The Sad State of Parental Controls on Apple iOS

A few weeks ago I wrote about the bad shape of parental controls on Amazon Fire tablets, but it would be a mistake to assume Apple does much better with iOS. In fact, in some ways Apple is still far behind Amazon on this front, but it’s fair to say both companies could stand to invest time in improving the parental control experience.

Back to Apple — if you haven’t dug into this, iOS provides two different methods of controlling device usage:

  • Guided Access: Restricts screen time and device controls (volume, sleep, keyboard, touch), but locks the user in to a single app.
  • Restrictions: Controls which system apps and settings are accessible. Can also limit movie, TV, book, app, and Siri content by rating levels.

In the end, neither is ideal for our primary use case: allow some freedom, but ultimately control overall screen time and which applications are accessible.

I will admit that when the kids were super young (let’s say one – three-ish-years-old) Guided Access was a really great approach for the times we wanted to deliver a bit of screen time. You could open an app geared towards identifying colors, shapes, numbers, or barnyard animals and lock them into that single app for a specified period of time. They stayed in that app no matter which buttons they clicked or how they tried to mash the screen, and the volume never changed. It was a great option for that age.

But as they’ve grown older we’ve found Guided Access to be too restrictive, and the native Restrictions feature to be too open-ended. I think Restrictions probably makes a lot of sense for a teenager audience when the device is something they can always access, but we’re far from that point and it definitely doesn’t meet our needs right now.

Major Leaps Forward

I think there are two key improvements Apple could make to really enhance the current experience.

Overall Screen Time Limits

This already exists in Guided Access and should also be a feature of Restrictions for the younger age groups. I know Amazon uses the different user profiles to count usage and that iOS doesn’t have a multi-user concept, but I think it would be feasible to expose a daily time restriction which could be temporarily overridden with a PIN entry. Or even have this work the same way Guided Access does today and let the parent start the timer for a specified duration, but allow the user to switch apps.

Flexible Content Restrictions

I know this sounds like an oxymoron, but this where where I think Apple could leapfrog (that’s a parental pun) Amazon. The Fire tablet content restrictions are done simply by type — where books, video, and apps are your only separation points. What I ultimately want is the ability to group applications myself and then set time restrictions on those groups.

For example, it would be great to assign different daily time limits to each of these:

  • Games which are just for fun and don’t provide much educational value.
  • Apps which the parents believe help develop reading, writing or math.
  • Apps which are just eBooks or eBook readers we’ve populated with content.

An overall screen time limit is a good start, but it’s not helpful if the kids just spend the entire allotment cutting hair (they love those Toca Boca hair salon apps for some reason.) I’m okay letting them play that for a bit, but I’d like the ability to funnel them back towards books or apps like Endless Numbers when fun time ends. A crude way to do this would be time limits by app folders, but I’d take anything at this point.

The most critical piece here is to allow parents the ability to define these groups of apps because the groupings are going to vary from family to family and can’t just be defined by a content type third-party rating. What Apple (or the developer) believes to qualify as educational or useful in the App Store isn’t going to be consistent across each family. We love a lot of the PBS programming, but crap like the whiny Calliou kid doesn’t fly in our house even though it technically has the same content rating as other shows we do allow.


As we explored using an old iPad Mini 4 (the best!) as the primary kid device I ran into a few quirks which definitely aren’t dealbreakers, but sure were annoying and caught me by surprise.

Restrictions Reset

You can turn Restrictions on or off as needed, but the specific settings you select will reset each time. There are 42 (!) different options to configure as of this writing, and you’ll need to redo all of them each time you disable and re-enable Restrictions at the top level.

Fun fact: one of the restrictions you can enable is to block App Store downloads. In order to download a new app you might naturally choose to temporarily disable Restrictions at the top level, which means you have to reset all of your other Restrictions when you turn them back on. It’s a vicious cycle which could be solved if iOS remembered your previous settings.

Touch ID Access Levels

I wanted the kids to be able to use Touch ID to access the iPad — the amount of food on their sticky fingers usually prevents this from working and provides an additional checkpoint — so it wasn’t totally open to anyone, but enrolling their fingerprint automatically meant they could access my entire 1Password vault since the app is not controlled by the Restrictions feature. I needed 1Password to be there so I could paste my Apple ID password as needed, but I also wanted to make sure the kids couldn’t get at that app and somehow trash all of our saved login information. I ultimately disabled Touch ID usage in the 1Password app settings, but that just meant I had to type my ridiculous master password every time I wanted to get at my Apple ID password to install a new app. It just feels like a step back after becoming accustomed to using Touch ID for everything. I’m not sure what the cleanest way to solve this problem is, but maybe have an option for which apps can use Touch ID when Restrictions are enabled?

After going through this process with both a Kindle Fire and iPad I’m really hopeful that Apple can move ahead in this space with iOS 12 or 13. I don’t think Amazon has much incentive to provide more granularity within the FreeTime Unlimited product and expect their inflexible controls will remain as-is for the foreseeable future. If Apple can provide parents — especially those who have already invested in the Apple ecosystem with multiple iPhones or iPads in the house — with more flexible controls, I think there’s a market which will see value in the higher price point for a low-end iPad over a Fire tablet which requires new accounts, apps, and management.

Hope these two articles helped out!