You know toddlers: The more expensive and precious an object is, the more likely they’ll grab it. My 15-month-old daughter loves nothing better than to get her drooly little hands on my iPad—and when she does, she (naturally) skips the PBS Kids and Barney apps and makes a beeline for Safari and my Mail inbox. Great.
Now, you could always get a baby-friendly case for your Android or iOS device, but be warned: They’re big, they’re bulky, and while they (typically) lock down the “home” and sleep keys, most 15-month-olds I know can pick the lock of a baby smartphone case in 10 seconds flat.
Android and iOS devices both have parental controls, but you can’t just turn them on with the flick of a switch. It’ll take a few minutes to block web access, messaging, app purchases, and other grownup features—plus a few minutes more to turn them all back on again. That’s fine when it comes to permanently kid-proofing a hand-me-down phone or tablet, but not super-convenient if you’re dealing with your own device.
Instead, let’s focus on a pair of features—one for Android, another for iOS users—that’ll quickly and temporarily lock down your handset, perfect for giving your tots some quick screen time without having to take a deep dive into the Settings menu.
Android: Pin the screen
The latest Android phones (specifically, handsets running on Android 5.0 “Lollipop” or better) make it easy to lock—or as Google puts it, “pin”—an app onto the screen, disabling the Home, Back and multitasking controls until you tap the right combination of buttons.
First, launch the app, then tap the multitasking button (a.k.a. the “Overview” button) in the bottom-right corner of the screen. (If you don’t see the button, swipe down from the top of the screen to reveal it.) When the multitasking screen appears, scroll down to the app’s floating card, then tap the green button with the pin.
Now, go ahead and hand your phone or tablet to your kid, secure in the knowledge that she can’t switch to another app.
When you’re ready to “unpin” the app, tap and hold the Back and Overview buttons at the same time. (Hopefully, it’ll be a few years before your little one figures out that trick.)
If you like, you can set your Android device to require an unlock code to unpin an app. That way, if your child does manage to tap the Back and Overview buttons at once, she won’t have the run of your phone. Tap Settings > Security > Screen pinning, then enable the Ask for unlock pattern before unpinning setting.
iOS: Guided Access
iPhones and iPads have their own version of Android’s screen-pinning feature. With iOS’s Guided Access feature switched on, you can disable the Home key, the volume buttons, the sleep button, and even specific zones of the touchscreen that you trace with your fingertip.
Once you have Guided Access configured for a particular app (and yes, iOS will remember the Guided Access settings for multiple apps), you can turn it on by triple-clicking the Home button.
To get started, tap Settings > General > Accessibility. Scroll down to the Learning section, tap Guided Access, then flip the “on” switch.
Next, you should lock Guided Access with a passcode, using either a short numeric PIN or Touch ID (assuming your newer iPhone or iPad has a touch-sensitive Home button). If you don’t set a passcode lock, your kid will be able to turn off Guided Access herself by triple-tapping the Home key—and believe me, she’ll figure it out. Tap Passcode Settings, then either tap Set Guided Access Passcode or flip on the Touch ID switch.
Head back to your home screen and open an app that you want to baby-proof, like the oldie-but-goodie Pocket Pond. (My little girl loves feeding the fish.)
Triple-tap the Home key, then circle any areas of the touchscreen that you want to disable. For example, Pocket Pond has a tiny settings button in the bottom corner of the screen that always seems to get tapped. Just circle it with your fingertip to kid-proof that section of the screen.
Now, tap the Options button in the bottom-left corner of the setup screen. When you do, a series of options will slide up. Flip a switch on to keep a particular setting or button—anything from the sleep/wake button to motion sensitivity—active during Guided Access mode. You can also set a timer, perfect for putting a lid on iPad or iPhone time.
Done? Tap the Start button, then hand your iDevice to your child with confidence (drooly fingers aside). To reclaim your handset, triple-click the Home button, enter your passcode and tap End, or simply press the Home button once and use Touch ID.
One thing to keep in mind, though: If your little one triple-clicks the Home key and taps in the wrong passcode (and yes, she will), you’ll have to wait 10 seconds before trying to unlock Guided Access mode again. If she tries and fails again, you’ll have to wait 60 seconds—and if she tries again, you’ll have to wait three minutes. In other words, you should probably repossess your iPhone or iPad if you spot your child messing with the passcode too often.
Ben has been writing about technology and consumer electronics for more than 20 years. A PCWorld contributor since 2014, Ben joined TechHive in 2019, where he covers smart speakers, soundbars, and other smart and home-theater devices. You can follow Ben on Twitter.