So you hand your son your smartphone to keep him occupied for five minutes while you try to have an adult conversation for a change. Next thing you know, he’s calling $5-a-minute 900 numbers and watching racy Miley Cyrus videos. This is not good.
Maybe Santa left your little ones some electronics under the tree, or maybe you’re passing down one of your older gizmos because you got something special.
Either way, if your kids are still in single digits or close to it, you‘ll want to set up parental controls to limit their screen time, cut in-app purchases off at the pass, and help them steer clear of the Net’s slimy, dark underbelly.
Nearly all mobile devices have some kind of parental control option, though they vary widely as to how easy they are to set up and how much they actually do. (For those of you keeping score at home, Samsung’s and Amazon’s are pretty good, Apple’s and Microsoft’s are OK, and in native Android they are virtually nonexistent.)
Here’s how to lock down those mobiles before the kids get into any real trouble.
Apple: Basic but effective
If the kids got a new i-device this Christmas — or if you’re passing down an older iPhone or iPad to the little nubbins — it’s a good idea to implement parental controls. Fortunately, Apple makes this pretty easy to do.
Start by tapping the Settings icon, then choose General, and then Restrictions. You’ll have to enter and/or create a four-digit passcode. (Be sure to write it down; if you forget it, you’ll have to factory-reset the device — there’s no way to recover it.)
From there, you can slide tabs left or right to restrict access to the apps that come with each i-device (like the camera or browser), filter content by type or ratings, prevent kids from changing account settings, and a lot more. However, Apple controls are fairly blunt. Your kids can either use a thing or they can’t.
Mostly, though, you want to control in-app purchases before they spend their college funds on Kim Kardashian’s virtual wardrobe. You can do this by sliding the button to the left to block all purchases, or by requiring a passcode to approve them first.
You can also prevent or limit the games, books, movies, and other apps they can download from the iTunes Store, or cut them off entirely.
If you’re an all-Apple household, you can use the new Family Sharing features of iOS 8 to manage everyone’s devices. Go into Settings on your iPhone or iPad and open iCloud. (Instructions for setting up iCloud can be found on Apple’s support site.) Then select Set up Family Sharing and tap Get Started. You’ll have to click through a bunch of screens to verify that you’re the family organizer and that the correct credit information is on file at the iTunes Store.
To add an account you want to manage, select Add Family Member, enter her iCloud email address, and then tap Next. You may be prompted to sign in with your Apple ID if you haven’t already.
She’ll receive a notification on her phone asking her to accept the invitation to Family Sharing and to agree to share her iTunes purchases and location information.
If you enable the Parent/Guardian option (you’ll find it inside the iCloud settings under Family), you’ll be able to monitor everything your kids try to download from iTunes. When the kids want to buy something, you get an alert on your iPhone that lets you OK or nix the purchase. You can also use it to share music, videos, or apps you’ve purchased; create a family calendar; and track the location of your loved ones (or, at least, their loved phones).
Android: Mostly a void
Want to set up parental controls on an Android device? You’ll have to either use the native apps that come with the handset or tablet (like Samsung’s and Amazon’s) or pay for a third-party app like Famigo or Funamo that lets you limit the apps your kids use, the websites they visit, and the stuff they install.
Android 5.0 will, however, let you restrict apps based on their “maturity” ratings and require a password for purchases. You start by launching the Google Play app; then tap the three horizontal lines in the upper-left corner of the screen and select Settings. Under User controls select Content Filtering and pick the maturity level you desire.
Once you do, you’ll be prompted to create and re-enter a four-digit PIN, which will be required if you want to change these settings.
Then select Require authentication for purchases and decide if you want to verify all purchases, none of them, or provide a 30-minute window where authentication is not necessary (to keep your little gamers from nagging you every five minutes when they want to level up in Candy Crush Soda Saga).
Once you do, you’ll be asked to provide your Google account password (not the PIN) to confirm your choice, and again whenever your kids decide they want to buy something.
Amazon Fire: FreeTime is not necessarily free
Amazon’s ebook readers and tablets have long offered parents tools to restrict what their little darlings get up to when they think no one’s watching. These days you have two options. One is Amazon’s free parental controls, which allow you to toggle the device’s basic functions on or off.
