How to child-proof your iPhone

Many parents, like me, let their children play with their iPhones. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always end well. I’ve had  friends lose apps, incur unwanted purchases or otherwise regret giving their iPhone to their children. My own kids enjoy Angry Birds and browsing photos. They also navigate away from the app they started with and go “exploring.” This could be a nuisance if they find YouTube, or a real problem should the launch financial apps or execute in-app purchases. While the iPhone’s parental controls aren’t perfect, you can take steps to child-proof your iPhone. Here’s how.

Passcode

The first and most obvious line of defense is a passcode. A passcode prevents a user, like Jr., from getting past the lock screen. There are two types of passcodes: simple and complex. Here’s the difference and how to set them up.

A simple passcode consists of four numbers. It’s easy to remember but also easy to guess. A complex passcode is much longer and contains alphanumeric characters. Obviously it’s less easy to remember but also significantly harder for Jr. to guess. Follow these steps to create either type:

  1. Tap the Settings app, then tap General.
  2. Tap Passcode Lock.
  3. You’ll be prompted to enter a passcode. Enter it twice to produce the passcode options screen.

At this point you can replace the simple passcode you just created with a complex one by moving the Simple Passcode slider to the Off position. Other options let  you determine how long the iPhone must be in sleep mode before requiring a passcode (from immediately to four hours) and voice dialing. You don’t want Jr. burning through your minutes, after all. Finally, you can opt for the iPhone to erase all of its data after 10 failed passcode attempts.

Of course, I hand my iPhone over after it’s already been unlocked. If you do the same, a passcode isn’t very useful. Let’s check out Restrictions.

Restrictions

Here’s how you can disable apps, purchases, email access, ratings and more. If you want to prevent Jr. from launching Safari, deleting apps, listening to age-restricted music or noting the iPhone’s location, you can with Restrictions. Here’s how.

Open the Settings app. Next tap General and then tap Restrictions. You’ll be prompted to enter a restrictions passcode. Note that this is not the same as your iPhone’s general passcode. Next you’ll find four sections:

  1. Apps to allow or disable
  2. Location/email account options
  3. Content options
  4. Game Center

The individual apps that can be enabled or disabled are Safari, YouTube, Camera, FaceTime, iTunes and Ping. Move each app’s slider to the Off position to prevent the iPhone from launching them. In fact, each time you disable an app, its icon disappears from your iPhone’s screen entirely. For example, if you move YouTube’s slider to the Off position, the YouTube icon will not appear on the iPhone’s screen.

You’ll also see Installing Apps and Deleting Apps. Move each slider to the Off position to prevent each action; the former will prevent new apps from being installed and the latter won’t let you (or Jr.) delete apps. You can still enter jiggle mode by holding any icon, but the “x” that allows an app to be removed will not appear.

Next, exercise (limited) control over location services and email accounts. First, tap Location to see the locations options screen. You can disable/enable location services on an app-by-app basis or turn it off entirely. Likewise, tapping email accounts and then Don’t Allow Changes won’t let you modify existing email, contacts or calendar information or create new ones. Of course, Jr. can still read your mail (and reply to it), so this isn’t entirely useful.

Let’s talk about in-app purchases. You’ve heard the story of that 8-year-old who spent $1,400 buying Smurfberries for her little Smurfs in the Smurfs’ Village app. That little financial fiasco prompted Apple to drop the in-app purchase window from 15 minutes to 5. I don’t know about your kids, but mine can still do damage within five minutes. Fortunately, you can disable in-app purchases entirely.

Open the Settings app, tap General and then Restrictions. Next, move the In-App Purchases slider  to the Off position and presto! Little Suzi won’t be able to buy a single Smurfberry.

Additionally, you can prevent the iPhone from playing back music, podcasts or apps with certain ratings. The same goes for TV shows and movies. Best of all, you can choose which country’s rating system to adopt, should you travel often or have a thing for foreign programming. Lastly, Game Center restrictions let you disable multi-player games or adding new friends.

Navigating Away

Another big problem is that kids often navigate away from the app you initially hand over. You give Jr. Angry Birds only to find him watching movies on Netflix a short time later. While there’s no official solution for this from Apple, there is a bit of hardware from Paperclip Robot that does the job.

The BubCap is a sticker that sits on top of your iPhone’s Home Key, making it hard to press. There are three models available: Regular, Ultra and Max. The difference is the thickness; Regular is pretty easy to press while Max is very difficult — even for an adult. There’s no way a young child will be able to press the Home Key and escape Plants Vs. Zombies with one of these in place. Each collection costs only $5 and fixes Jr.’s little wagon but good.

Hardware

For many the problem isn’t in-app purchases or inappropriate Netflix videos, it’s Jr.’s rough-and-tumble manner of handling the iPhone. He’s got no interest in messing with your finance apps but will likely pound your precious into the ground (or at least rub his grubby hands all over it). Here are some hardcore cases that are up for the punishment.

The OtterBox Defender ($49.95). This thing is badass and absolutely up for any punishment Jr. can deliver.

The Woogie iPhone Case + Speaker ($19.99) Soft and cuddly protection with a built-in speaker.

The Fisher-Price Laugh & Learn “iCan Play” Case ($14.99) I’m not convinced that a tiny baby needs an iPhone, but if s/he does, put it in one of these.

On the iTunes End

iTunes offers its own form of parental controls, some of which are quite useful. For example, you can set up a special “allowance” account that you fund with a pre-paid amount of money. Once it’s been spent, it’s gone until you replenish it. Apple explains how:

“1. Open the iTunes Store and click Buy iTunes Gifts from the Quick Links section on the right.

2. Scroll down to the Allowances section and click “Set up an allowance now.”

3. Enter the requested information on the page as follows:

  • Your Name: This is the name that will appear in your message to your recipient, telling him or her who the allowance is from. You can enter anything in this field (Mom, Dad, Aunt Karen, Mr. Cornelius Oswald Whitman III, Fido, or anything else).
  • Recipient’s Name: This is the name we will use to address your recipient in the message.
  • Monthly Allowance: Choose an allowance dollar amount from the pop-up menu. This is the amount that will be deducted from your credit card each month.
  • First Installment: Select the appropriate radio button to either send the allowance immediately (allowance will then be given on the first of the month thereafter), or start the allowance on the first of the next month.
  • Recipient’s Apple ID: Select the appropriate radio button to either create an account for your recipient (if he or she does not already have a iTunes Store account), or enter the recipient’s existing account name. Then type the recipient’s email address (for a new account) or iTunes Store account in the Apple ID fields.
  • Important: If the recipient already has an iTunes Store account, please do not create a new account.
  • Personal Message: This text will appear in your message to your recipient.

4. If you’re not already signed in to the iTunes Store, you may be prompted to sign in using your iTunes account information to complete the allowance process.”

iTunes also offers a list of Parental Controls. To get at them, select Preferences from the iTunes menu and then tap Parental. You’ll find options to disable podcasts, Internet radio, Ping or access to shared libraries, as well as ratings-based content restrictions for movies, TV shows, apps and music. Make these changes to the copy of iTunes that syncs with your iPhone to prevent those files from appearing on the iPhone to begin with.

Of course, the best thing we as parents can do is monitor our kids when they’re playing with our (expensive and, let’s be honest, made-for-adults) iPhones. I don’t always do that and I suspect you don’t, either. For those times, the strategies above will help. Good luck and happy iPhone-ing.

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