Tablets and smartphones are invaluable parenting resources, whether it’s providing new ways of educating and informing kids or simply entertaining them. Learning apps, creative thinking games, and streaming video apps make your Android device an incredibly handy thing to have around (even if you’re trying to limit screen time).
But these powerful gadgets can just as easily point kids towards objectionable content, allow them to poke through your personal files and correspondence, or enable them to rack up significant charges on your credit or debit card. Handing a child your smartphone can be a very dangerous proposition if you’re not careful.
Thankfully, there are ways to keep both your kids and digital life safe when passing off an Android device, whether it’s limiting app access, setting Play Store restrictions, or pinning an app to the screen for short-term use. And third-party apps are available with even deeper customization and restriction options, particularly if you’re setting up a dedicated device for a child.
Don’t worry, mom and dad: you’ve got this. Here’s how.
Restricted profiles (on tablets)
Android doesn’t have specified parental controls built into the OS, but it does offer a way to accomplish the very same task—at least on tablets. If you’re running Android 4.3 or newer, it’s as easy as creating a secondary restricted profile and then deciding which apps can be accessed by that user. You’ll need to make sure to have a screen lock set for your main profile, to keep kids from simply swapping away from their restricted profile. Android will prompt you during the process if you don’t have a lock set.
From the Settings screen, go to Users and then select Add user or profile. From there, you can create a restricted profile separate from your own. Feel free to give it a proper name, and then check out the list of apps shown. Some apps are automatically blocked by restricted profiles—like Calendar, Docs, Email, and Twitter—while others let you toggle them on or off. You may also see a small gear icon, which allows you to fine-tune access options (like whether to allow Google searches or not).
Accessing this new profile is easy: from the lock screen, simply tap your own user icon and you’ll find the added one listed below. Tap that and the device will switch over to the restricted profile, keeping away your disallowed apps and options. You can also switch at any time by pulling down from the status bar at the top of the screen and tapping your icon.
Unfortunately, restricted profiles aren’t available on Android phones running any version of the OS. It’s a logistical problem, claims a Google engineer, since phones are used for calls and texting, and restricting access could make the device owner miss such things.
However, you can still create a separate user profile for your child on phones running Android 5.0+, and quickly switch over to it at any time—from the lock screen or status bar, as on tablets—and keep prying eyes away from your emails and texts. You can even disable calls and texts, so you don’t have to worry about them using up your monthly plan or getting in touch with people you don't approve of.
As you would on tablets, you can add a new user from the Users screen in Settings, or otherwise do so by tapping your icon in the status bar. From the Settings menu, you’ll see a small gear by the added profile, and tapping that lets you toggle calling and SMS support as desired. Ultimately, however, a full user profile still provides a lot of access that a restricted one wouldn’t—so if you’re going to hand off your Android phone to a kid, consider simply pinning an app.
One of the most useful parent-friendly features found in Android 5.0+ is app pinning, which lets you lock a single app to the screen (on phones and tablets alike) and block access to everything else. It’s a handy way to let a kid have fun without needing to switch profiles or closely monitor his/her actions. We have a full how-to on this feature, but here’s the gist of it.
First, enable the feature in Settings, under Security. You can choose whether or not to require a PIN to exit a pinned app—if your kid is old enough to read, use a PIN, since the unlocking directions are briefly display on the screen. When you’re ready to pin an open app, hit the overview button (the square on the bottom right) and tap the pushpin icon shown on the app card.
Your app is now pinned. Attempting to escape will only bring up the note about exiting, which requires you to hold the back and overview buttons simultaneously. If you have a PIN, performing that action will kick you back to the lock screen. If not, the app will close and your kid will have free reign with your apps.
Play Store restrictions
Luckily, the Play Store app has parental controls that aren’t limited only to recent Android OS versions. Pull the navigation drawer from the left to access the Settings screen within the Play Store, and then scroll down to user controls.
From there, you’ll have access to media restrictions based on rating. You can limit app and game downloads by age, as well as restrict movies and TV shows by rating, music with explicit lyrics, and books with sexual content. All you’ll need is a PIN number to lock access to the setting and you’re all set.
Also found under user controls is a setting for when and how often you’ll need to enter your Google password for paid app purchases. You can force the app to require a password with every new purchase, only once every 30 minutes, or never. If your kid is playing games with in-app purchases—which is nearly every free game released today—make the password mandatory to avoid inadvertent spending.
There’s one more option worth exploring in this category, although it’s found in the primary OS Settings menu. From there, tap Security and make sure the “Unknown sources” option is turned off. That way, your kids won’t be able to download and install apps from outside the Play Store. These apps could introduce malware to your device or contain objectionable content, so it’s best to keep them away if your kids are old enough to know where to look.
Need more help?
If you want more restrictive controls on a smartphone, wish to automatically limit screen time, or need other deeper functionality, you may want to consider some of the third-party apps available for Android devices. They help fill in the gaps left by Google, or otherwise expand upon the basic tools provided with stock Android.
For example, an app like Screen Time Parental Control lets you set limits for phone or tablet use, including daily time totals and the ability to remotely lock a device when you need a kid’s attention. If you want something a little more intense, an app like MMGuardian Parental Control lets you block certain numbers and alerts you to “concerning” text messages. PhoneSheriff is another well-known option along those lines, although it has a $90 annual fee for use.
These apps tend to require a fair bit of work to install, as you’ll need an app on the kid’s device and often one on yours to monitor usage, but for the parent that needs some remote reassurance, these apps can help.