Thoughts on iOS Parental Controls

Parents today live in a world in which their children have access to a staggering amount of information and entertainment options. This can be terrifying, since a good parent wants to allow their sons and daughters to learn, stay up to speed with technology and have age-appropriate fun, while avoiding the many horrors that lurk online.

When traditional computers ruled the world, it was relatively straightforward to “lock down” the family PC and be fairly confident in letting youngsters explore. Things became a bit murkier as teenagers started using their own laptops and we watched the rise of pervasive Wi-Fi, but parental controls on computers still remained relatively mature, and private laptops typically weren’t being issued to gradeschoolers (note that I’m not focusing on teenagers in this piece, as that’s an entirely separate can of worms).

The rise of mobile devices has changed everything. Most specifically, low-end devices like the iPod touch have made powerful pocket computers cheap enough to start appearing on gradeschool holiday wishlists. This post specifically focuses on the iPod touch due to its current “king of the hill” popularity, however many of my points also apply to devices like the Nintendo 3DS, Android tablets, etc.

I’ve watched numerous fellow parents deal with the introduction of an iPod touch into their household over the past few years. Here are the three main reactions I’ve seen:

1) Blissful ignorance: These parents treat the iPod touch like a slightly fancier Game Boy (they’ve been staring at portable video game screens for years!), and remain blissfully unaware that they’ve just placed a full-on computer in their child’s hands. When I was young, these were the kinds of parents that had no idea what their kids were watching on TV, and it’s why I got introduced to the “Alien” franchise WAY too early 🙂

2) Lockdown: These parents are hypersensitive about online dangers, enable all of the Apple-provided parental controls and never allow the iPod to connect to their Wi-Fi router.

3) Middle ground: These parents see value in a lot of online behavior and material, but struggle valiantly with the limitations of Apple’s parental controls. Count me in this camp.

Let me start by saying that Apple should be commended for including a fairly decent set of parental controls in iOS (other platforms provide far fewer options, or none at all). From the ability to disable Safari and YouTube to options for blocking app installs and in-app payments, it’s a pretty good basic system.

That said, as someone that manages multiple iPods for my kids (all of them bought themselves through diligent allowance management), here are my top four proposed solutions to pain points I’ve encountered or observed:

4) Provide more granular controls within Safari: It’s great that Apple lets you disable Safari completely, but it’d be lovely to allow it to be enabled, but only capable of visiting whitelisted sites (especially handy for school assignments). Same for the YouTube app, with whitelisted clips/playlists. This technology exists already in OS X, let’s see it on iOS. Third party apps should take note as well. It’d be great to enable Netflix or Hulu, but limit the viewing experience by rating, category or whitelist. Right now it’s all or nothing.

3) Force in-app browsers to honor the global Safari settings: Many parents would be surprised to know that disabling the Safari app does not disable browser access within other applications. I wasn’t even aware of this until my son asked me how he was able to get to YouTube from inside the Google Earth app (I was very appreciative of his honesty). This can be addressed currently by blocking things at the router level, but this isn’t something that normal parents are going to do, nor does it help when the iPod is connecting via an alternate hotspot (more on this below). I’d propose that in-app browsers be subject to the global Safari parental controls settings (blocked entirely or whitelist-able as outlined above).

2) Allow management of parental controls/whitelisting via an iCloud-based web interface or master “Parental Controls” iOS app: Managing all of this stuff (especially if there are multiple devices) is super tedious. Even just installing a new game for your child involves grabbing the device, unlocking it, disabling the “install new apps” restriction, installing the new app (which requires password entry if done on the device), then re-enabling the restriction. A single point of management that pushes updates out wirelessly to all managed devices would be extremely handy, and might even encourage more parents to take an active role in what their kids are accessing.

1) Move the Wi-Fi connection management panel inside the parental controls area: If only one item was implemented from this list, this should be it. Parents that rely on router-level blocking (via services like OpenDNS) to allow their children to safely access some services but not others currently have to watch their handiwork disappear if the child connects to another hotspot. Yes, Safari itself continues to be blocked on the other hotspot, but the in-app browser problem remains. These parents would be well-served by the added ability to only allow connectivity to approved hotspots, as well as the “more granular controls within Safari” and “force in-app browsers to honor the global Safari settings” items outlined above. For the “lockdown” parents looking to block Wi-Fi access entirely, moving Wi-Fi connection management into the parental controls area is critical, especially as a child becomes older and savvier. Right now, if mom and dad are blocking you entirely at home, you can just hop on the free Wi-Fi next door and you’re good to go.

It’s a brave new world for parents. Here’s hoping that we see an improved round of parental controls in upcoming iOS releases. That and unbreakable kid-proof screens 🙂