Parental controls are a real boon for those looking to protect kids from online scariness—or to take control over how kids use the internet and their devices, from the home PC to tablets and smartphones.
You can install third-party parental control apps, which will handle your family's full suite of desktop and mobile devices. But what if you're not into paying extra? There are tools across the various operating systems to make it easier, but they can be hard to implement in a techno-blended family of Macs, Androids, iPhones, and Windows PCs.
However, if you're an Apple family, you may find there are ways to make thing safer without any add-ons. Apple built a lot of tools and features into iOS that can help a beleaguered parental unit get through the day with fewer worries. Nothing beats a frank, face-to-face talk with kids about what is good for them online and what isn't. But when that doesn't help, here's how you can lock down their iPhones for your piece of mind.
This article assumes that you—as the parent or guardian—have full access to your kids' iOS devices, enough so that you can physically access them and set up limations on what the phone can or cannot do. Instructions are for iOS 10+.
The first action you generally should perform when your kid gets their own iOS-based device is create an Apple ID (aka an iTunes account) just for them. It's easier than sharing yours; the trick is to restrict them from doing too much (that's the next section).
Then, to secure the iOS devices at the most basic level, give the device a passcode. Older iOS devices used 4-digit passcodes, like the personal identification number (PIN) you use at the ATM machine. As of iOS 9, the default changed to a six-digit passcode, which is literally 100 times harder to crack, though you can still stick with four digits. There are even stronger options—a custom numeric code, or a custom alphanumeric code with a combination of letters and numbers and even special characters (but not emoji).
Now, don't get crazy. While longer is stronger, it's not always better. Especially in this case, because both you and your child must remember the passcode. Long and wicked complicated is okay if the kid's a polymath with eidetic memory, not so much for those who can't remember to take a shower in the morning or put on pants (that goes for parents as well). The balance to strike is a passcode easy for you both to remember but impossible for others to guess.
It also should be a code that is easy to type in because they'll have to do it every time they access the iOS device if Touch ID is turned off, or if the phone is rebooted or locked for 48+ hours, when you'll need to enter your passcode even if Touch ID is activated.
The ultimate option for super-strong access rights is to turn on Two-Factor Authentication (2FA) on the Apple ID associated with the device. This can get a little tricky however if you share the Apple ID among multiple people (your kid can't log in until you get a special code that's sent to your iPhone or iPad, for example). If you use Family Sharing, where everyone gets an Apple ID, 2FA isn't even an option for kids under 13—probably because Apple is afraid they couldn't handle the extra log-in.
If everyone in the family forgets the passcode and can't get access, the only recourse is to erase the iPhone and restore it from a backup or set it up as a new device. Try to avoid that.
Set Some Restrictions
On the kid's iPhone, go to Settings > General > Restrictions > Enable Restrictions. Set up a Restrictions passcode (it's different from the sign-in passcode—it can only be 4 digits) so that only you can bypass the restrictions you're about to set.
Don't forget it—again, if you can't remember the passcode but have to change something, the only way to go back is to erase the iPhone and set it up as a new device. If you restore it from a backup made after you set up the restrictions, you just restore the code you can't remember. (That said, erasing the iPhone is also how a kid can get by your pre-set restrictions. Yeah, it's not a foolproof scheme.)
Next, restrict use of individual apps (block use of things like Safari, Camera, Siri, FaceTime, iTunes Store, making in-app purchases, and more); content type (for movies, TV shows, books, apps, passwords, even by rating); settings changes (so they can't change mail, calendars, cellular data use, even the phone's volume); and take control of privacy settings. This can literally hide things from the iPhone home screen—restrict Safari and they won't even see its icon. You can even prevent the deletion of apps—handy and necessary to have if you've got third-party parental controls installed.
Preventing app installation and app/in-app purchases is paramount not only to kid safety, but also the parental pocketbook. Unauthorized purchases can happen in iTunes, iBooks, and the App Store, and can get crazy expensive, especially inside games. Thankfully, it's as easy as toggling them off in the Restrictions.
If you fear your smart-alecky progeny can get around your purchasing restrictions, the ultimate trick is to take out a method of paying for apps in Settings > iTunes & App Store > select your Apple ID > View Apple ID > Payment Information. Select None as your payment option. But it's easier to just force them to ask before purchases go through, via Family Sharing.
