CHILDREN who were on the “nice” list this year may soon unwrap smartphones as holiday gifts. But parents may be wary of the naughty things that children can do with the gadgets — and with good reason.
Take the recent revelation at a Colorado high school of students’ widespread use of vault apps, which are phone apps with sexting capabilities that disguise themselves as calculator programs and other mundane tools. Other parents have complained that their children racked up exorbitant charges on their credit cards by buying goodies, such as extra game characters or poker chips, inside mobile games that were downloaded free.
“You’re giving your kid a lot of power when you hand them a smartphone, and kids’ digital savvy often outstrips their judgment,” said Caroline Knorr, the parenting editor of Common Sense Media, which evaluates content and products for families.
The scope of the issues is only growing. A study published in 2014 of seventh-graders found that 22 percent admitted to sexting. The availability of so-called freemium apps, which are free to download but include their own ministores to buy goods, dominate the Google and Apple app stores. Between 2012 and 2013, money spent inside freemium apps grew 211 percent, according to the research firms App Annie and IDC.
With all that in mind, I recently put the parental controls of Apple’s iPhone and Google’s Android operating systems through rigorous testing. I came up with a few common hypothetical situations for parents: 1) preventing a child from viewing adult content on a web browser; 2) preventing a child from deleting apps on your own phone; 3) monitoring for vault apps; 4) blocking exorbitant in-app purchases; and 5) preventing a child from burning through your cellular data plan.
The bottom line from my tests: While it may be tempting to save money by buying cheaper Android devices for children, parents who want tight control over their children’s activities on smartphones will be better off buying iPhones for the family. Apple’s parental controls were detailed and took a while to set up, but they accomplished all of the restrictions that I wanted. The Android system was sorely lacking in features for regulating minors and only offered incomplete solutions for a small number of restrictions.
“We want every customer, young and old, to have a positive and safe experience online with our products,” Apple said in a statement. “That’s why we’ve built parental controls into iOS devices, Apple TV and Macs, so parents have easy-to-use tools that protect their children online.”
Alphabet’s Google declined to comment.
The heart of the iPhone’s parental controls is a feature called Family Sharing. Setting it up involves designating a parent’s iTunes account as the primary credit card holder. The parent can invite multiple Apple accounts to join the group, letting family members make purchases from the same credit card and share content purchases with one another. In other words, if you buy an app on one phone, other members of the family can also use that app without having to pay for it again.
A key part of Family Sharing is a feature called Ask to Buy. With the feature enabled, whenever a child tries to download an app or make a purchase inside an app, the parent’s iPhone receives a notification and a detailed description of the content. The parent can then choose to allow or deny the purchase.
It took me about 20 minutes to set up multiple Apple devices with Family Sharing. But from then on, it was smooth sailing; attempting to purchase content inside an iPad game triggered the Ask to Buy feature on my iPhone with a description of the game content. The feature should come in handy for parents who don’t want their children to rack up hefty credit card bills with in-app purchases. It should also help parents who are concerned about so-called vault apps and want to vet the apps their children are downloading.
Inside the iPhone’s settings app, there is also a setting called Restrictions. It’s basically a switchboard full of features you can enable or disable on an iPhone. On a child’s iPhone, you can restrict the Safari browser from loading websites with adult content. For parents who occasionally hand over their own phone to a child to play a game, you can create a restriction on your phone that disables the ability to delete apps to minimize the risk of losing important content.
Another common headache for parents: Children who unwittingly burn through the data on a phone plan by constantly streaming video or music over a cellular connection. In the iPhone’s settings, you can disable apps like Netflix or Apple Music from using cellular content. Then in the iPhone’s restriction settings, you can block the ability to re-enable cellular data usage for those apps.
The Android system, on the other hand, could only accomplish a few family-related tasks, and in imperfect ways: It could restrict children from downloading apps and other content at certain maturity levels, and it also was able to partially prevent a child from downloading in-app content by requiring authentication, like a password, for making purchases.
Android lacks features for blocking adult content inside web browsers or vetting for vault apps. There are some limited solutions: Google’s search engine can be set up with a feature called SafeSearch to prevent web searches for adult content. Some apps, like YouTube, can also be configured to filter out inappropriate content.
Similarly, the system also lacks the ability to disable cellular data use for certain apps, though one restriction in YouTube lets you stream high-definition video only over a Wi-Fi connection. Still, that won’t do much to prevent a child from using all your cell data.
Android users can also download third-party apps to help prevent certain activities. The app AppLock, for instance, can be used to lock down any app that a parent suspects to be a vault app with a PIN code. Another piece of software called PhoneSheriff can be used to monitor and block activities on multiple cellphones; it costs a hefty $90.
Over all, the lack of built-in restrictions for Android suggested that parental controls are an afterthought for Google.
Ms. Knorr of Common Sense Media said Google has lagged Apple on parental controls, probably because of the open-source nature of Android. Google lets device manufacturers install Android on their phones and customize the system to their liking, like adding their own parental control settings.
Though Apple’s childproofing solutions are thorough, technology alone cannot solve all our problems, Ms. Knorr said. She encouraged parents to use phone restrictions to have a conversation with their children about what is right and wrong, and to help them earn privileges to different features when they prove they understand.
“Turning everything off and constantly being the Internet police is not going to really be a great position for your kid because they’re going to need to be able to independently manage their own time, what they download and all that stuff,” she said.