There are many ways for children to get into trouble online, even at home; your cable box, console gaming systems, desktop computers, social networks, personal behavior, and more. But this article will focus specifically on locking down iOS 9 or later devices. We'll cover some of the other vectors in future articles.
You need to really understand the problem and challenges prior to locking down the iPhone or iPad. That's because no single article can cover everything. And if I've missed something, understanding the problem will allow you to fill the gap on your own. You need to first know what you don't know.
Table of Contents
1. Parenting Through Ignorance and Denial
2. The Strategy
• Embrace the Apple Ecosystem
• Don't Trust Third Party Apps
• Periodically Check the Device
• Sleepovers and Play Dates
3. Proper Set Up in 3 Steps
• Step 1: Create a Family Sharing Group
• Step 2: Configure Services
• Step 3: Configure Device Restrictions
4. Final Thoughts
Parenting Through Ignorance and Denial
Just about everyone has some kind of Internet connected device nowadays. In the case of school age kids, it could be mom's old iPhone used as an iPod, or even their own iPad. The problem is that other than at best resetting the device prior to giving it to their young child, many don't properly configure the device to protect them from stumbling upon horribly inappropriate content, or worse, making contact with someone they shouldn't. This wasn't an issue for our older kids (now adults). But it is an issue for our third grader and all her friends who have these devices.
Until recently, I hadn't really considered that other parents could be so ignorant (and naive) in this regard. Being a developer, this stuff is second nature. But after some reflection, I understand. These devices are still really new. It will take time for the issues to shake out. And compounding the problem, no parent thinks (or wants to think) that their child would get into online mischief of this kind. But to think this way does your child a disservice and puts them at greater risk.
To give you an example, I've seen parents who police their child's web browser history to catch them AFTER they've already "seen behind the curtain". This doesn't help. All children are curious. And if given a web browser with open access to the Internet, they're one typo away from seeing the worst of the worst content the Internet has to offer. You need to properly configure the device and deny them access to the nasty stuff so they never see behind the curtain in the first place.
“But not my child!”
“How would she even know to look for this filth?”
Case in point: If a third grader tried to find a web page about their favorite cartoon, Teen Titans Go, and accidentally tapped the SEARCH button before the "...ans Go", you can imagine what they'd find. And like any child, they would be curious and want to explore the bizarre, secret, grown-up stuff behind the proverbial curtain. They may even decide to share it with their friends. And one bad site leads to countless other, even worse, sites. It can quickly become a real poop storm.
Explicit sexual content is just scratching the surface. There's horrible violence and other inappropriate content that would scare the bejesus out of anyone, let alone a child. And I haven't even mentioned child predators who thrive on parental ignorance and a child's natural curiosity.
Before you rush right in and start locking down your child's device, you need a strategy. Simply locking it down isn't enough. And your strategy will help fill the gaps of a purely technical process. A good strategy can also be your safety net if something new comes along that could allow your kids to access inappropriate content.
Embrace the Apple Ecosystem
Apple's ecosystem makes it easy to manage your family's access to content and apps. Their ecosystem also makes it counterintuitive and complex for the average person to set up. But if you embrace the Apple way of doing things—their walled garden—you can provide the basis for a safe digital environment for your kids.
Your mindset should be to disable everything within reason, and then selectively open up the features and content access that make sense for your child.
That said, here are some of the reasons you'll want to embrace the Apple way:
- A single place to configure device features and content preferences
- Content preferences are honored in the Apple content stores, like the App store, the iTunes music and video stores, and the iBooks store
- Granular control over content and device features, so you can tailor the device to each child
- Remote parental permission features for store purchases
- Family plan connects parents and children (up to 6 family members), free of charge
- Reasonably bullet-proof security for your kid's app, content, and Internet access
- A numeric PIN to lock down the parental controls (restrictions), which also indicates when someone tries to guess the PIN
- Use a single credit card for all family purchases
- Content purchased by a family member is available to all the other family members free of charge
- Using purchase permission features, you won't be the source of a headline like this: 7-YEAR-OLD SPENDS OVER $5K PLAYING JURASSIC WORLD
Don't Trust Third Party Apps
Sometimes apps just don't work right. The best way to explain this is with an anecdote. My daughter loves Youtube; mainly, she loves to watch Minecraft gaming videos. I had been working on writing an iOS app for watching Youtube with restrictions for kids, but I hadn't gotten time to finish it. So I tried a bunch of other apps and eventually installed SafeTube.