Family Sharing for Security
If you do have a family of macOS and iOS users (and even iCloud users on Windows), the Family Sharing option makes it easy to share things between up to six users—each user gets their own account, but all the books, music, TV shows, and apps purchased on one account get shared with all the rest, as do things like calendar entries and family photos.
Setup is simple: go to Settings > your name at top > Set Up Family Sharing > Get Started. (On a Mac, go to Apple Menu >System Preferences > iCloud> Set Up Family.)
One person in the family must be designated "family organizer." I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest it be a parent or guardian, but I'm old-fashioned. That person agrees to be the conduit for all purchases, in that their credit card gets used for all the buying. New items appear on each family member's iPhone in the Purchased tab of apps like iTunes, iBooks, and App store—pick the tab, then pick collection under that family member's name.
There is an option to hide your individually purchased books and music, but it can only be set up from a Mac using iTunes or iBooks on the desktop. To hide apps from others in your Family Sharing, use the App Store app, go into Updates > Purchased > My Purchases, swipe left on a purchased app listing and tap Hide. To unhide it, go back to iTunes on the desktop. Naturally, you can't hide any purchases from the family organizer. They see all, hear all, know all.
For music, note the above options only cover individually purchased music in iTunes; if you subscribe to Apple Music and wish to share it, that requires an Apple Music family membership for $14.99—and to share you need Family Sharing, naturally. There is a 90-day free trial to give it a shot first, however.
The best thing about Family Sharing from a parental control point of view is that the family organizer can force children to Ask to Buy before they can make a purchase of any kind. The request shows up on the organizer's phone where they can review it and allow it as desired.
Family Sharing also features an option for sharing your location with family members. That means if you launch the Find My Friends app—accessible on iOS devices and on the desktop via iCloud.com—you can see where the kids (and the parents) are in real time. (Apple says it only stores the location data for several hours before deleting it).
If a child in your Family Sharing plan loses their phone, the device will appear in the Find My iPhone app—turn on the Send Last Location option to make sure the phone, assuming it's online, sends that info just before the battery dies.
Family members can not only choose which other members to share a location with, but can also turn this feature on or off as desired by going into Settings > [Your Name at top] > iCloud > Share My Location. The exception is a kid who's phone you set up—you just have to set up Find My Friends on the kid's iPhone first, then go into Settings > General > Restrictions > Enable Restrictions, enter the passcode, tap Share My Location, then tap Don't Allow Changes.
If you have a kid who turns it off because you didn't restrict, you can probably still check to see if the iPhone is offline or online—or put it in Lost Mode—using Find My iPhone.
By the way, if you have a child in your Family Sharing who's listed as being under age 13, they're almost impossible to take out. The options: wait for them to turn 13, call Apple, transfer the kid to another family share, or disband the entire Family Sharing you've set up to make a new one, sans that child. We're not gonna ask why you're kicking that kid out.
Worrying About Privacy
If you're really, truly worried about your kids' privacy, you probably wouldn't let your kids online at all, let alone give their access over entirely to one corporate conglomerate for all your device needs. But whatchugonnado? Here are some things you can do on your kids' iOS devices to—in theory—give Big Brother a little less oversight.
The downside to any of these options is they limit how much oversite you, the parent, can have over your kids. Parental controls tend to be about negating kids' privacy, after all, except the parents are the Big Brothers in that case.
Siri Can Hear You
Turn off Siri's active listening—the feature that makes it more like Amazon's Echo devices, always eavesdropping for activation words so it can audibly interact.
While there is no evidence that anyone is doing anything nefarious—like listening and recording everything within earshot whether you say "Hey Siri" or not—you can turn it off rather than take the chance. Toggle it at Settings > Siri > Allow "Hey Siri." Siri can still be activated by holding down the Home button; that can also be deactivated entirely on the same screen.
(Of course, why would you trust Apple to let you turn off active listening if it really wanted to listen? Also, how paranoid are you?)
Location, Location, Location
Location awareness, however, is one of those things that gets a little overdone by the various apps you use. It makes sense for apps like Waze or Google Maps to know your location, maybe even social media for check-ins, but do cable channel apps or image-editor apps, among others, really need to know? Probably not. Does Uber need to know your location when you're not looking for a ride? Definitely not.
Go into Settings > Privacy > Location Services and specify which apps get to know where your kids are, and whether it's a constant, or just when the app is in use. If an app is actively using location when you're not in the app—say Google Maps is still feeding you directions—a blue bar on the top of the screen should appear to say "Google Maps is Actively Using Your Location." Limit any app that abuses its location-using time.
