How to kid-proof any phone or tablet

Tips and apps for peace of mind

Kids and tablet
Keep your kids (and your gadgets) safe from harm.Alexander Dummer/Unsplash

If you've spent any time around youngsters lately, then you'll know that they love flat, shiny touchscreens just as much as the rest of us. That means a son, daughter, nephew, or niece will be quick to "borrow" your phone or tablet—or eventually request a device of their own.

Whether you're handing your phone to a nagging toddler or sorting out a new tablet for your children, you'll need to protect the device against unwholesome content, unauthorized purchases, and more. Thankfully, it's not that difficult. Here's what you need to do.

Kid-proofing Android phones and tablets

Let's start with a quick fix you can use if a child you're responsible for wants to borrow your phone to play a game or watch a movie. It's called screen pinning, and it's been in stock Android since version 5.0. First, you need to head into the Security menu in Settings and turn the Screen-pinning option to On. Make sure a PIN is set at the same time—this will be the same PIN or pattern used to unlock your device.

With that done, load up the app or game you want to allow access to, then tap the square Overview navigation button to bring up the multitasking screen. Drag the most recent app up to the center of the screen and tap the pin icon—your young friend is then locked into that app until someone presses the Overview and Back buttons together and enters the PIN.

Android screen pinning

Android screen pinning

Limit kids to one app on Android.David Nield/Popular Science

Screen pinning is a good fix for temporarily loaning out your device and keeping only one app available. For something more comprehensive, you can set up a dedicated user account for a frequent guest. Open Settings, then go to Users, and tap Add user. This doesn't add much in the way of parental controls, but it does keep the new user's apps and settings (like home screen layouts) away from your own. To change accounts, drag down from the top of the screen with two fingers, then tap the avatar of the current user.

If you're using an Android tablet, rather than an Android phone, you can set up extra users in a special "restricted" mode, a mode that does give you control over which apps and services can be used by your kids. If you're buying your children a shared tablet or often lending yours out, then this is the best option. Unfortunately, Google hasn't yet seen fit to roll out the same feature to Android phones.

The main place to find parental controls on Android, whether for your main user account or one you've set up for your kids, is in the Google Play Store app. Open the main app menu, tap Settings, then tap Parental controls, and switch them on. You can set age limits for games, films, shows, magazines, and music—all the content that comes through Google Play.

Android restricted profiles

Android restricted profiles

Android's restricted profiles are useful, but only available on tablets.David Nield/Popular Science

Elsewhere on Android, kid-proofing features are a little half-baked. Chrome doesn't have any web filtering options, for example, nor does YouTube. Your best bet for child-friendly video-watching is the separate YouTube Kids app, which uses Google's algorithms and filters to keep little ones away from stuff they shouldn't be seeing.

While the system-wide options on Android can be a bit hit or miss, third-party apps can plug the gap. Kids Place and Kids Zone both let children run the apps you've approved and nothing else, while a tool such as AppLock puts PIN protection on individual apps, preventing youngsters from running anything you don't want them to. Meanwhile, apps like MMGuardian let you remotely monitor and control activity on your child's phone. This means you control which apps can run, at which times, and the software will filter out inappropriate content from apps and the web.

Kid-proofing iPhones and iPads

Over in the land of Apple hardware, kid-proofing devices is slightly more straightforward. iOS has its own version of screen pinning: a feature called Guided Access, which you can find under General and Accessibility in the Settings app. When you activate this feature, be sure to turn on the passcode lock (or Touch ID protection) as well. This will prevent your kids from switching to other apps without a PIN code.

You launch Guided Access for the current app with a triple-tap on the Home button. At this point, you can disable certain areas of the screen, disable the volume controls, and even set a time limit for the app. Another triple-tap on the Home button ends Guided Access, but without your PIN code or your fingerprint, your kids can't escape from whatever app you've left them in.

iOS Guided Access

iOS Guided Access

Guided Access in iOS limits use to the current app.David Nield/Popular Science

Guided Access works for single apps, whether on your iDevice or one specifically for your kids. Elsewhere the bulk of the parental controls in iOS are in the Restrictions menu, which can be found by tapping General in Settings. Turn restrictions on to take control over web browsing, camera use, in-app purchases, and more. You'll be asked to enter a PIN code the first time you switch the feature on, and you'll need the code again to turn the restrictions off.

The limits you can set here are more comprehensive than they are on Android. It's possible to block access to Siri and FaceTime, prevent apps from being installed or deleted, and even stop your kids from changing the volume limit on the device. You can place age restrictions on music, movies, and other content available from iTunes. In Safari, meanwhile, the controls can filter websites to either block adult content or limit browsers to a pre-approved list of sites.

What you don't get here is control over non-Apple apps like Instagram or YouTube that your kids might be using. You can prevent users from installing new apps, but double-check the apps that are already on the iPhone or iPad to see if they have any built-in controls. If not, you might want to remove them completely. As on Android, YouTube Kids is available as a child-friendly alternative to the original app.

iOS Restrictions

iOS Restrictions

iOS comes with plenty of built-in parental controls.David Nield/Popular Science

You won't find the same range of parental control apps on the iOS App Store as you will on Android because Apple's mobile operating system just doesn't give third-party apps as much control as Google's does. But there are still control options, such as Norton Family, which is essentially an alternative web browser with extra filtering and monitoring controls. The more comprehensive iOS parental control apps require special setup and have mixed reviews, so it's usually best to stick to what Apple provides.

iOS has better built-in options for putting limits on your kids and Android has a better selection of third-party apps to pick from. That said, whatever the make and model of the device you're trying to protect, you should be able to put together something suitable for kids of any age. At the same time, remember the importance of educating children about social media and online security. Eventually, they'll be ready to explore the internet without training wheels—so make sure they stay safe when they do.