Swipe down from the top screen on your Kindle ebook reader or Fire tablet and select Settings. Then select Parental Controls and slide the bar to ON. You’ll need to enter a password or PIN. You can then decide whether to lock out the browser or email, password-protect purchases or video playback, and block content by type (books, music, movies, photos, and so on).
If you’ve got a new Kindle or Fire HD tablet, you can use the Amazon FreeTime app or subscribe to FreeTime Unlimited. The free-but-limited version lets you choose the content your kids can consume and assign time limits to each type — so, for example, you can let them play games for an hour but read for as long as they want. It also blocks purchases from online stores or inside apps. For $3 to $10 a month, FreeTime Unlimited adds a curated library of family-friendly books, movies, and music the kids can access without any help from you.
To get FreeTime, simply tap the Apps group and select FreeTime. Enter your password (it’s the same one you created for Parental Controls, if you went that route) and then create profiles for every child who uses the device. You’ll need to add content to each child’s account, or subscribe to FreeTime Unlimited, before you can finish setup. To subscribe to FreeTime Unlimited, go to the Parent Settings screen, select Manage Content & Subscription, and then Subscribe to Kindle FreeTime Unlimited.
If you’re sharing the device with your kids, you can set up profiles for each child, which gives you access to a much broader range of customizable parental controls. Go to Settings and pick Profiles & Family Library. You’ll be prompted to add either an adult or child profile; pick the latter, add his birth date, and Amazon will automatically apply settings appropriate for users 8 and younger or those between 9 and 17. From there, you can also manage your kid’s content and FreeTime subscriptions.
Samsung Galaxy: Kids Mode
The good news is that recent Samsung handsets and tablets offer a Kids Mode that limits the apps and other features he can access. The bad news? You may have to jump through a few hoops to install and activate it.
Kids Mode is available for the Galaxy S4 and S5, the Note 3 and 4, and the Tab 4 and Tab S tablets. But how you get to it will vary. On most tablets, you’ll find it preloaded on the home page or tucked inside the Galaxy Essentials group. Just look for the Kids Mode icon (a cartoon alligator) to launch the app.
With the S5, it’s a little trickier. You’ll need to hold your finger down on a blank part of the phone’s screen, select Widgets, and then swipe sideways until you find the Kids Mode icon. Hold your finger on the gator, and then drag and drop it on your home screen. Tap the icon to download and install the app. Tap the icon again to open the app, select a four-digit pin to lock and unlock Kids Mode, and set up profiles for each child.
Here’s a thorough eight-minute overview of how to install and use Kids Mode on a Galaxy S5 (Android-Advice.com).
Once in Kids Mode, urchins can use a handful of free family-friendly apps for drawing, making voice recordings, taking photos, and so on. You can also add hundreds of family-friendly apps from the Samsung Kids Store, or let them access up to 30 mainstream apps like Netflix or ESPN.
A parental control dashboard shows you which apps your kids are using, allows you to set time limits, and lets you download videos and other content you wish to share with them.
Windows Phone: Cornering the kid market
Believe it or not, Windows Phone has some of the most painless — if also somewhat limited — parental controls on the mobile market.
From your Windows Phone home screen, go into Settings and select Kids Corner. Hit the Next button to select the games, music, photos, or apps you want your kids to access. On the next screen, you’ll choose a password. Then hit Finish. To add other apps, just swipe left to get to the apps screen, hold your finger over the app you want, and select add to kid’s corner from the pop up menu.
To launch Kids Corner, just swipe left from the home screen, and then up. It will stay in this mode until you tap the power button to blank the screen or power off the device. When you power back on, you swipe up and enter the password you just created to get to your normal Windows Mobile home.
Kids Corner doesn’t let you control how much time they spend on each app or prevent in-app purchases. To do the latter, you need to go into the Microsoft Store app and tap the three dots on the bottom-right corner of the screen to access the Settings menu. Tap the button labeled PIN and slide the bar in the Wallet to On. Enter a PIN of any length, confirm it, and hit Done. Then check the box next to Use Wallet PIN to protect music, app, and in-app purchases.
Note: This article was updated to correct information about Amazon's parental controls.
Send holiday greetings and spiked eggnog to Dan Tynan at ModFamily1@yahoo.com.