Go deeper (Settings > Privacy > Location Services > System Services > Frequent Locations) to clear a kid's recorded location history—or check on the kid's most frequently visited spots, which they could have been hiding from you by not sharing their location in Find My Friends.
You can turn off Location Services entirely, but as noted, even on a kid's phone that's cutting off his or her cute button-nose to spite their freckled faces.
This is the classic privacy issue all users of any age should know: clear your browser history to prevent snoops from knowing where you went. For the built-in Safari browser, go to Settings > Safari > Clear History and Website Data. Then again, don't share that with your kids if you want to check it yourself to see what they've surfed. (For that, click Advanced on the same page for a list of sites visited.)
While you're in the Safari settings for your kid's iPhone, go in and change the search engine to DuckDuckGo (the only one that doesn't track them), turn on Block Pop-ups and Do Not Track, and block any cookies not from the current website being visited. You may also want to download an ad-blocker app like 1Blocker or Crystal Adblock from the App Store; you activate the blocker here.
Whack the Widgets
These little info dumps offered by select apps can throw all sorts of information up on the screen; info that other people can access without even unlocking the phone. Apple calls it "Today's View."
On that screen (swipe the home screen right to access), scroll to the bottom, click Edit, and tap the minus button in a red circle () to prevent select widgets from showing on the lock screen. Or you can kill Today's View entirely by going to Settings > Touch ID & Passcode and scrolling down to "Allow Access When Locked." There, you can turn off Today's View and other items that should require full unlocking, like Siri, Wallet, and even the ability to reply to Messages.
Nix the Notifications
Looking at notifications on an iPhone lock screen is second nature—not only for you and your brood, but also the people looking over your shoulder. Go into Settings > Notifications on your kid's phone and on an app-by-app basis, you can specify whether any notifications are displayed on the lock screen, in the Notification center, or at all.
Get a VPN
If you don't know about virtual private networks yet, read Privacy 101: Why You Need a VPN. Realize that you and your kids need a VPN service not only on your PCs, but also on your smartphones, to stay secure. Yes, this is third-party software that will cost you money—but this is important. Every single one of our Best VPN Services supports iOS. Pick one, pay for it, set it up on multiple PCs and tablets and phones, and just luxuriate in all that protection.
The Touch ID fingerprint scanner is super convenient, for sure—and if you've set up fingerprint access on a kid's phone, make sure you, the parent or guardian, also have a print or two stored on the device to unlock it.
That said: US courts have stated that law enforcement can force anyone to unlock phones using fingerprints (and kids have fewer rights than adults)—but they can't force access if it's only a passcode. Other rules may also be stipulated by your school system. How you feel about the law may inform your parental approach, but if you don't want kids incriminating themselves before the lawyers can be called, consider turning off Touch ID. Do it at Settings > Touch ID & Passcode > Phone Unlock.
Nuke It From Orbit
If you do forget the passcodes (for sign-in or to access Restrictions) and thus have to erase the iPhone/iPad to get back full access, you have two options.
The first requires a computer with iTunes on it, even if you've never performed an old-school iTunes sync before. Connect it to the Windows or Mac PC, open iTunes, and do a force restart—simultaneously press and hold the Sleep/Wake on the side and Home buttons until you pass the Apple logo—don't release until you see the recovery mode screen. Choose the Restore option on the PC screen, and iTunes will download and re-install iOS.
The second, easier option is to use iCloud—but this only works if you set up Find My iPhone on the phone. Log into iCloud.com/find, sign in with the Apple ID used on the phone, find the right iDevice, and nuke it remotely. The phone will have to be on a Wi-Fi or cellular network for this to work, but at least it's one remote-control option in the arsenal. (Consider this the nuclear option for a remote child who you can't get to work within your parental restrictions.)
The final nuke is if the kid's iPhone is lost or stolen. It happens. A lot. Assuming you've implemented the bare minimum of security—a good passcode—you can set up the Erase Data feature. You'll find it in Settings > Touch ID & Passcode at the bottom. With a single toggle, you ensure that if someone wants the data on the phone, they'd best know the passcode, because after 10 failed attempts, the phone's content gets obliterated—all the data, gone. That may be the final goal of many thieves anyway, but it's nice to have in place if someone with more nefarious, personal reasons gets ahold of it.
Thankfully, you were smart enough to make a backup of the kid's iPhones before that, so restoring it when you get them a shiny new phone should be easy.