST recently also published a comparison of parental control functions of desktop and mobile operating systems.
This current test is not a plain vanilla comparison of individual functions. In fact, the lab defined 7 dangers that parental control apps are required to defend against.
How the apps respond to the 7 dangers for children
There is generally no one individual function against the individual dangers. Rather, several protection functions of an app are required to work in lockstep to contain the danger:
- Protection against cyber bullying
- Access control to adult content
- Control of private data transfer
- Controlling time spent on digital devices
- Protection from online money traps
- Protection against online grooming (sexual exploitation)
- Protection of privacy
AV-TEST explains the test methodology and implementation within the mobile systems in the first article on the topic of parental control software. That is why this article focuses on the summary of the test results.
This is what parental control apps ought to protect
Website filtering in parental control apps
More control options in apps
Reporting functions in parental control apps
Digital personality – protection from cyber bullying
For the category of cyber bullying, the laboratory expects the following functions to work in concert: a time control, along with a location of the device, the protection of profiles and activities through a social media control and good reporting functions.
In terms of time control, an appropriate function is found on all apps. Most of them offer a proper protection profile for various ages of children. They already contain recommended time restrictions which can be adapted, however. If parents want to locate the device, there is a straightforward procedure for doing so in Google's Android, as well as in Apple's iOS and the two matching apps from Kaspersky Lab. In this regard, Symantec's Norton Family appears to rely on the operating systems, as they are capable of locating a device.
In terms of social media control, only the iOS & Android apps from Kaspersky Lab and Symantec offer protection for Facebook. The systems from Google, Apple or Amazon have nothing to offer in this category. Especially concerning the topic of cyber bullying, the reporting functions offer a good, helpful overview for parents. The systems from Google, Apple and Amazon log practically nothing. The apps from Kaspersky Lab and Symantec are totally different in this respect, as they track all kinds of information: searched and visited websites, blocked websites and even the usage time of apps on Android systems. For an easier overview, there is also a good summary of all prohibited actions. This is something only achieved by some of the programs included in the test, McAfee, MMGuardian, Mobicip and Wantagetech Solutions.
Internet = Porn? Access to adult content
To be sure, the Internet offers a wide array of pornographic content and generally offers no access padlocks on those websites. Naturally, parental control apps need to protect against this content. But adult content involves much more than just pornography: gambling, violence, weapons or forums on those topics are also included, for example. That is why the lab tests the apps with thousands of websites that are suitable and unsuitable for children. Some apps in fact offer various categories, according to which they recognize the websites and filter them out, to the extent the category is blocked. Which is why the lab assumes 10 categories and evaluates how they filter over 6,300 unsuitable websites. In the counter sample, the object is to allow unhindered access to nearly 2,700 suitable websites.
The test table shows that while many apps have a large selection of categories, they still have difficulties weeding them out. It is worth mentioning: the active Amazon Kindle Fire Parental Controls filter 100%, as they simply filter out every website – even the good ones. Which means that with active protection, surfing is practically impossible. Google's Family Link does indeed separate out pornography, yet it is indifferent to all other categories, allowing unhindered access to them. The apps included in the test only for comparison demonstrate good filtering performance in the existing categories, with some exceptions. The Android apps from Kaspersky Lab and Symantec cover all tested categories and thus filter relatively well in each of them. Unfortunately, it was not technically possible test the iOS versions. Nearly all apps master the counter sample with suitable websites at good rates of 90 to 99%. Except the parental control for Amazon's Kindle.
If children are performing a search via a search engine, there are providers such as Google, Yahoo or Bing, offering the "safe search" function. Some tools automatically activate this function – however, only for selected search engines. This differs among the tools of the operating systems: Google Family Link exclusively recognizes Google, iOS activates its safe search in nearly all search engines. The apps from Kaspersky Lab and Symantec respond exactly the same way. This function is irrelevant for Amazon.
In terms of reports, there is virtually nothing found in the operating system tools. iOS only records the websites visited. The apps from Kaspersky Lab and Symantec record practically everything: the visited and blocked websites, along with a search history. And an overview of all prohibited actions can be found here as well.
Protection of private data – key entry control
Children are quick to divulge personal information such as their address, phone number or the name of their school. The mobile operating systems offer no monitoring assistance whatsoever in this area. The social media control from Kaspersky Lab and Symantec at least successfully prevents this type of privacy breach for Facebook. Only Symantec in its apps for iOS and Android offers an entry control of previously-defined personal data. Many unsuitable websites, such as forums, query this personal data. That is why good website filtering is also very helpful. As already mentioned above, the system tools offer no effective assistance in this case, except on the subject of pornography. The Android and iOS apps from Kaspersky Lab and Symantec already offer good pre-filtering. And the apps included in the test for comparison also assist in pre-filtering.
In case it happens anyway and details are entered, this ought to also be documented in a report. But that is a function which in turn is only offered by Kaspersky Lab and Symantec.