Within a few days, my daughter told me that she found a back door to get around the parental controls in the app. They use a web browser viewer to display the video. And even though the content is sanitized, the video player briefly displays the Youtube logo, which can be tapped to navigate to the main Youtube homepage where anything goes. Luckily my daughter is pretty good about telling my wife and I the truth.
Needless to say I uninstalled the app. I couldn't contact the developer as they have no website or contact information available. So I just installed the official (first party) Youtube Kids app which had just been updated to provide an interface for school age kids. She's not super excited about it, but she knows it's better than the alternative: not being able to watch Youtube.
Sometimes an app isn't what it appears to be. Another problem with third party apps is that they can be used to subvert your control of the device. For example, there are apps that are designed to fool parents, appearing to be calculators or some other harmless app, but actually provide photo albums and social features if you enter a secret code.
An example of this would be the app HiCalculator.
This app is in a class of apps that have hidden features. In the case of HiCalculator, it has a secret photo album, but is designed to look and act like a calculator. Just search for "secret" in the App Store and you'll begin a journey into the subversive app underbelly.
Periodically Check the Device
Even when the device is configured correctly, there are still reasons to check the device to make sure the child isn't trying to crack the security code (more on this later), as well as make sure the apps and iOS are updated.
In the case of a device with third party apps, you'd want to make sure the child isn't able to navigate outside their walled garden, as in my previous story about (not so) SafeTube. And you'd also want to audit the apps that are installed to make sure they are what they claim to be. Additionally, don't blindly approve app installations that your child requests without first checking the app out.
Sleepovers and Play Dates
I've told parents about these dangers and of the reality facing our kids. Yet, some parents don't take my advice, even when I offer to show them what to do. So even though you can't make people follow these precautions, you can control what happens in your own home, as well as what homes your child is allowed to visit.
So when a child comes over for a play date or a sleepover, and they bring an iOS device, ask the child if you can check to see if the restrictions are on. If they're not, temporarily enable them, and then contact the parents to let them know what you did and why. You can also use it as an opportunity to explain how important it is, and offer to help them set it up. Either way, their child shouldn't be allowed to use a device that's unsafe in your home. I've had parents that were really receptive to this and took me up on my offer, and others who just heard me out but did nothing to secure their child's device. Your mileage may vary.
When it comes to your child visiting another home, it gets more tricky. You can talk to the parents about all this and see if they have a safe environment before allowing your child to visit. You can even ask them to confiscate the unsafe devices during the visit. Or you can simply refuse to allow your child to spend unsupervised time in their home. It's all up to you. But it's important that whatever you decide, it's a decision based on knowledge, not ignorance.
There's another consideration as well. I don't know if this is true for most kids, but our third grader will sometimes tell her friends the device lock code, so they can unlock and play on her iPhone or iPad. If this practice is common, having a safe device means that you're very likely protecting the other kids too, regardless of location.
Proper Set Up in 3 Steps
Now that you've been sufficiently frightened and have a strategy, there are three primary activities you need to perform in order to get your devices properly set up and safe for your kids to use. These aren't simple 1-minute steps, but are worth every minute of your time. And once set up, you can largely forget about the devices.
Step 1: Create an iCloud Family Sharing Group
At the core of the ecosystem is an iCloud Family Sharing Group. You'll want to establish one and add all family members to the group.
Visit the Apple Family Sharing page for more information about how it works and what the benefits are: apple.com/icloud/family-sharing/
What does this do? This will allow parents to control what apps and content children can purchase. As a child tries to purchase something, the parents are notified and asked for permission right on their devices. It also allows you to share purchased content with each other. For example, in the App Store under the Updates section (in Purchased), you'll now see options to view your own purchases, as well as those of other family members. You can even use the Find My Friends app to see where all the devices are. To quote Apple:
“Family Sharing makes it easy for up to six people in your family to share each other’s iTunes, iBooks, and App Store purchases without sharing accounts. Pay for family purchases with the same credit card and approve kids’ spending right from a parent’s device. Share photos, a family calendar, and more to help keep everyone connected. And with an Apple Music family membership, up to six people can get full access to Apple Music, too.”
