After eight years of work in the online safety space, we’ve encountered many different kinds of parents and families from the immigrants struggling to communicate in English and monitor their kids on school-issued devices, to doctors who can surgically repair a heart but whose kids are falling apart from tech and porn addiction. We’ve worked hard to customize our recommendations to fit each family’s concerns and goals, because the best solutions are layered combinations of strategies, not one-size-fits-all answers.
All that in mind, we normally don’t provide blanket recommendations about specific kinds of technology. But lately, I’ve found myself echoing an important warning about iPhones over and over in a parent forum on Facebook called Parenting in a Tech World. It’s a place where hundreds of thousands of parents can ask each other questions about all kinds of issues where families and tech intersect. I also have parents asking me about the problems with iPhone parental controls on a weekly basis.
Whenever you find yourself answering the same question over and over, it likely proves that 1) The information you are sharing is largely unknown, and 2) you might want to write it out somewhere that people can access the details and share it with others.
So today I am writing out a warning about iPhone safety that some parents may not realize they need.
When it comes time to get your kid a first phone, we hope you will consider a “starter phone” instead that has been designed with your kids’ health and safety in mind. Four options you should research are: Gabb, Pinwheel, Troomi, and the Bark Phone. You can read about the differences between them here, as a starting point.
When you’re ready to make the leap to a “real phone” (preferrably after a season of starter phone training, this is our top recommendation), it’s imperative that you realize the differences between going with an iPhone or an Android. As reflected by the answers in our Tech Safety Literacy Quiz, many parents don’t realize why. It’s not just personal preference (we’re an Apple family) but one of understanding the unique challenges that are part of Apple’s operating system (iOS). If you choose iPhone (most kids prefer it), we feel it’s only fair to issue the iPhone warning. Read on.
Three big challenges that have a domino effect to impact your kid’s safety:
#1 // iPhones do not allow you to block or delete downloaded apps completely.
Blocking: Parents say to me, “I can block stuff—I have a menu for Allowed Apps in Screen Time.” Look closely and you’ll notice it’s only APPLE-proprietary apps. Safari, FaceTime, Wallet, etc. This is not your entire App Library. If your kid has already downloaded TikTok or Snapchat, and you want to block those apps, you can’t unless you use a separate third-party software solution to do so (OurPact, for example). Your only solution through Apple is setting a 1-minute time limit (lowest available) through the App Limits menu.
Deleting: On an iPhone, once an app is downloaded in association with an Apple ID, even if you have approval requirements turned on (called “Ask to Buy” in Family Sharing settings), that Apple ID will never need permission to get to the app again after download. I repeat, NEVER. No do-overs. So if your kid started off using their Apple ID on an iPad with tons of games on it, guess what that kid has free access to on a new phone with the same Apple ID? This is one of the biggest flaws of Apple products, and they certainly have the capability to rectify it, but given their lack of attention to this feature frustration, I have little hope they will. If your kid has already downloaded Snapchat or something you don't want them to have, your only option to fully prevent them from re-downloading it is to turn off access to the App Store completely (or if you keep the App Store, set a 1 min time limit). (However, be aware they can go to snapchat.com on a browser and log in; most social media sites have a url available. Also, the App Store lock only works when Screen Time works, so it's not fool proof.)
One way around the re-download issue is to use a product with VPN technology (virtual private network) like Gryphon Premium that will allow you to override Apple's gaping hole of protection and turn OFF access to popular apps (see image to the right).
Start fresh: First of all, start your iPhone journey off with a brand new Apple ID so you can be certain of everything going on that phone. Most parents of new iPhone users don’t realize that the first 2 days of setting up that phone are crucial to make sure nothing is downloaded to the phone before the security is in place. In my experience, it can take a couple of days for all of the Screen Time settings to sync and work correctly between parent-child phones. My advice is to intentionally test that app approvals are working correctly by downloading an app that you know you’ll be okay with them having (because you won’t be able to un-permit it). Do this before you hand over the iPhone to your kid. If the child’s phone pops up with a message prompting them to ask for permission, that’s a good sign. Because app downloads are tied to the “purchasing” arm of Apple (though most apps are free) the approval process is not as unreliable as the general parental controls, which are tied to the Screen Time feature. This is a saving grace, and a reason to make sure you have this approval process turned on correctly. More on the flaws in Screen Time below.
#2 // Screen Time has grown to be more comprehensive in the last couple of years, but that also means it’s more complex, which in turn makes it more buggy.
I’ve been utilizing Screen Time since it first rolled out for iOS 12 back in 2018. I also cut my teeth on iPhone monitoring with a firecracker of a first-born who kept me on my toes and who needed many restrictions. All that to say, I have a very good handle on how Screen Time works. So when it magically just doesn’t work all of a sudden, I know it’s not because I screwed something up. Unfortunately, the more robust Screen Time features on the current iOS 16 are plagued by issues that thousands of parents are complaining about on chat forums. How is my kid watching YouTube for like an hour when his time limit is 10 minutes? My kid is still on the internet late at night, the downtime just went away. I just checked my Screen Time settings and suddenly everything is turned off. Sometimes it’s a case of your-kid-figured-out-your-password, but often, Screen Time just BREAKS. Yes, breaks. No warning, just totally nullified. The Wall Street Journal just covered this topic and apparently, Apple is "working to improve the situation." CHECK OUT THE VIDEO RECAP BELOW. I have my doubts that the bug will be fixed effectively by the iOS 17 update in September since the public beta of 17 still has the same problems. In the meantime, what can a parent do?
