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“Restrictions” For Your iPhone


While sitting in a room full of people lately, I happened to glance over at a child no more than three years old who was gleefully playing a game on his father’s iPhone. It looked like a lot of fun, and I had a wash of iPhone envy for just a moment.


However, I soon viewed this short experience from a different perspective the next day when news of an iPhone app called “Baby Shaker” hit the media. (An “app” – short for “application” – is a program you download and run on the iPhone. They can range from games to business tools.) Baby Shaker is a strangely simple, yet very bothersome game where you see a drawing of a baby while listening to non-stop crying. To get the baby to stop crying, you virtually shake it (the iPhone is sensitive to motion). In a moment, the child is silenced and two red Xs appear over its eyes, suggesting it has died.


Not surprisingly this “game” raised the ire of many, including organizations that work tirelessly to educate parents about the dangers of shaking a baby. Two days after the app appeared on the Apple iPhone app store, it was pulled, and Apple later released an apology saying Baby Shaker “was deeply offensive and should not have been approved for distribution.”


For those who are unfamiliar with the process of developing an app for the iPhone, Apple demands that they scrutinize and approve any new apps prior to posting them in their app store. As there is no other (easy) way of getting a piece of software on to the iPhone, this means Apple has ultimate control over what applications can be distributed. But perhaps the public was confusing this control as protection against programs that may contain offensive content. Obviously, in the case of this application, the busy software approval clerk (according to Apple, there are over 25,000 apps available for the iPhone) who clicked the “approved” box at Apple and sent Baby Shaker into public distribution wasn’t too concerned about promoting a game with a very disturbing theme.


This is hardly the first time we have been surprised at a corporation’s lack of ability to be sensitive to media content. The Parents Television Council website is full of examples of big media corporations who feel profanities, gore and sexual nudity are all in good family fun. However, at the danger of repeating myself, the new wave toward portable entertainment brings a whole new challenge to parents, and if we think for a moment that we can trust the creators and distributors of this “entertainment” to be sensitive to even the most lenient of family standards, we are fooling ourselves.


The iPhone is just the tip of the pocket-sized iceberg... but lets start there anyway. If you have one of these devices in your home, and if your children are allowed to use it, recognize that it really is no different that giving them private access to a computer. As well, the phone can quickly build up credit card charges with app, music and video downloads.


So how can a parent wrangle a wild iPhone?


Fortunately, there are a few tools Apple has built in to the iPhone to help you keep tabs on what the device is used for, but they are buried in the menus and the instructions are even harder to find on the Apple website. (If you want to join the hunt, go to http://www.apple.com/iphone/tips/ and look at the column of icons on the far left below where it says “Tips and Tricks.” Press on the blue little down arrow at the bottom to scroll to the bottom of the list. Look for “Settings” (it looks like a gear). Click on the “Settings” gear icon and then in the column to the right, click on “Restrictions.” Now in the next column you should see a list with the heading “Restrictions.”)


On the iPhone in the settings function, you can choose to block explicit music and video content from the iTunes store. Or you can disable the store completely and have its icon removed from your home screen (thus also saving your credit card from charges). You may also disable the app store that is discussed earlier in this article, preventing others from downloading any new apps to your phone. The phone’s camera can also be disabled if you are concerned about your teen or child’s privacy.


Finally, two more restrictions can tame the Internet on the iPhone. Remember, one of the greatest selling points of the iPhone is its very capable Safari web browser. In the hands of your kids, you are giving them complete access to the online world. However, with a click, you can disable the dedicated YouTube app or you can disable Safari, which makes online browsing impossible.


Of course you need a way to protect your “restrictions” from being turned off. When you set them on the iPhone, it will prompt you for a four-digit pass code. If you forget the pass code, you will have to restore your iPhone’s software, which means you will lose any information and settings you have stored in the phone.


Unfortunately the parental controls on the iPhone are not nearly as extensive as those found on Apple’s newest computers. For instance, there is no way of “filtering” offensive Internet content on the fly, although one company has produced an app to make that possible. The bad news is the app costs $20 and also requires a yearly subscription. (The app is an extension of Safe Eyes, and if your family already subscribes to the desktop service, you can use your same subscription on the iPhone.)


Even though Apple has had some bad press lately, it is good to see even the most basic parental controls incorporated into the iPhone. (Apple’s iTouch also offers similar controls.) Hopefully Apple will continue to expand their parental controls and the many other companies creating iPhone wannabes will do likewise. Parents just need to remember that just because it’s pocket-sized media doesn’t mean it can’t be big trouble.


Rod Gustafson

Besides writing this column for the Parents Television Council, Rod Gustafson authors Parent Previews® - a newspaper and Internet column (published in association with movies.com) that reviews movies from a parent's perspective. He's also the film critic for a major Canadian TV station, various radio stations and serves on the executive of the Alberta Association for Media Awareness. Finally, his most important role is being the father to four wonderful children and husband to his beautiful wife (and co-worker) Donna.

Parenting and the Media by Rod Gustafson

The Parents Television Council - www.parentstv.org

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