Safer smartphones for schoolchildren

Setting up your child’s first smartphone right will help keep them safe — and save you money.

These days, it seems like younger and younger kids are getting smartphones. Even parents who would prefer to wait longer may be tempted, wanting to know that their child is safe during the day — or pressured, wanting their children to fit in.

We can’t forget, though, that smartphones are fun, portable touch-screen computers. Left to their own devices (no pun intended), children may spend hours playing games and watching YouTube videos. And kids will be kids, perhaps more likely than an adult to break or lose the smartphone.

The good news is that we can reduce the risks. As with so many things, it’ll mainly take a bit of time and ongoing attention, but parental peace of mind is worth it.

How to set up your child’s smartphone right

The settings I’ll go through are easy to tweak to your own preferences — you can make them as tough or easy as you like, once you know where they are. Let me start with a few basic assumptions, however:

  1. Kids play, and that’s OK (with limits).
  2. The Internet is like the ocean — enticing but also dangerous.
  3. Everyone is entitled to a measure of privacy.

Choose Google or Apple

The two most popular mobile platforms, Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android, both have built-in parental control tools, but Android lets users adjust more settings than iOS does. Android phones have another attractive quality: They’re less expensive and therefore easier to replace.

Some people prefer iOS, which may be better for households that have other Apple devices — and for parents who aren’t concerned about the price. You can read here about how to set up iOS for kids, although it’s in the context of tablets and for younger children.

Set up Google accounts (individual)

Using an Android smartphone requires a Google account, but the terms and conditions stipulate that only a person who is 13 or older can create an account. If you don’t already have a second account that you can use for this purpose, you’ll have to create one.

The child does not need to know the password for their new account, and enabling two-factor authentication for it is advisable. Needless to say, the authentication should be linked to your smartphone, not to your child’s.

Note: You can create an account for your child on devices running Android 7.0 and above by using the Family Link feature, but it is currently available only in the United States.

Now, power up the smartphone, add your existing Google account information in the setup wizard, enter your desired e-mail address and other data, enter your age and your phone number, and accept the terms and conditions.

If it is not the first time you’re starting up the smartphone, you set up the new account here: SettingsAccountsAdd accountsGoogle. In the new window, tap Or create a new account.

At this point, skip entering payment details for the Google Play store. I’ll come back to that issue a bit later, but for now I’ll say that payment information should be linked to an adult’s account.

An account is required if you want to synchronize contacts and pictures and use the Google Play app store. That said, we’re talking about elementary-school-age children, who are unlikely to need e-mail on their phones. A Gmail account is more likely to collect spam than useful communications, so I recommend not enabling it on the smartphone: Open Settings, go to Google account settings, and uncheck the Sync Gmail option.

Set up Google accounts (family)

If a parent is using an Android device too, then creating a family account may make sense. Using a family account lets family members share paid purchases across all of its devices as well as letting a child pay for purchases from their smartphone (using the parent’s payment information — and only with the parent’s explicit consent).

You can create a family account in Google Play from your own smartphone. Launch the Google Play app, open up the menu, and tap on Settings → Account → Family → Manage family members. You can invite your significant other and your children by entering their Gmail addresses on this screen.

The invitation has to be accepted from the family member’s smartphone. After that, take your smartphone, go to the family group’s settings, open the child’s profile, and select one of the following modes for purchase approvals: All content, Only paid content, Only in-app purchases, or No approval required.

Anything that requires approval will now require either your password entered on the child’s device or approval from your device.

Filter Google Play apps and media

You can prevent your child from downloading adult games or songs with explicit lyrics using Google Play’s parental controls. To do so, launch Google Play on your child’s smartphone, open up the menu, and tap on Settings → Parental Controls.

Enter a PIN — something easy for you to remember but hard for your child to guess. The requirement to enter a PIN prevents your child from disabling the controls. After entering the PIN, you can select age restrictions for games, films, and music separately.

Control Internet use

To prevent unsupervised Internet use — and gain better control over mobile data usage — start by disabling mobile data use both in the settings of your child’s smartphone and using your mobile service provider’s self-service options. After that, use the smartphone’s settings to join your home Wi-Fi network. Now it’s up to you to monitor that use inside the home, of course.

Disabling mobile data should help keep the child online only at home. True, free Wi-Fi can be had in a library or at a friend’s home, but I’ll address that later in the post.

By the way, when buying a SIM card for your child, ask the carrier about special plans and options for children — these plans and options usually include additional features for keeping children safe.

Limit time and restrict content

Sure, the games installed on your child’s smartphone are intended for children, but still, stay alert. Children can spend endless time mine crafting and launching angry birds. Limiting gaming duration with Android’s built-in tools is problematic; therefore, look to dedicated apps such as Kaspersky Safe Kids.

The Safe Kids app’s many features include location and social-network controls, but here we are interested mainly in defining restrictions on launching apps and making the Internet safe to use. To use it, install Safe Kids on both a parent’s and the child’s smartphones. Set the modes, child mode for the child’s smartphone and parent mode for yours.

The child’s app has almost no settings for you to worry about — just install the app according to the instructions and grant it administrator rights.

You’ll have a bit more to do for the app on your own smartphone — you will need to set up a PIN for Safe Kids, check its settings, and enable options. The crucial ones are the ability to filter unwanted websites and app restriction by category and age, which are located on the Internet and Applications subsections respectively.

Now, let’s restrict the amount of time the child can spend at the display. You can allot, for example, 15 minutes, 1 hour, 2 hours, or more. After that, the smartphone will be able to make and receive calls, but most of the other apps will be blocked with a notification that time is up.

If your child doesn’t tend to spend too much time on pictures and SMS messages, then we can take the opposite tack and assign an amount of time allowed in specific apps, such as games. At the same time, we can completely block access to some apps, such as any browser other than Google Chrome and Android’s built-in browser (which are protected by Safe Kids’ content filter; other browsers may have access to unwanted websites).

Set up additional security

Safe Kids provides comprehensive parental control, including protection against its own deletion, and the recent update has brought one more useful feature — restricting access to smartphone’s own settings. It’s worth doing to make sure your child will not be able to connect to unknown Wi-Fi networks, reset the system time, or mess with settings in some other way you didn’t predict.

I personally used to recommend an app called Smart Applock for that purpose, but now that Safe Kids has this feature I suggest using it and not installing additional software to execute this task.

One last setting: the lock screen. Enable a lock screen to protect the smartphone from classmates and others who might find it. You can do that through Settings → Security or Settings → Lock screen. Work with your child to ensure he or she is comfortable entering the PIN or pattern that unlocks the phone. Also, set the lock screen to display a simple contact message or just your phone number in case it goes missing and a stranger finds it.

Software and settings aren’t a substitute for ongoing parental guidance. Get involved with your child’s smartphone usage. Talk about surfing, gaming restrictions, and all that, but expect that your child will find ways around your “smartphone usage plan” — and adapt as needed.