Ask Maxwell: How Do I Set Boundaries around My Child’s iPhone?

published Mar 14, 2022
We independently select these products—if you buy from one of our links, we may earn a commission. All prices were accurate at the time of publishing.

My daughter is twelve and just got her first smartphone, which is causing havoc. She’s got tons of apps going, doing weird things with her friends, and it feels like too much for her age. How can I easily, kindly, and firmly control this?


Dear Michelle,

This is a huge question and has many different answers, depending on what sorts of behaviors you are seeing and which ones you want to curtail, but I GET IT. Smartphones have been an incredible invention, allowing adults to do all sorts of incredible things easier than we could have imagined, but they also — at this point — are worse than television was for me in the 70s when my mother would yell, “Time for dinner!” for the third time and we’d barely hear a thing. These things become extensions of their bodies and are next to impossible to put down.

But I found a pretty good solution. 🙂

  1. Hold off as long as you can and get your child a simple flip-phone. It will provide communication and simple texting, just so you can stay in touch. This can be hard to do, depending on your community, but it’s worth it and will hold them until your child is old enough to deal with a smarter phone. We promised our daughter that she would get a smart phone in 8th grade (which felt like a long way off) and it came really quickly. She complained, but she survived and the day she got her iPhone was a fun, big deal.
  2. Configure your child’s smartphone so it only has on it what you want them to have on it. What is this? you ask … a configurator? What about the parental controls? Personally, I didn’t find the parental controls that easy to use or effective and there was still too much on a basic smartphone to cause lots of distraction. Some kids even hack around parental controls way too easily.

Drew & The Configurator Story

As I said, 8th grade came way too soon and Ursula was chomping at the bit. We both wanted to deliver on our promise, but her mother was scared of all the features on the iPhone and looking for another solution. I didn’t think there was a good one and I didn’t want Ursula on some other system than Apple, because I wanted to know how to use her phone and also to be able to share easily with her over time (we did look for “dumb phones,” however, and didn’t find a great one).

So I went to Drew, head of IT at Apartment Therapy, gave him a refurbished iPhone for Ursula and asked him if he knew a way to hack it — only allowing a few apps to be on it, like just phone calls and texts. Nothing else. If I could deliver on this, Ursula’s mother would allow her to have an iPhone.

Drew smiled and said, “Of course.”

A week later he gave me back the phone, and it had exactly what I had asked for on it — calling, texting, and music. Nothing else. There were no standard system apps or even Safari. I couldn’t even find them if I tried. It was stripped down to the starting essentials, and Ursula got her phone with the promise that we would add more over time.

Drew knew something that I now know and want to pass on to you, which is that Apple created a very robust app that allows you to configure any iPhone in practically ANY WAY you like.

Apple Configurator 2 is a free app in the Mac App Store

It was designed for schools and companies that need to give out phones but want to make sure they are limited to the work they are intended to do. The directions are a little complicated, but worth spending some time on and Drew found this handy explainer which will walk you through. It’s a 10 minute read.

This has worked GREAT, and now that Ursula is almost done with her 8th grade year, I’ve slowly added apps to her phone — a monthly ritual — but none are social media apps, just utilities like maps, weather, photos, and, yes, Safari, as she’s grown and proven she is responsible. Each new app, as well, has been a conversation and an agreement between all three of us, which is super important.

It’s very hard to slowly and appropriately expose children to the full-on world that we live in with all of its amazing creations, terrible distractions, wonderful opportunities, and startling inequity. All too often we have to open Pandora’s Box and just let them figure it out. It felt a lot like that with smartphones, but then Drew came a long and showed me the The Configurator and my respect for Apple rose even higher. 🙂

Best of luck, M

Top 10 Most Popular Questions & Answers This Week
(I keep changing this each week based on your clicks)

Maxwell Ryan is a father and was an elementary school teacher in NYC before founding Apartment Therapy. He’d love to answer your question: This piece was created for Cubby, our weekly newsletter for families at home. Want more? Sign up here for a weekly splash of fun and good ideas for families with kids.

Cubby. Real solutions for unreal times.

Join us for a weekly dose of fresh, modern ideas for life at home with your kids.