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Protecting Your Child from Distractions: A Guide to iOS Parental Controls

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Protecting Your Child from Distractions: A Guide to iOS Parental Controls

Pierre Séguin

We parents have a love-hate relationship with electronic devices. At their best, smartphones and tablets engage and educate our kids while better connecting them to us. At their worst, these same devices rot their brains and distract them with asinine YouTube videos and games centred on repeatedly punching one's boss.

When your child is particularly distractible, access to less than desirable, yet inexplicably compelling activities on the device can be particularly problematic.

How is a parent supposed to help their child make the right choices at the right times with the device? It's not always possible to be watching over their shoulder, especially if the whole point of their device is to stay in touch when you're not around. Fortunately, there's a range of approaches you can take.

The topic of "parental control" is fairly broad and extends to managing the type of content your child can view, or the people they can interact with. We won't get too deeply into content access because it's already been extensively covered by other writers. Instead, this article focuses (no pun intended!) on the ways you can help your kids avoid distractions on their devices.

I'll list approaches in ascending order of control they transfer from kids to parents. In subsequent posts, I'll get into more detail on how to work with each one.

FAMILY SHARING

Pros:

  • Easy to set up;
  • Restricts child's purchases;
  • Enables child location tracking;
  • Lets you share app and music purchases amongst all family members.

Cons: 

  • Does not restrict free app downloads or other activities on the child's device.

Apple's iCloud Family Sharing is great for letting members of your household share each others' iTunes App, Music and iBooks purchases, and even keep track of all family member locations in real time. But it also provides very basic parental controls.

When you set your child's iTunes account up and provide the correct date of birth, it lets you configure each family member's role (Guardian or child). Children can then be set to "Ask to buy" which will notify a guardian whenever the attempts to purchase anything.

The iCloud "Manage Family" settings screen on iOS.

The iCloud "Manage Family" settings screen on iOS.

In my opinion, you'll want to set this up anyway for its other benefits, but for any kind of real distraction-proofing for your child's device, read on.

Guided Access

Pros:

  • Easy to set up;
  • Restricts child's activities to one app;
  • Sets a time limit;
  • Allows control over device buttons.

Cons: 

  • Restricting access to just one app can be overly restrictive for many situations;
  • It's not really intended for devices you'll be letting out of your sight;
  • When the battery goes dead, so does Guided Access when the device reboots.

Guided Access lets you launch an app, triple-click the home button and presto: prevent your child from leaving that app until you enter your 4-digit access code. We frequently recommend Guided Access for use with Brili because it can ensure that the device isn't used for any distracting pursuits while a daily routine is running.

With guided access configured on your child's iOS device, this is what you'd see after you triple-click the home button.

With guided access configured on your child's iOS device, this is what you'd see after you triple-click the home button.

When the device is in Guided Access mode, your child will be prompted for a 4-digit code if he or she attempts to leave the app. Repeated passcode attempts are discouraged by extending the time that must elapse between tries.

When the device is in Guided Access mode, your child will be prompted for a 4-digit code if he or she attempts to leave the app. Repeated passcode attempts are discouraged by extending the time that must elapse between tries.

Restrictions

Pros:

  • Allows parents to disable many specific activities like app downloads, web browsing, etc.;
  • Can restrict downloads to age-appropriate content for music, movies, TV, books, apps, by content rating;
  • Allows privacy settings to be locked to parents' desired configuration;
  • Prevents changes to account data, game center, etc.

Cons: 

  • Doesn't restrict access to specific apps (unless you delete them first, then disable downloads);
  • Doesn't hide unnecessary Apple-installed system apps.

For finer-grained control of your child's device that isn't as dependent on you being nearby, you can enable the built in Restrictions feature in the iOS Settings App under General -> Restrictions. When enabling restrictions, you are asked to set a 4-digit pass code. You'll then be able to turn off specific activities like:

  • Web browsing (assuming Safari is the only installed browser);
  • iTunes Store (app and music downloads);
  • Apple Music;
  • Camera;
  • Siri;
  • Facetime;
  • Airdrop;
  • Installing, deleting apps;
  • In-App Purchases.

Because this method doesn't control specific access to apps, but can prevent new apps from being downloaded, make sure to remove any apps you don't want your child using before you enable this.

The iPad's "Restrictions" setting screen, under General.

The iPad's "Restrictions" setting screen, under General.

Apple Configurator:
Supervised Devices and Profiles

Pros:

  • Locks down everything that Restrictions can, and then some;
  • Very fine-grained control;
  • Lets you specifically hide any app that's ever been on the app store;
  • Lets you hide potentially distracting system apps like Stocks, Photos, Maps, Videos
  • Lets you save configuration profiles for re-use (e.g. set up all your kids' devices using the same config without having to do it over each time.)
  • Very difficult to defeat when device supervision is used

Cons: 

  • Relatively difficult and time-consuming to set up the first time;
  • Device supervision requires wiping the device first;
  • Only works on Mac OS X 

This is a very strong approach for selectively restricting activities and apps on iOS devices, but it's not for the faint of heart. Apple provides the free Apple Configurator for the benefit of IT departments of businesses and educational institutions that need to provision and manage many devices while keeping a large user base out of trouble by restricting its activities. A school might use this to ensure that its approved apps (and only its approved apps) can be installed and used on iPads loaned to students. If you have a large family it even lets you plug in and set up multiple devices simultaneously from your Mac.

This approach is particularly powerful because it can implement device supervision, which basically customizes the iOS system software with your restrictions before it's installed on the device. This also allows you to lock the configuration profile so it can't simply be deleted from the device by a curious kid poking around the Settings app (which would instantly remove the restrictions).

One of Apple Configurator's screens, showing some of its app restriction capabilities.

One of Apple Configurator's screens, showing some of its app restriction capabilities.

If you're interested in trying Apple Configurator, please see our other more detailed post with step-by-step instructions for kid-proofing an iOS device with it.

Third Party Apps

There are some really great apps out there that take the concepts of Apple Configurator, make them more user-friendly and add Mobile Device Management (MDM) capabilities so you can remotely manage your child's device and even link certain capabilities to allowed times of day. Be Web Smart has a great comprehensive list of these with details of their features, but I'll highlight those that have iOS app restriction capabilities:

Keep in mind with these solutions that they install configuration profiles on your child's device in order to work. The default installation process can be as simple as clicking on a link from your child's device and entering the lock code to confirm, but unless they have a way of installing the profile via Apple Configurator onto a supervised device, these profiles could be removed to defeat the parental control.

That's all for now. If you have comments or suggestions, please let me know!