Setting this up is free, and establishes who the parents and children are. To do this, first decide which parent will be the family organizer. On their device, open the Settings app and swipe down to find the iCloud settings and tap it. Here, below their name and avatar, tap on "Set Up Family Sharing" and follow the instructions.
Once you have set up the group, you can add your spouse as another approver, create accounts for your children, and turn on "Ask for Permission" for purchases your kids try to make. When creating child accounts, you'll enter their birth date so that Apple can tailor the services and content offered to them, as appropriate. This lasts until they turn 13, at which point standard store content is shown as they search for things to buy.
IMPORTANT: DO NOT GIVE YOUR CHILD THE CREDENTIALS FOR THEIR iCLOUD OR APPLE STORE ACCOUNTS. They can add a passcode to their device, but they should not be given access to their iCloud account. When they need to authenticate with iCloud or one of the stores, you will have to do it for them.
Next, on each family member's device, sign in using their individual account in the iCloud Settings, and tap "Invitations" to accept the invitation to join the Family Sharing Group.
If you need additional help, Apple has a great page with detailed instructions on how to set up Family Sharing: support.apple.com/en-us/HT201088
Step 2: Configure Services
Before you set up restrictions, you need to configure the various features and services on the device. Many of the restrictions are simply switches to allow or disallow making changes to these other settings. For example, if you don't want the child to use email, don't set up any email accounts, and then disallow changes to Accounts in the Restrictions section. There are a lot of settings, but I'll only touch on the critical ones.
Open the Settings app and we'll go down the list of top-level settings...
Bluetooth is best when disabled. Most kids don't need it on. And disabling it is a big barrier to sharing from device to device. But it will prevent some accessories from working, like electronic styluses, wireless headphones, etc.
Jump down to Privacy and you'll see many of the features for which you want to disallow access. In the Restrictions area you set whether or not changes are allowed. Here, you tap each one, like Contacts, to set which apps can have access. Restrictions will always override these settings.
At the bottom you'll notice Diagnostics & Usage, which isn't a real security vector. You'll also see Advertising, which is a privacy concern. I recommend setting it to "Limit Ad Tracking". This limits how much tracking data advertisers using the Apple iAd advertising platform can get.
In the iCloud section, you'll find where device data is synced to the Apple cloud for backup purposes (and syncing across devices). This isn't something that generally becomes an issue for kids. But it's good to make sure Mail is disabled, since every iCloud account has free email.
You'll also want to make sure Find My iPhone is enabled. And for future reference, you'd come here to confirm who has access to the device location in the Find My Friends app by tapping on Share My Location.
Mail, Contacts, Calendars
As mentioned previously, most kids shouldn't have access to email. If that's the case, make sure no accounts (other than iCloud) are set up here. You've likely already disabled the mail functionality in the iCloud settings anyway. Later, we'll discuss restrictions that will allow you to prevent changes from being made here.
If your child has an iPhone with an active cellular account, this is another big can of worms. There currently are no real ways to restrict who can call your child, or who your child can call. You'll have to talk with your child about "wrong numbers", and "bad voicemail". And you'll have to periodically check the device, and even block some numbers from calling. We showed our third grader how to block numbers as well so she feels empowered and more safe.
Messages and FaceTime
Like with the phone functionality, Messages and FaceTime are a bit of a train wreck when it comes to security. You can Filter Unknown Senders but your child will still get the messages. Again, you'll have to police the messages and FaceTime calls your child gets and block anything suspicious or outright nasty.
Remember that if you allow use of the camera, your child can share photos in many ways, including messages. Discuss this with your child and, again, police the device periodically. If you see something suspicious, like your child consistently clearing out the messages or call history, deal with it right away.
You may want to protect your child's hearing by limiting how loud the device can get. You can do that here, under the Playback section. There are restrictions to disallow changes to this. Perfect!