Certification test of parental control apps
Kaspersky Safe Kids
Symantec Norton Family
iOS Parental Controls
Google Family Link
Amazon Kindle Fire Parental Controls
Measures against constant use: control of user time of devices
Mobile devices are generally online 24 hours a day and always immediately operational. Which is why there is a large temptation to quickly pick up the device, see what's going on, or to play a quick round. If the mobile device is even taken into the child's room in the evening, you can usually kiss control goodbye. As a result, the testers expect a control package to have the following functions: a time control of the devices or online use, an app control, automatic blocking of various websites and a reporting function.
All parental control systems work with a profile in which the restricted times are already managed for a device according to age group and can also be adjusted. This function works quite well. In terms of app controls, it's a different story. Google's Android allows for control. iOS, on the other hand, only allows an installation or de-installation of an app, but not its launch. With Amazon, the main user shares an app with the child or not. No additional control is possible. The certified apps from Kaspersky Lab and Symantec control the apps for Android, for iOS this only works with Kaspersky Lab.
If children play or surf with the device despite a time-out, then the access to forbidden websites ought to at least be blocked. As already mentioned above, compared to the operating systems, only Kaspersky Lab and Symantec do a good job of this. This becomes even more apparent in the reporting functions: on the paid apps from Kaspersky Lab and Symantec, everything is logged, whereas the systems record virtually nothing.
"5 euros today only" – money traps on the Internet
In buying propositions, dealers love to create time pressure by including "today only" in the ad, for example. Many parents fall for this trick – with children, the number is even higher. Especially in online games, there are often digital add-on tools that offer benefits, available for a few euros. In order to curb or prevent this temptation, protection apps should include the following: the option of an app control which blocks certain websites and an ad blocker.
A relatively decent app control, as already mentioned above, is available under Android only with Google Family Link and the apps from Kaspersky Lab and Symantec. With iOS, this function is only available from Kaspersky Lab and in iOS itself on a small scale. For Amazon, there is no variable-control app blocker. And the access and filtering of games according to the category of entertainment games or shopping websites are only reliably managed by the apps from Kaspersky Lab and Symantec. Unfortunately, none of the parental control apps tested includes an ad blocker.
Every parent's nightmare: when pedophiles digitally stalk children
The danger area addressed by the testers, "Protection against online grooming (sexual exploitation)" is a sad fact: Time and again, children are approached by strangers via digital channels, and they often react too trustingly. So-called grooming, i.e. flattering, usually works like this: an adult falsifies a profile and appears under the guise of a child. In doing so, they approach children, listen to them, act like a friend, send them digital gifts, thereby extracting information from a child. Once the stranger has then collected compromising information, an attempt is made to blackmail the child, e.g. for nude photos. As part of a threat prevention package, the testers call for a social media tool that monitors the entry of personal details, provides good reporting and offers a tool with automatic image analysis that sounds an alarm in case of nude photos.
A social media control, at least for Facebook, is included in the apps from Kaspersky Lab and Symantec, in addition to individual apps that were also tested for comparison. The entry of personal data is monitored exclusively by the app from Symantec under Android and also iOS. A good reporting system detailing all prohibited actions, along with the visited and blocked websites is only found in the paid apps from Kaspersky Lab and Symantec.
Automatic image analysis, which could block nude photos, for instance, is already technically possible. However, it was not a feature in any of the apps evaluated in the test.
A person's identity is also a worthy target for thieves
Crimes on the web are often committed with stolen identities. This means that attackers have fewer tracks to hide. In case they are caught, another person is suspected. That is why protection of one's own privacy and thus of one's own identity is an important criterion. Attackers normally launch their attacks with the known tools: infected emails, banner ads with malware in tow, emails leading to falsified websites and entry screens for personal access data.
An appropriate privacy tool for the protection of privacy is only available from Symantec in both app versions, as well as in iOS. If a cell phone is stolen, it can be located using both apps from Kaspersky Lab, as well as with the systems from iOS and Google. In this category, Symantec apparently relies on the locating function of iOS and Android. To enable a parental protection app to also assist against infected emails or other malware threats, the testers also expect a security tool for protection. This is offered exclusively by Kaspersky Lab and its Android and iOS app. An ad blocker that immediately closes banner ads is unfortunately not available on any parental control app and not in the system functions.
Conclusion: parents are required to set priorities for protection
Depending upon the age of the child, the protection functions of the systems with Android, iOS and Amazon offer only a very limited remedy. Apple's iOS with its parental functions is a touch better than Android with its Family Link app. Parents would do well not to rely on the parental control functions of Kindle Fire Parental Controls.
The certified apps from Kaspersky Lab and Symantec each include a bundle of protection functions. Android offers a multitude, iOS fewer, as the system there does not allow lower-level intrusions – even if they offered protection.
Guided by the table on possible dangers and the areas where apps offer protection, parents can set their own priorities and find an appropriate app for parental control.