Dear Lifehacker, I let my children and nephews use my computer, tablet and smartphone sometimes, but I fear for their lives -- the gadgets' lives, that is! What can I do to protect my devices from their little error-prone fingers (and keep the kids away from the darker corners of the web)? Thanks, Concerned Parent and Gadget-Owner
It's great that you're helping these kids become more tech-savvy. At the same time, we know how nerve-wracking and risky it can be to combine young computer users with very expensive electronics. Fear not, conflicted modern parent! Parental controls are easy to set up and there are several ways to disaster-proof your hardware.
Protect Your Devices from "Kidpocalypse"
Computers and tablets are irresistible to kids. Unfortunately, kids also like pushing buttons, smearing screens and dropping things. So the first thing you need to do is protect the hardware itself.
That means encasing your mobile devices in sturdy, shock-absorbing cases such as the M-Edge SuperShell ($35) for the iPad (a bit thick, but I've seen it in action -- an iPad actually thrown on the floor bounces right back up). A lot of people also like OtterBox's line of protective cases for smartphones and tablets. Screen protectors may not be as popular as they used to be, but they're definitely a necessity when you're dealing with kids.
Screen protectors and cases are also available for laptops (such as Speck's satin case for the MacBook Pro), and you can also get covers/skins to protect the most abused part of a laptop or desktop: the keyboard. For the most part, though, you're probably better off just cleaning the computer and screen regularly. Hide the keyboard behind your monitor to keep your little one from banging it to death or use a utility like Toddler Keys that locks the keyboard, mouse, optical drive doors and power button.
A vital precaution you need to take with laptops is making sure the computer is on a stable surface. A kid bouncing on a bed with a laptop teetering on the edge will definitely make your heart race faster.
The best solution may be to give the kid a device of his or her own. You can get a dedicated child-friendly computer, or simply repurpose an old computer or cheap tablet. Consider it an extended warranty for your own hardware.
Use Built-In Parental Or Guest Controls
Childproofing your devices doesn't stop with the hardware. There's a whole lot that kids can do to the system, from inadvertently infecting it with malware to changing your settings and deleting apps. Thankfully, most devices have built-in parental controls and other security options to protect your data.
Windows: Windows 7's Parental Controls can set up time limits, control access to specific games, and block certain programs. You'll find it under Start > Control Panel > User Accounts and Family Safety > Set up parental controls for any user. For online activity reports and website restrictions, Microsoft offers Windows Live Family Safety, though there are several other third-party apps which offer more features -- for a price.
Mac: OS X's parental controls are fairly robust. Head to System > Parental Controls and for any user you can block apps, set time limits, limit mail and messages to specific contacts, and restrict website access.
iOS: You can set a number of app and content restrictions under Settings > General > Restrictions on the iPhone, iPad or iPod touch. These settings are protected by a four-digit passcode. Settings you'll probably want to adjust are the deleting apps and installing apps restrictions and, unless you like surprises in the form of huge bills, in-app purchasing.
New in iOS 6 is a feature called Guided Access, which effectively puts the iPad into "guest user" (or "kid user") mode. Go to Settings > General > Accessibility > Guided Access to turn it on. From there, you set a passcode and launch an app to share -- the only one your kid will be able to access (the home button will be disabled until you triple-click it and enter the passcode).
Android: Android doesn't have any built-in parental controls, except the maturity level content filtering for apps downloaded from Google Play. However, some devices do come with their own parental controls or, like the Sony Xperia Android tablet, come with a guest mode for each user to have a separate home screen, apps, and wallpaper. There are also plenty of apps designed to protect kids from inappropriate content. We've highlighted Android Parental Control before, which limits app access.
For the rest of your electronics, such as game consoles and DVD players, see our previous guide to setting up non-annoying parental controls.
Get Even More Control With Third-Party Apps
If the built-in control options aren't enough, you have more options with third-party apps and tweaks. If your iOS device is jailbroken, for example, you can setup multiple users on a jailbroken iPad, iPhone, or iPod touch with a Cydia tweak. Windows users can use Returnil System Safe (free), which clones your system to create a virtual environment; all the changes made in that virtual system are removed when you restart the PC. Alternatively, you could use a virtual machine app for your young one on any OS.
Besides protecting your PC and gadgets from your kids, you also want to protect your kids online. You can really lock down your data and monitor your kids' activities with dedicated parental control apps. Many antivirus companies offer these, such as Kaspersky Parental Control for Android. For Windows, Mac, and some mobile devices, Find The Best recommends Bsecure Online ($50/year for up to three computers), Net Nanny ($40), and Norton Online Family (free).
Your router might also come with parental controls to limit time of use and which websites can be accessed. If not, OpenDNS's parental controls protect all the devices on your home network and give you great control for managing website access.
Ultimately, the best thing you can do to protect your kids and your devices is supervise their screen time. These tweaks will help, but nothing beats involvement.
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