Parental controls face-off
If your kid doesn't already have a tablet, chances are they want one. You have lots of options to choose from, but if you think they're ready for a "real" tablet, you’ll need to pick a tablet whose parental controls match what you want to enforce and emphasize as a parent. Amazon Kindle Fire HD, Barnes & Noble Nook HD, and Apple’s iPad all have parental controls to some degree. Which tablet’s approach is right for your family will depend on what features you value most.
Conspicuously absent in this roundup is Google Nexus 7 and Google Nexus 10—or any Android tablet, for that matter. None of the Android 4.x tablets have the built-in parental controls found on the others. It makes a great tablet for kids due to its smaller screen size, light weight, and low price, and you can create a dedicated profile for your child on the tablet. However, you’ll need a third-party app like Zoodles Kid Mode, Kids Place, or Funamo to keep your kids in check if you choose the Nexus 7 or another Android tablet.
A quick overview of the options
Kindle Fire HD FreeTime. The latest software update to the Kindle Fire HD (for the 7-inch and 8.9-inch models) adds FreeTime, an app that runs a kid-friendly interface with parental controls and screen time limits. With FreeTime, you can set up profiles for up to six kids, each with their own home screen, filtered content, and screen time restrictions. As the parent, you can filter content with FreeTime by whitelisting books, movies, TV shows, and apps on the device that you want your child to access. Web browsing, store purchases, and social sharing are blocked completely.
FreeTime's standout feature is its ability to set screen time limits for each child based on the type of content. For example, you could let a child read as long as they want, but only watch videos for 30 minutes. You can set limits on reading books, watching videos, using apps, or just limit their total screen time.
To exit FreeTime, you must first enter a password, so there's no way for enterprising youngsters to break out. The kid's home screens all have bright blue backgrounds to make it easy to see that they're still in FreeTime. When their time runs out, all they'll see is a pop up that says they're out of time with a password protected option for you to give them more time if you're feeling generous.
Nook HD child profiles.The Nook HD comes with user profiles to make it easy to share one device with up to six people. In addition to unrestricted adult profiles, you can also set up child profiles which come with parental controls. Profile switching can be passcode protected, so you can lock your child into their profile, but it's only a 4-digit number passcode, not a full password.
Child profiles will only show the books you've selected for them. Additionally, you can restrict a child’s access to the store. Web browsing is either on or off; there is no content filtering within the browser. But you can filter movies and TV shows by rating. Backgrounds and desktop items are specific to each user, so the child can customize their home screen to their liking.
It’s easy to add content to multiple profiles—for example, if you have more than one child—when you first buy something. Just tap the profile’s icon to assign it access. An adult profile can also add existing, previously purchased content to a child’s profile; or, you can later manage what’s part of a child’s profile by going to that option within the Library.
iPad Restrictions. Parental Controls on all variants of the iPad running iOS 6 (fourth-generation iPad, iPad 2, and iPad mini) are called Restrictions. You'll find this feature in Settings > General. Since the iPad doesn't have separate user accounts, any restrictions you set up will apply to the iPad in general. There is no way to set it up for a child and adult to share without going in and redoing the restrictions each time you want to let your kid use the iPad. A 4-digit passcode protects the restriction and you'll need to enter it any time you want to change any of the restrictions. This is fine if you’re going to give a child a hand-me-down iPad, but it makes sharing an iPad less than ideal.
With restrictions, you can turn on or off access to Safari, Camera, FaceTime, iTunes, iBookstore, Installing Apps, Deleting Apps, Siri, and Explicit Language. You can also filter Music, Podcasts, Movies, TV Shows, Books, and Apps by rating and turn off In-App purchases. Privacy restrictions include limiting which apps have access to Location Services, Contacts, Calendars, Reminders, Photos, Bluetooth Sharing, Twitter, and Facebook. You can also choose whether the user is allowed to change Accounts in Mail, Contacts, Calendars, and Find My Friends. Additionally, you can set a volume limit and restrict multiplayer games and adding friends in Game Center.
Face-off: Which tablet does parental controls best?
To gauge how these tablets handled the different aspects of parental controls, I compared each of them side by side on how they handle user accounts, content filtering, controlling screen time, and more. Here’s how they stack up.
User accounts. The Nook is the only tablet that provides device-wide user accounts, meaning the entire experience, home screen, and content collection is customized for each separate login. Parental restrictions only apply to child profiles and are set separately for each child account. Adult profiles can be passcode protected to keep kids in their own profiles. When you shop, you can assign your purchase to an existing account.
The Kindle Fire HD has just one main account; same is for the iPad. On Kindle Fire HD, child accounts are achieved through the FreeTime app. All that means is that you have to launch an app before handing the Kindle Fire HD over to a child. Exiting the app is password protected to keep kids in FreeTime.
Content and Web filtering. None of the tablets provide Web filtering. With the iPad and Nook HD, you can choose to completely block access to the Web, but not allow access and then filter content. In FreeTime on the Kindle, kids don’t even have access to the Web.
On all three devices, you can filter content such as books, movies, and TV shows by ratings. The Nook HD and Kindle FreeTime go one step farther, allowing you to specifically pick which books, movies, TV shows, and apps each child will have access to.
Kid-friendly interface. You've likely seen the YouTube videos of toddlers getting around an iPad with ease, so your kid will probably be just fine getting around iOS without the need for any special interface tweaks. But what about the other tablets?
The large book and movie cover icons of the Nook HD should be easy for a prereader to figure out. And an episode of Dora the Explorer would be easy for a kid to find, once already loaded to that profile.
Amazon’s FreeTime on the Kindle takes extra steps to be easy for kids to navigate. There's a category of content called Characters, which combines books, movies, TV shows, and apps into groups based on the main character so kids can find, for example, books about puppies together with apps about puppies. Menu items also have picture icons so prereaders can find their way around.
Screen time. The biggest feature of FreeTime is that it comes with controls to limit your child's screen time with the tablet by activity. For example, you could let them to play games for 30 minutes, watch 30 minutes of shows, and read for 2 hours, and the Kindle would let them know when their time was up and then lock them out of those activities. With the iPad or Nook HD, you'd have to watch the clock and simply take the tablet away after they reached their time limit.
All three of these tablets provide good, basic parental controls. But which tablet is best for your family depends on what you’re looking to achieve—and what your needs are.
If you're already heavily invested in the iOS ecosystem, and you can spare the cash to get your kid a tablet of their own, setting up Restrictions on their own iPad can provide them with a safe, kid-friendly experience. However, iPad falls short when you try to share that tablet with an adult.
The best tablet for sharing would be a Nook HD. With its separate profiles for each member of the family and kid-friendly content suggestions, everyone in the family can get something out of this tablet. Plus, you could even set up an account for guests to browse the Web without seeing 50 Shades of Grey in your library.
If you're looking to pass a tablet to a younger child with minimal supervision when they come home from school, or you have a system where they can earn screen time with a gadget, FreeTime is an excellent tool to enforce those time limits.