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"Smartphone Safety 101" by Evan Barber

An Axis Course On The "Everything Smartphone" Guided Toolkit

How can I make use of the iPhone’s built-in Screen Time restrictions?

By Evan Barber

When Axis surveyed our list of 27,000 followers and asked what the biggest felt need was around smartphones, the #1 answer was, “How can we make our kids’ smartphones safe?”

It’s a fair question. But there’s a sense in which asking how to make smartphones safe is kind of like asking how to dull a set of knives. A smartphone’s created intent, out of the box, is to give users access to the entire world—which in turn, gives the entire world access to them. Bad things don’t always happen, but handing a child a smartphone is decidedly not “safe.”

Having said that, recent updates have given parents much more of a leg up when it comes to safeguarding an iPhone than existed in previous years. We’ll outline some of those features here—and because research finds that 85% of teens have an iPhone instead of an Android, we’ll focus our recommendations on the iPhone. (For help with Android devices, click here.)

What are the steps for making an iPhone safer?

Teens can be exposed to harm through three primary smartphone avenues: internet browsers, social media apps, and the App Store. If the goal is to make a smartphone as safe as possible, parents might consider removing all internet browsers, blocking all social media platforms, and disabling the App Store.

You can do all of this by opening Settings, and then going to Screen Time. The Screen Time app has a whole range of powerful features, including:

  • Downtime, which automatically deactivates chosen apps during particular time ranges
  • App Limits, which turns apps off after they’ve been used for a certain number of minutes, regardless of what time it is
  • and Content & Privacy Restrictions, which allows parents to tweak all sorts of parameters around what is and isn’t allowed on the phone.

Whatever changes you decide to make, you’ll need to set up a password to lock your choices in place—if you don’t do this, every setting can be modified the minute you hand the phone back to your teen.

Go to Lock Screen Time Settings on the main Screen Time page to set a password. Also, if you decide to use Downtime, you’ll need to go back in after creating a password and select Block at Downtime to turn this feature on.

To disable (or enable) the App Store, go to Screen Time, then Content & Privacy Restrictions, then iTunes & App Store Purchases. Here you can toggle the ability to install new apps, as well as the ability to delete them.

Some parents decide not to let their kids download any app without their permission; others decide to let their kids download whatever they want, but disable the ability to delete those apps once they’re downloaded—which means that whatever is downloaded will be discovered the next time a parent checks their kid’s phone.

What are the steps for limiting harmful web content on an iPhone?

The default web browser on the iPhone is Safari. Because it’s built-in, to turn Safari on or off (as well as to toggle various other default apps on the phone), go to Content & Privacy Restrictions (which, again, is on the main Screen Time page), then Allowed Apps. Once there, find Safari, and click the switch so that the color green no longer shows next to it. (Other web browsers, such as Google Chrome, can be removed via the iPhone’s home screen(s) by doing a long-click on that particular app, selecting Remove App, and then Delete App.)

Also under Content & Privacy Restrictions is a section that’s just called Content Restrictions, which allows parents to make all sorts of determinations about what content will and won’t fly on the device. A subsection of that page, titled Web Content, allows parents to determine what sorts of websites (if any) can be accessed on the device. It can be set to Limit Adult Websites, or to only allow specific websites that have been added to the Allowed Websites list.

Be aware of three things here:

  1. The Limit Adult Websites filter is not perfect. It won’t necessarily catch every harmful site, and may block some safe sites. But it can be customized and elaborated on by adding specific sites to the Never Allow and Always Allow lists. Having said that, if the goal is maximum safety, parents might desire to restrict internet access to only the Allowed Websites option—and maybe even leave that list blank, effectively disabling the entire internet on the phone. (Note: even leaving the Allowed Websites list completely blank will not disable access to apps that already exist on the phone—only the ability to access individual websites through web browsers/internet portals.)
  2. Even if all web browser apps (Safari, Google Chrome, etc.) are removed from the phone, many non-web-browser apps still include a web portal. Thankfully, the parameters you select for what websites can be visited (whether through Limit Adult Websites or the Allowed Websites list) will still apply to every app’s internet portal across the phone.
  3. If the concern is pornography, recognize that most mainstream search engines make it easy to access porn by entering pornographic terms (or even apparently innocuous terms) into their image search sections, so parents might want to consider keeping search engines off the Allowed Websites list, or adding them to the Never Allow list under Limit Adult Websites.

The App Library on the right-most screen shows every app that currently exists on the phone. If apps are “removed from the home screen,” but not deleted, the iPhone allows those apps to still be accessed via the App Library. This means the App Library is the truest account of what’s actually on the phone. (Note: iOS 18, which rolls out in September of 2024, will allow users to “lock” and hide apps in secret App Library folders which require the user’s passcode or Face ID.)

Social media, as many have pointed out, can open users up to sexualized content, unqualified content about mental illness, cyberbullying, exploitation, opportunities for comparison, and many other things. If your goal is maximum possible safety, we would suggest deleting all social media apps and going a step further by disabling the ability to re-download them in the App Store.

So then what would be the point of even having a smartphone?

Locking all of these features down may seem extreme at first. In an ideal world, it would be much easier to separate out every harmful element from every non-harmful element. But the truth is, even these sorts of nuclear options aren’t a permanent failsafe against all digital harm.

Your teen’s smartphone may be much safer now—but what about their friends’ phones? Even if parents work diligently to vet their kids’ friends, good kids still do bad/dumb things. In some cases, harmful content comes looking for us, maybe via social media apps or spam texts. And what about all the other electronic devices our kids have access to? Although Screen Time can be enabled on most Apple devices, many of the newer game consoles also include the ability to access the entire internet, and the process of blocking access to that is often incredibly non-user-friendly.

Even if we could completely, perfectly, and permanently block access to all harmful content on every device our kid comes into contact with, without intentional conversations around why for kids, it would still likely just turn into a game of, “How quickly can I bypass the filter?”

More than external restraint, what you’re ultimately after is heart change. 

It is the conversation about why you’re doing what you’re doing, and about why you believe what you believe, and about the better things you’re hoping for them in place of what’s restricted, that turns smartphone restrictions into an opportunity for discipleship and growth.

Eventually, the goal is to loosen up on the restrictions. When you’re ready to introduce new apps, including social media apps, you may want to consider daily time limits in the App Limits section under Screen Time, and/or making use of the Parental Controls that (some of) the most popular apps have—at least at first. Fair warning: some apps have better options than others. (You might also consider investing in something like Bark.)

Another part of the goal is for our sons and daughters to eventually shift from external restraint to self-restraint. Maybe, eventually, a trusted friend at church will keep the Screen Time passcode instead of you, because your child is choosing to live that way. In many ways, this is the ultimate goal when it comes to smartphones and discipleship. We encourage you to frame every conversation about restriction in terms of helping your son or daughter see that good things flourish within boundaries.

I’ll leave you with this quote from the book Orthodoxy by theologian G.K. Chesterton: “The more I considered Christianity, the more I found that while it had established a rule and order, the chief aim of that order was to give room for good things to run wild.”

Evan Barber is a writer, podcast host, and senior editor at Axis. Over ten years, he’s led teams of gospel-minded researchers, writers, speakers, and content creators, leveraging pop culture to help parents show teens how faith is relevant to every aspect of our lives.