Step 3: Configure Device Restrictions
Once your family is all part of a sharing group and you've configured the various services and features, your next step is to set up the restrictions on each child's device. These restrictions allow you to limit access to the Internet, hide or disable specific native (Apple) apps, set content age limits, prevent changes from being made, and more.
You'll find the Restrictions section in the Settings app under General. In short, I recommend some of the following settings for a child's device.
Only allow Camera, Siri, FaceTime (if used for family and friends), Apple Music, and Deleting Apps. If you use the permission feature for purchases, you can also enable iTunes Store, iBooks Store, Installing Apps, and In-App Purchases.
This is the section where content is filtered. This mainly affects the various Apple stores, and is probably the second most important area to set up, next to disabling Safari.
- Set the Music, Podcasts, News, etc. to disallow explicit content
- Set Movies ratings to G, PG, or PG-13 as appropriate
- Set TV Show ratings to TV-G, TV-PG, or TV-14 as appropriate
- Disallow explicit content for Books
- Set Apps ratings to 12+ or lower. This will generally hide and disallow apps that have web content, like Youtube
- Set Siri to disallow explicit language and web search content
- Since Safari is disabled, Website Content settings are largely unnecessary, but just in case, set the allowed sites to either "Limit Adult Content" or "Specific Websites Only"
This is the section where information that is shared can be controlled, including location, photos, and more.
Location Services is a big area, but one worth configuring. You should go through the various apps at the bottom and set whether or not they should be allowed access to the device location. You may need to set them all to "Never" and then see what breaks before allowing them to access the device location. Once done, at the top, choose "Don't Allow Changes". When you install new apps, you should run them and answer "No" to requests to access location, photos, etc. unless you are comfortable with them doing so.
Contacts, Calendars, and Reminders don't generally create an issue with regard to sharing that information with apps. But if you want to keep that information private, certainly disallow access as you did with Location Services.
Photos is another story. You can safely allow access to photos to many apps, but be warned that if you have a rogue app that could potentially share the photo online, your child's location in the photo (in addition to the photo itself) could be shared.
Share My Location should disallow changes once you've set up the Find My Friends app with your family. This also applies to the Find My iPhone app. That way you can track the device's location, but other apps cannot.
You should disallow changes to the settings for Bluetooth Sharing and Advertising.
You should adjust access to the Microphone as you did with Photos. Only very specific apps should need access to the microphone.
Twitter and Facebook are largely irrelevant, unless your child uses those networks. If so, you will want to adjust the access settings for other apps for each service, just as you did with Photos and others.
Once you've set up accounts, like iCloud, you can set Accounts to disallow changes. That way your child can't set up an email account, for example.
The same goes with Cellular Data Use. Once you configure that feature to disallow cellular data use for app downloads, for example, you can disallow changes here. This is not so much a security feature as it is a control for spending.
Background App Refresh determines what apps can run in the background, consuming battery power. Again, more of a control than a security setting, so you can allow or disallow changes here as desired.
Volume Limit changes can be disallowed if you don't want your child making changes to the volume limit you set. This is to protect their hearing by preventing music and podcasts from playing too loudly.
If your child is old enough to play others in multiplayer games, you can certainly enable the Game Center features. If you don't want them adding friends, you can disable that feature alone. That way you can set up family or friends for them to play against and then disable the Add Friends feature to lock it to those individuals.
If your child (or anyone else) tries to access the Restrictions section and enters a bad pass code (or PIN), you'll see a red warning for how many failed attempts have been made before someone enters the correct code.
As you periodically check the device, look in the restrictions area for this as a sign that something is up.
Visit the Apple support site for more detailed information on setting up device restrictions: support.apple.com/en-us/HT201304
As I mentioned at the outset of this article, there are many aspects to protecting your kids online, including personal behavior, education (your kids and their friends and parents), constant communication, oversight, a strategy, and then lastly the actual device set up. I've touched on some of the former items, while focusing primarily on the last. In future articles I'll cover some of the other topics, as well as technical "how to" information for other types of devices, like Android phones and tablets, and desktop computers (Windows and Mac).
If you have any questions or comments, I'd love to hear from you. Use the simple contact form in the footer below, or the Contact Us page.