Spy Apps? Balancing Privacy and Trust with Child Safety | Parental Controls

Spy Apps on Phones

When discussing the use of spy apps on a child’s phone, a difference of opinions has a lot to do with parenting styles and philosophy of how to protect kids online.  While parents may agree with the use of parental controls to monitor a child’s activity, a spy app implies that parents will monitor (spy) on their child without their knowledge to see what they are up to.

Many parents feel this sets up the parent-child relationship to be a distrustful one and would prefer parental controls are used with the child’s full knowledge.  In doing so, the idea is that it can be a way to teach children how to properly manage the internet throughout the various stages of their life, but with proper safeguards in place.

It is OK to Use Spy Apps on a Child’s Phone?

Firstly, it must be stated that Safe Search Kids only endorses apps that do not use the word “spy” in their name or marketing.  There are a couple of reasons for this.  As well, we do not endorse any app that is by design created to spy on people without their knowledge, even parents who want to use them to monitor their children.

Spy apps are often targeted at adults to enable to them to spy on spouses or other adults.  The same apps may also be marketed as parental controls.  Even with a child’s full knowledge, the use of the word “spy” can be problematic.  It implies to children that “we need to spy on you because you can’t be depended on to do what is right”, as opposed to “the internet is a dangerous place and even with good intentions you may be exposed to harmful content online without guidance and monitoring”.

There is no blanket answer or solution to protecting kids on the internet while teaching them responsible digital habits.  From preschool to elementary school ages, to the tween years, early and late teens, the details of explicit dangers online are dependant on a child’s maturity.

Potential Problems in the Use of Spy Apps on Phones

Here are some issues that we believe set up ‘a parents well intentions’ for possible failure down the road.  The age of the child most certainly determines how any parent would deal with their children’s use of a smartphone or tablet.  If your child is very young, they are not be old enough to understand a discussion about explicit material and that you are monitoring their online activity.

As  children grow older, the more knowledge and freedom they will be given. A social media app that was not appropriate two years earlier may be just fine now.  However, monitoring a child’s usage on any app is still needed.  There is no set age as to when parents should let their kids know about parental controls on their devices, but it will more than likely be when the child is old enough to know about what you wish to protect them from.  This is when installing a spy app without their knowledge may backfire, for a variety of reasons.

Here are three areas that parents will need to balance to equip their children for responsible use of the internet as they grow to become adults.  Privacy, trust, and safety.


Spying on a tween or teen’s activity without their knowledge invades their privacy. Even if this may be legal as a parent, the question is this; Does it model a lack of respect for the child that could cause them to rebel down the road.  With some kids, the more parents pry, the more secretive they will become.


Other parents believe that entrusting a child to do the right thing empowers them to make right choices on their own.  Should a parent devalue this trust by trying to secretly spy on activity and “catch them in the act” while they are doing something wrong.  Could this end up doing more harm than good as kids grow in responsible behavior?


How does a parent balance all of these issues with the need for safety.  Virtually all parents would agree that children should not have absolute freedom online.  There are pitfalls even if kids are eager to please their parents and stay safe.  There is also peer pressure to follow the crowd despite best intentions.  As well, children are not always home and even at a friend house, parents may have different standards.

Are Spy Apps different than Parental Control Apps?

The features on spy apps vary, as do parental controls apps. Some apps focus more on knowing the location of another person, whether adult or child.  They may have text and call monitoring abilities but not do a good job of blocking harmful websites on the web.

Regardless of the app used, you’re going to want to ensure you have all the main features of a parental control app.   Specific options can vary between different apps, but here are some common ones:

Content Filtering

Web filtering capabilities to block access to inappropriate websites or content categories, such as adult content, violence, and gambling. Protecting your family by ensuring your child is not downloading pirated content, whether intentionally or accidentally.

App Monitoring and Blocking

Monitoring usage of messenger apps, browsers, including conversations, comments, and friend connections.  Ensure you control what apps can be downloaded in the first place.

Time Management

The ability to restrict internet access according to specific times of day, such as overnight hours. Daily time limits for playing games or time spent gaming or on social media to encourage healthy habits.

Spy Apps on Phones:  Balancing Privacy and Trust with Child Safety

Social Media Monitoring

Monitoring features for popular social media platforms, allowing parents to keep track of their child’s social media activities, view messages, and receive alerts for potentially risky behavior.

Location Tracking

GPS tracking to help parents keep tabs on their child’s whereabouts to ensure their safety. This feature can provide real-time location information or location history. Receive alerts when children leave set zones, such as home, school, or a friend’s house.

Remote Device Control

Parental control apps may allow parents to remotely manage and control their child’s device, including options like app installation, app blocking, or device locking.

Safe Search

Enforce safe search settings on search engines so that your can make sure sensually graphic or inappropriate content is removed from search results. Porn blocking is standard and an absolute must for any age.

Call and Text Monitoring

Ability to monitor incoming and outgoing calls and text messages, providing parents with visibility into their child’s communication. This easier to do on Android, which is an open-source platform.  iPhones are more restrictive in allowing parental controls to monitor.

Are Spy Apps Legal?

The legality of installing spy apps on a person’s phone without their knowledge can vary depending on the jurisdiction and the specific circumstances involved. In many places, it is generally considered illegal to install spyware or monitoring apps on someone’s phone without their consent.

Spying on someone’s phone without their knowledge typically infringes upon their privacy rights. Laws regarding privacy and electronic communications vary by country and can include regulations such as wiretapping laws or computer crime laws. In many jurisdictions, unauthorized access to someone’s device, interception of their communications, or invasion of their privacy can be considered illegal activities.

However, it’s important to note that laws can differ significantly from one jurisdiction to another, and the interpretation and enforcement of these laws can vary as well. It’s advisable to consult the laws specific to your country or seek legal advice for a more accurate and up-to-date understanding of the legal implications surrounding spy apps and privacy concerns.

The Use of Parental Controls or Spy Apps by Parents on a Child’s Device

The legality of a parent monitoring their child’s phone without their knowledge using a spy app or parental control app can also vary depending on the jurisdiction and specific circumstances. In many places, parents have the legal authority to monitor and supervise their minor children’s activities, including their digital activities.

However, even in cases where parents have the legal right to monitor their child’s phone, it is recommended to communicate trust and respect regarding parental controls. Communicate the need for your involvement as a parent. Explain the reasons why desire to restrict and monitor online activity can help build trust and maintain a healthy parent-child relationship.

Parents can familiarize themselves with the laws and regulations of specific jurisdictions regarding child privacy rights. Consultation with legal professionals or resources in your country can provide you with more accurate and up-to-date information on the topic.

To Spy to Not to Spy – Wrapping Things Up

Legality has nothing to do with the name of an app. It’s whether the activity of spying of a person or even basic monitoring is acceptable. As we’ve explored, for parents, the age of a child will also factor into their decision regarding how much to inform their kids about the monitoring of their devices.

Still, there are power in words when having conversations with each family member, even when motivated by love and expressing to kids the importance of shielding their young minds from harmful content. Beyond the obvious issues of online predators and explicit websites, parental monitoring can also help parents be proactive at the first sign of cyberbullying or dealing with excessive use of social media and video games.

Protecting children both psychologically and physically is the goal, while providing age-appropriate information about potential risks and threats online.  The right balance is an effective way to equip children for responsible internet usage throughout all the stages of their childhood years.

One size can never fit “all”.   Kids have varied personalities and different levels of intellectual abilities.  Challenges for parents are only growing as technology and world continues to progress at a rapid space. Conversations in a time and space where children feel safe and listened to will always be the best first step to navigating how kids interact online.

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