How to Use the Parental Controls on a Smartphone

Tips for limiting your child's smartphone use and reducing screen time, for both Android devices and iPhones

Toddler with smart phone iStock-655588138

It’s no secret that kids love digital devices.

Whether they’re playing games, texting friends, or checking out the latest viral video, they're constantly connected, leaving parents with the unenviable task of setting limits on device use to protect their children.

Parental controls for smartphones can help with that. “It just depends on how much of a helicopter parent you want to be,” says Joshua Konowe, strategic advisor for the secure communications company SyncDog.

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There are ways to limit screen time and purchases, control access to the content your child views, monitor your child's activities, and preserve family privacy. The real challenge, it seems, is figuring out how to locate and activate those features.

Google has a free app parents can download for help managing Android devices, for example. And Apple rolled out a new set of parental controls with its recent iOS 12 update. The features were developed after shareholders expressed concern about the impact of smartphones on children.

No matter how much you lock down a mobile device, though, Konowe, who has an 11-year-old son, stresses that it’s still up to you to monitor your child's smartphone use.

Like many kids his age, Konowe's son plays a lot of video games. So, Konowe keeps an eye on related chat activity, remains on the lookout for violent content, and frequently plays games with the boy. (Konowe also limits his son to a phone that doesn't have a SIM card; the result is that he only uses the phone at home, accessing the web through WiFi.)

To help you find and master the parental controls on your child's smartphone, we've assembled a simple guide. Here are your options.

Limit Screen Time

For Android phone users: Google's Family Link app, available for free at the Android app store, lets you create a time limit for daily usage as well as a “bedtime” period when your child is prevented from using the device. If your child wants more time, they can send a request to your phone.

You can even download the app onto an iPhone to monitor what a child with an Android phone is doing. You can't, however, use the app to set controls on the child's iPhone remotely.

For iPhone users: To use Apple’s parental controls, you must go to the settings menu on your child's phone. As with Google’s Family Link app, you can then set daily time limits for gaming, entertainment, and social media apps. The child can once again send requests for more time to your phone.

You can also set up a “downtime” period, similar to Google’s “bedtime,” when your child is restricted to the apps and functions you select.

Prior to iOS 12 update, you had to download a third-party app to perform most of those tasks.

Control Access to Apps and Content

For Android phone users: The Android operating system makes things a little easier for parents by permitting them to set up multiple user accounts on a single device like, say, a smartphone.

This lets you share the phone with a child, while restricting the device’s use when it’s in the child's hands. If your child has a phone, you can still create an account, log in to it on the child's phone, and manage it from your own iOS or Android device.

Start by downloading the free Google Family Link app from the Android app store. The app will then walk you through the process for creating a Google account—linked to your own—for your child to use. It also will help you decide what sort of restrictions to place on that account.

A handful of Google apps such as Photos, Gmail, Maps, and Play Music come preinstalled. YouTube is notably blocked, but YouTube Kids is available for download in the app store.

Once you’ve completed the process, your child can use your phone or another phone to access the restricted account. Your own account will remain unchanged.

You can monitor what your child is doing via the app’s dashboard and email alerts, and require parental approval for any new app your child wishes to download.

For iPhone users: Even with the new iOS 12 changes, sharing an Apple phone with your 8-year-old just isn’t as convenient as it is with an Android device. You can’t toggle back and forth between accounts without logging in and out of iCloud, so things are much simpler if you each have your own device.

To get started, you have to add your kids to your “family” through your phone's Screen Time setting. If they don’t each have an iCloud account, the phone will walk you through the setup process.

Once you’ve done that, you can use your own phone or the child's to set various limits. In the Screen Time settings menu, select App Limits, then Add Limit. From there, you can choose All Apps & Categories or place controls on specific options: Social Networking, Games, or Entertainment. Like other settings features, these will be protected with a four-digit parental passcode designed to keep kids from modifying them.

If you want to further restrict the kind of content your kid can access, select Content & Privacy Restrictions, then Content Restrictions. This allows you to limit movie- and TV show-viewing on the device to specific ratings (G, PG, R, etc.) and decide whether the child can listen to podcasts and music with explicit content. Adult websites can be blocked, too.

After that, you can use the Screen Time settings on your phone to keep tabs on what your kids are doing and, if need be, remotely adjust the controls. When you select a child’s profile, you’ll see the various limits you set, along with a real-time report on how they’re spending their screen time.

It’s worth mentioning that Apple’s screen time controls aren’t just for kids. As the company points out, many adults want to keep track of their own phone use. So parents have the option to self-impose restrictions. Of course, unlike your child, you’ll know the four-digit passcode that lets you overrule them.

Protect Your Child's Privacy

In a world where adults and kids love to post every tiny detail of their lives on social media, keeping your child's personal information private can be tough. But Apple and Google both offer parental controls to help you with that.

For Android phone users: With the Family Link app, you can prevent your child from sharing Google Photos and limit Google’s ability to save information about your child’s web searches, voice commands, and other activities.

You can also block access to most social media apps by selecting the appropriate App and Games setting. Your options include "10 and up" or "younger." But that does not block the websites for those platforms from showing up in the device’s web browser.

For iPhone users: The Content & Privacy Restrictions tab in the Screen Time settings menu offers a slew of privacy controls that you can use to, say, turn off a phone’s location services—as well as the access individual apps have to your child’s location.

You also can use those settings to cut off app access to the photos stored on the phone, restrict the use of the device’s microphone, and prevent apps for fitness trackers and other services from sharing your child’s data via a Bluetooth connection.

Smartphone Privacy Protection

A smartphone can be an incredibly useful device—but what do all those apps do with your information? On the "Consumer 101" TV show, Consumer Reports expert Justin Brookman explains how you can protect your privacy.

Bree Fowler

Bree Fowler

I write about all things "cyber" and your right to privacy. Before joining Consumer Reports, I spent 16 years reporting for The Associated Press. What I enjoy: cooking and learning to code with my kids. I've lived in the Bronx for more than a decade, but as a proud Michigan native, I will always be a die-hard Detroit Tigers fan no matter how much my family and I get harassed at Yankee Stadium. Follow me on Twitter (@BreeJFowler).