We’ve written a lot about the importance of limiting and monitoring screen time for kids. While we believe that technology can enrich kids’ lives when used responsibly and with moderation, we also encourage parents to take a hands-on approach when it comes to how their children use electronic devices and consume digital content.
Many parents wonder how much screen time is too much, but aren’t sure how to measure or track the time their kids actually spend on smartphones or tablets. In 2018, Apple took a big step forward to help parents keep tabs on their childrens’ screen time. They introduced a feature in iOS 12 aptly named “Apple Screen Time” to assist parents in limiting the amount of time their kids spend in front of a screen and to provide better control over the apps and content children are engaging with. If you aren’t familiar with Apple parental controls, you can easily set up Screen Time on any iOS device (see our guide here).
While Screen Time is a step in the right direction, it isn’t perfect. Since its release, significant flaws have been quickly and easily discovered by tech-savvy children and teens. Information about bypassing parental controls has been shared online and is spreading rapidly.
Parents can take steps, however, to fight back against parental control hacks and protect their children.
Apple Screen Time Exploits and How to Fix Them
General Tips for Parental Controls on Apple / iOS Devices
The number one best line of defense is never to share your password or pin code with your children. Make your parental control pin difficult to guess (don’t use a birthday, telephone digits or other significant number) and different than other pass codes.
Next, (especially for younger children) block the App Store and the ability to download apps unassisted. To do this, go to Screen Time > Content & Privacy Restrictions > iTunes & App Store Purchases > Installing Apps, and then select Don’t Allow. You can still give your child access to the apps you want them to have by using the Family Sharing feature.
Now, on to some of the more creative parental control workarounds that kids have discovered, and how you can combat them.
Resetting Time Limits by Deleting and Re-Installing
The problem: Kids are deleting apps after they’ve hit Screen Time limits and reinstalling via Family Share or iCloud. This resets the clock on time limits and nullifies any previous restrictions.
Solution: If you discover that your kids are using this parental control workaround, you should completely disable the App Store. It will prevent your child from accessing Family Share without your assistance.
Next, set strict store restrictions, selecting the "Don’t Allow" setting for installing and deleting apps and making in-app purchases. It will block the ability to delete and reinstall apps for the purpose of extending screen time past predefined limits.
Bypassing YouTube restrictions via iMessage
The problem: Kids are bypassing Screen Time limits for YouTube by sending themselves videos and using the YouTube iMessage app to view them. iMessage apps don’t adhere to the same limits as the overall Screen Time function.
Solution: The best way to protect your kids from unsupervised or unapproved YouTube usage is by deleting the YouTube app entirely and blocking the website at the system settings level. To block YouTube at a system level, go to the Settings app and tap Screen Time > Content & Privacy Restrictions > Content Restrictions > Web Content and tap "Limit Adult Websites." You can then tap "Add Website" under "Never Allow" and enter https://www.youtube.com/.
Screen Recording to Discover Parental Control Passcodes
The problem: By screen recording what’s happening on their device after handing it back to a parent, kids are capturing Screen Time passcodes and using them later to bypass, disable or change limits.
Solution: You’ll know your screen is being recorded if you see a flashing red icon in the top left navigation bar of the device. Always check for this icon before entering your passcode. You can also disable screen recording completely. To do this, go to Settings > Screen Time > Content & Privacy Restrictions > Content Restrictions > Screen Recording > Don’t Allow.
The problem: Children are doing a complete factory reset and setting phones and tablets up as a "new" device. This completely erases Screen Time settings and allows kids to use the device without restrictions.
Solution: Make sure your child isn’t using their own Apple ID on the device. If the "Find My" feature is enabled, it will require an Apple ID password to be entered upon setup of the reset device. It’s also a best practice to check Screen Time metrics on a regular basis. If a reset occurs, you’ll know immediately by the sudden absence/drop off of any usage metrics.
Time Zone and Device Time Changes
The problem: By moving the device date back from the current one or setting the device time zone to a region behind your own time, children can access additional screen time beyond what you have allowed.
Solution: Set the time zone and date to update automatically and block changes at the system settings level. To disable changes to time zones, take the following steps:
Go to Settings > Screen Time > Content & Privacy Restrictions > Location Services. Under System Services, ensure Setting Time Zone is toggled on. Tap "Don’t Allow Changes" at the top of the Location Services page.
Using Siri to Send Messages After Time Limits Have Already Been Reached
The problem: Kids are using Siri to dictate and send messages to their friends after they have reached the maximum screen time allowed in the Screen Time settings.
Solution: Disable Siri by going to Screen Time > Content & Privacy Restrictions > Allowed Apps and toggling off Siri & Dictation.
Sending Messages Using the Share Function
The problem: Kids are bypassing time limits by sending messages through the "Share" function built into many apps. For example, by taking a screenshot and using the "Share to Messages" function, they can bring up the Messaging app and then delete the screenshot to bring up a blank slate to send their text. They can also go into the Contacts app and elect to share a contact via text. They’ll then have access to iMessage in a similar fashion.
Solution: There are no comprehensive solutions yet for iMessage, but in the case of the Contacts share workaround, you can set a short time limit (1 minute) for the Contacts app in Screen Time.
Accessing Messages After Downtime
The problem: When message notifications come in after downtime is activated, kids can still swipe down on the notification to read and respond to the message.
Solution: Unfortunately there is not an ideal solution for this loophole except to disable all message notifications.
Launching the Safari Browser from Inside 3rd-Party Apps
The problem: Apps that use built-in browser experiences allow kids to access Safari even when Screen Time limits are in place. For example, if a child opens an app like Gmail or Facebook Messenger and taps a link, the web view within the app will open a new browser window. Even if the address bar is hidden in the view from within the app, kids can still click through links or send themselves links to an app that provides access to a browser window.
Solution: Change system settings to Allowed Websites Only, which will restrict in-app browsers, and set strict limits on which websites are available on the child’s device. To do this, go to the Settings app and tap Screen Time > Content & Privacy Restrictions > Content Restrictions > Web Content and tap "Allowed Websites Only." You can then configure the customized list of websites that your child can access.
Staying Vigilant to Protect Our Kids
While parental controls on iOS devices can help limit screen time, they are far from perfect, and certainly not a replacement for parental monitoring of a child’s online habits and behaviors.
The best solution for building healthy screen time habits is to help your child understand why they need limits and what the dangers of screen time addiction are if they don’t follow the ground rules you’ve set.