The Sad State of Parental Controls on Amazon Fire Tablets

I’m truly curious if the team responsible for designing the Amazon Fire tablet parental controls has any parents on staff because the current iteration of their work is downright terrible. I’m no expert — our kids are just getting to the point where I’m starting to pay attention to these safety nets — but it seems like it should be way easier than what Amazon provides today.

This January we allowed our kids (almost 4 and almost 6) to use their Christmas money to each purchase a Kids Edition Amazon Kindle Fire 7. The Kids Edition comes with a generous warranty for any damage and one year of Amazon’s FreeTime Unlimited Service — a huge library of books, videos, and apps/games for kids. After we brought the tablets home and opened up the boxes I got to work trying to configure what we thought were a reasonable set of restrictions:

  • Tablet usage is limited each day both by overall screen time and time of day.
  • The kids can use the allotted screen time to read as many books as they want.
  • Specific educational games or apps can be used during that overall screen time period for a more limited set of time.
  • Videos are available only when Mom and Dad want to allow it.

We thought this would be pretty easy to accomplish. We thought wrong.

A lot of the problems stem from two terrible design decisions around Amazon’s time and content controls which I’ll detail here.

Time Restrictions

The Fire makes a decent effort at providing a way to manage tablet usage and gives you two options:

  • An overall limit for all screen time, inclusive of all activities.
  • Time limits broken down by activity type — reading books, watching videos, or using apps/games.

The second option looks appealing, but Amazon decided the limits in this mode should be additive. So you can specify kids can read books for 60 minutes and use apps/games for 30, but that grants 90 minutes of total screen time. There’s no way to set an overall limit of 60 minutes and also restrict a specific activity like apps/games to be only a 30 minute subset of the overall limit.

Cramming thousands of kids books into a small portable device was the primary reason we allowed the purchase, but we incorrectly assumed we could find a way to let the kids have some control over how they spent their screen time. We figured they could use as much of the screen time as they wanted for books, but optionally use up to 30 minutes for approved apps/games.

The problems with the time limitations are annoying, but there are some pretty obvious workarounds for fixing those gaps:

  • Fiddle with the timers whenever you hand the tablet over to the kid each day.
  • Set your own timer on a phone and physically take the device away after the time ends.

Both are fairly inconvenient for a product which already has time restrictions built in, but it’s a workable solution. The bigger problem is in how Amazon FreeTime content restrictions work.

Content Restrictions

This is where it really hurts. Amazon provides 3 ways to manage the content your kid can access during screen time:

  • Smart filters: These allow you to select an age range for the content Amazon considers appropriate to show to your kid. I’ll pass.
  • Add Content: You can select books, videos, or apps/games already installed on the Fire tablet and publish it to the kid’s profile. They’ll see that content available within the FreeTime application.
  • Remove Content: Allows you to remove content you’ve added via the Add Content feature, or remove unwanted FreeTime Unlimited items.

In our case we wanted to remove a lot pretty much all of the FreeTime Unlimited app/game content so I dug into the Remove Content feature.

Here’s where I think Amazon started down the wrong path: instead of picking which FreeTime Unlimited apps you want to allow the kids to play, you have to select which ones you don’t want them to use. Okay, fine. That’s mildly infuriating, but I can live with it.

And here’s where it all goes to hell: there are over a thousand apps available and there is no “Select All” option. That means the poor parent who wants to vet and pick a few approved apps or games has to individually select and exclude every other app they don’t want to show. And let’s face it — the Fire doesn’t have the most responsive screen so excluding all that unwanted content will literally take hours of your time. This action also has to be repeated regularly as Amazon adds new content to the FreeTime Unlimited library.

Fuck.

Okay — maybe there’s a way to use the Add Content feature to select specific FreeTime Unlimited content you want to allow, right? Nope. You’re welcome to browse the Store for additional kids games or apps, but there’s no way to access the content already included within the FreeTime Unlimited subscription.

Apps/games you push to the kid profile via the Add Content option are also not differentiated from the FreeTime Unlimited Content. So while I might find an app from the Store which I want my kid to use within the device time limits, you still have to manually exclude all the FreeTime Unlimited content. Apps/games you manually push into their profile are subject to the same restrictions as FreeTime Unlimited apps/games.

How Amazon Can Fix This

It’s not hard. Amazon has the right intent, but can significantly improve the quality of their controls with a few changes (and by hiring some actual parents):

  1. FreeTime Unlimited content should have an option to disable all content unless manually approved. Essentially the exact opposite of how it works today, but this would make managing the FreeTime Unlimited content significantly easier. At least give us the option.
  2. Allow parents to set an overall screen time limit and a breakdown by activity type. This allows parents to control the maximum amount of screen time — arguably the most important control — and also provide rails for how kids use that time.
  3. FreeTime Unlimited content management should be separated from the books, videos, and apps/games the parents manually add. For example, I might want to allow my kid to play the educational games I personally added for up to 30 minutes, but I only want them to be able to play those half-assed Dora the Explorer FreeTime Unlimited games for up to 15 minutes.