Update that iOS.
One big change of the past year or so is how dependent Screen Time is on both parent and child phones having the latest iOS update installed. Ideally, we’d all be keeping that updated anyway for maximum performance, and all of those updates would be happening automatically. But the automation of it is dependent—you need to put your phone on wifi, make sure your phone is plugged in, and make sure you have enough storage. Even after turning on notifications for software updates, I’m either missing them or they aren’t coming. This is annoying, since the updates seem to be the primary culprit of Screen Time failing. In order for your phone to sync with your kid's, make sure that BOTH parent phone and KID phone are fully up to date. This is especially challenging since most parents do not want to spend $1000 on a phone with 256 GB of memory, so kids tend to have cheaper phones with less storage. Not enough storage = automatic updates do not happen. Thankfully, you CAN still set and use Screen Time from the KID phone even if it's running an outdated iOS, and the phone should honor those restrictions. It just means mom/dad can't adjust settings from their own phone remotely. Might be a pain, but might also be awesome because the kid has to live with whatever restrictions are in place if parents are not around. NOTE: A few iPhone models will no longer be updatable when iOS 17 is available, so if you’re monitoring Screen Time using an iPhone X, iPhone 8 or iPhone 8 Plus, start looking for a new phone.
Use another layer of safety strategy.
Because iOS safety layers can not be guaranteed, we recommend using an additional layer of protection for the most problematic content associated with the Internet, so your kids aren’t left completely vulnerable if you miss a software update. These layers will often require use of the phone's VPN technology. For our family, preventing exposure to pornographic content is a high priority, so we’ve used Covenant Eyes for over 13 years. Covenant Eyes is always running even if Screen Time breaks, so all of the websites we’ve blocked in our CE settings (social media, etc) are still inaccessible, and we get notified of risky activity happening within Safari (thanks to our CE extension). Plus we get thumbnails of various Safari activity as a simple cross-section of the activity on each person’s devices. This has proved to be an invaluable layer of protection. You might opt for a different layered solution on iPhone like OurPact, Gryphon Premium, or Bark… but some of the safety features these tools offer might be similar to Apple’s, so when both are working at the same time, it might get confusing for a less tech-savvy parent. For that reason, we appreciate the simplicity of a layer like Covenant Eyes. Also, it should be noted that a phone will only allow a single VPN-based layer, so for that reason, iOS parents have to choose which external layer offers the protection that fits their needs best (i.e. Covenant Eyes vs. Our Pact).
#3 // iPhones can be harder to protect with 3rd party monitoring services.
Though we have used solutions like Bark to help us monitor our kids' iPhones for problematic content, Apple makes it very difficult for this to be easy enough for the average parent to employ these tools. Because of Apple's high value for data privacy (which is a good value), they don't let 3rd party monitoring systems scan a phone's data to detect issues. So anything that is Apple-proprietary (iMessage, photos, notes) can only be monitored through backing up that data and scanning the backup file. In the case of Bark, we had to wait for our son's phone to come home from school, find our wifi signal, create a backup file, and then the notifications would come in for any issues. But messages and photos could totally be deleted before the phone came home, so it was not foolproof. We did this for over a year, we were committed. After many conversations tied to that critical training phase of missteps and questions about toxic friend groups, we eventually retired this daily notification system. That first year of intel was very helpful and it shaped some of the steps we needed take, but it was unsustainable in how time-consuming it was to keep the tech connected. If we had had an Android, the Bark monitoring would have been in real-time, much more seamless, and we would have been able to see a lot more problematic content (some content in social media on iOS and other apps is completely unmonitorable, due to Apple's restrictions). This is why Bark created their own phone---all of the monitoring is already baked into the operating system (much easier for the average parent to keep up with).
Starter phone, starter phone, starter phone...
A few times a week parents ask me about strategies for introducing a phone… when, what kind, etc. I can’t state this often enough: IF AT ALL POSSIBLE, DO NOT START WITH AN iPHONE. Each of the four starter phones I mentioned above are Android-based. Apple certainly has the genius available to create their own iOS kid-safe phone with similar features. They haven't. To my knowledge, they have no plan to. This is something I remind lobbyists of when they try to argue that Apple is already leading the way in parental control tools for customers. Um, nope. Just another reason to not go with Apple right out of the gate... they haven't done enough to earn that new user, and the holes in their kid-safety protocols prove they are not yet motivated enough to change that. They make devices for adults. Remember that. Save these devices for older teens who are training for adulthood.
I also recommend a very deliberate ramp. A starter phone will make it possible for you to start with, say, 10 contacts. Or maybe you wait on group messaging or messaging with photos (both require MMS technology). Maybe there’s no browser, or no games. Essentially, you want to add weight incrementally as your kid shows that he or she is capable of each new responsibility. All of the four starter phones I mentioned allow you to easily customize what's available as your kid learns how to steward each responsibility.
This is on us, parents. We decide what their trajectory looks like. You have been warned… iPhones come with their own set of dangers. Both of our kids have them now, but we didn’t start there. One had a flip phone and one had a Gabb phone. Both went slower than they wanted to and wayyyyy slower than their classmates. It sucked for all of us sometimes—it’s not like they are perfect kids who love rules. But they have survived and they still LOVE US. They even get protective and upset when hearing about younger kids having access to phones because they realize and appreciate all they were shielded from.
You can do this!