The limits of iPod touch/iPhone restrictions

I had an interesting note from reader J.S. this morning. He wrote:

Do you know if the new iPod touch has the option of parental controls on the Web browser? My 16-year-old son wants one, but I don’t know if I want him to have a fully functional web browser in his bedroom. In our house, all Web activity is done in a public place (at least up until now).

Because of an upcoming feature story you’ll see in the next issue of Macworld, I’ve spent a lot of time with OS X’s Parental Controls. The iPod touch and iPhone’s Restrictions, however, have taken virtually none of my time. J.S.’s message was all the prompting I needed to take a look.

If you haven’t played with the feature, it works like this: Go to Settings -> General -> Restrictions, tap Enable Restrictions, and enter and confirm a four-digit code. With this done you have the option to switch off these features: Explicit iPod Content, Safari, YouTube, iTunes, and Installing Apps (the iPhone adds Camera as a final option). When you slide the On/Off toggle for Explicit iPod Content, any tracks marked Explicit become invisible. They’re still on the device, you just can’t access them. Toggle off Safari, YouTube, iTunes and/or Installing Apps and the associated applications on the iPhone or iPod touch are hidden.

Okay, so let’s turn back to J.S.’s query. Let’s suppose his 16-year-old son is not to be trusted (and I’m certain that this is not the case, but for the sake of argument let’s say he’s one prank away from military school). How difficult would it be for him to work around these restrictions?

As it turns out, not difficult at all.

* OBVIOUS SPOILER ALERT *

While I hope I don’t enrage too many parents by revealing this all-to-obvious technique for getting around iPod touch and iPhone restrictions, I’ll simply suggest that if someone like me, crawling toward geezerhood, can figure this out, so too can a 16-year-old who was raised on technology. Better that you, as parent, understand the risks rather than believing that Restrictions is forever.

All your kid has to do is restore the iPod touch or iPhone in iTunes. This removes the restrictions. If he or she is sneaky, they’d then go on to restore a backup of the device and then enable restrictions on their own—using their passcode instead of yours. That way, should you eyeball the thing and see Safari and YouTube missing from the Home screen, you might think your restrictions were still in place. Of course, if you’re sneaky you’d then grab hold of the device and test restrictions to see if it works with your passcode. If not, you’ve been pwned by your kid.

“Ah, but wait,” you think, “all I have to do is switch on Parental Controls on my Mac and disable access to iTunes. That way they can’t restore the thing!”

And that would be great if your family lives in the middle of the Australian Outback and your next nearest neighbor is 400 kilometers away. You can restore an iPod touch or iPhone on any computer running iTunes. If your kid has a single friend with access to a computer, say goodbye to restrictions.

So, to finally answer J.S.’s question: Yes, parental controls are built-in, but those controls are about as sturdy as a damp piece of bathroom tissue. Technological parental controls have their place, but communication and trust between parent and child remain the most effect tools available.

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