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Apple’s parental controls are nearly impossible


Really, truly, I can’t take it anymore. I went to another one of those parents’ tech nights at my daughters’ school and listened to a most impassioned marriage and family therapist expound on the effect these devices are having on families. She shared many poignant and heartbreaking examples — kids stumbling upon pornography, teenagers feeling more anxious and stressed, the incessant pull of these devices on the parent-child bond. I know about these stories; I have lived them, and unfortunately, they have become far too common.

Born of my experiences and grave concern for today’s families, I started studying Apple’s parental controls 18 months ago. I wanted to be prepared for the Pandora’s box I knew I would be opening when I bequeathed my 11-year-old daughter with my hand-me-down iPhone, and I wanted to better understand the angst of my generation.

Protecting your kids online takes a lot more than tracking their devices

Since then, I’ve spent 100-plus hours researching the existing functionality, talking with experienced parents and conducting focus groups to understand the complexities involved when parenting technology, and what the barriers are to using Apple’s parental controls.

After counting 393 steps to set up parental controls for the five devices I manage, I can tell you that not only is Apple’s existing offering onerous and labyrinthine, but also that we parents do not have the technology we need.

Raising kids in this digital age is a tricky game, and I often feel as though I have a devil and an angel on my shoulders. Although I want to encourage our kids in their development of 21st-century skills and prepare them for future STEM careers, I’m also concerned about the addictive nature of these devices.

The prevailing consensus now is that parents should manage children’s screen time according to content more so than strict time limits, but this is challenging when there is no way to create multiple user profiles on iOS devices. Parents need the ability to toggle between apps we’ve designated as educational and those we’ve deemed as entertainment. While there are plenty of third-party apps that provide this level of granularity, it is vexing that Apple created this functionality for the education market in 2016 but did not make it available to parents.

Further, I find it negligent that there is no automatic notification of available parental controls when we create an Apple ID or set up a new device.

In my research, I found that parents just don’t know, and how would they without proper outreach? This is particularly alarming when the default settings on all Apple devices are set to allow explicit content.

Given that 78 percent of teenagers now have iPhones, every time a child is born, so is an Apple customer. We are building their pipeline of customers for the future, and Apple can do better.

While Apple did announce on Jan. 8 that further feature enhancements are planned, it also said, “We lead the industry by offering intuitive parental controls.”

I don’t believe this, and that’s why I sent Apple chief executive Tim Cook this three-page letter offering to share my insight with his engineering team.

Barring the chance he reads it and actually does something about these ideas, I have created this Parental Controls Resource Guide for parents of younger children to inform them of Apple’s basic functionality and to show them how to use it.

In my experience, parents are increasingly playing the role of chief technology officer of their households, and we are on the front lines dealing with the daily aggravations these devices impose on our interactions with our kids. It could and should be so much easier, and I’m concerned that Apple doesn’t understand the severity of the problem.

While at every level our trust in Silicon Valley has been rattled, and Common Sense Media and the Center for Humane Technology is now calling for more accountability, I would like to see more collaboration and partnership.

Instead of just sitting back and accepting what Silicon Valley hands us, we need to advocate for the technology we need. We cannot afford to be bystanders to our future.

Julie Paul is the founder and CEO of Heard it From a Friend.

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More reading:

What to do when other parents have different tech rules? 

What teens wish their parents knew about social media

Are you following the same digital rules you set for your kids?