Top 10 settings to check on family iPhones and iPads

No matter what else happens in my life — professional success (a big win at work!) or personal joys (a new child!) — I have always been my family’s technical support guy. So this holiday season, as usual, I spent hours answering questions for family members and helping tune all their gadgets. This year’s focus was on iPads and iPhones. Between my sisters, parents, in-laws, nieces, and my own kids, we had a total of 21 iDevices. User ages range from 4 to 83, with little technical knowledge and less time to explore their gadgets.

Many settings needed tweaking. Here are the top 10 tips for our collection of iDevices (well, 11 tips, plus two bonus ones). They are designed for our situation — iDevice users who don’t want their kids to spend a fortune on data overages, where a big goal is to encourage more communication inside your family:

  1. Settings→Wi-Fi: Make sure each device is connected to the Wi-Fi at home, and that the connection is working. My 11-year old niece’s iPad was “connected” to an old broken Wi-Fi hotspot. She thought she was using Wi-Fi but in fact racked up 4.5 GB of data usage in less than 3 weeks.
  2. Settings→Cellular: Turn off Data Roaming. My sister turned on her iPhone for 10 minutes in Mexico earlier this year and racked up $350 of data charges. If you have teenagers, and you don’t like spending a fortune on data plan overages, under Use Cellular Data For, make sure YouTube, 8Track, Spotify, and other media streaming services are turned off. This way they will only use Wi-Fi. My 14-year old niece’s iPhone used over 7 GB in cellular data from these apps in just three months.
  3. Settings→General→Software Update: If there are any software updates, including to iOS 7, make a backup first and then do the update. My 10-year old niece’s iPad mini crashed during the iOS 7 update and I didn’t back it up first. The most recent backup was from 5 days earlier, and she lost about 1,000 coins from a few games she had been playing, plus a very special sparkly dragon character she had bought with them. Tears were shed.
  4. Settings→General→Usage: Explain how this shows how much space they are using for different apps. Explain that high definition video is 100MB per minute. Make an effort to get teenagers to delete any unneeded apps. Fail in your efforts.
  5. Settings→General→International→Keyboards: Add an emoji keyboard. To communicate with teenagers, you’ll need both words and emoji. Emoji are a standard set of smileys and other iconography first developed in Japan but are now widely used by teenagers everywhere. For example, when asked if she had the emoji keyboard turned on one of my nieces replied, “Of course I do. What kind of 10-year old wouldn’t?”
  6. Settings→iCloud: Login to iCloud. Turn on Find My iPhone. This not only helps find a lost phone but triggers all of Apple’s nice new anti-theft features. Suggest they use iCloud backups. For most, it’s worth it to get automatic backups every time a device is plugged in. Plus, you don’t need to clutter up your iTunes with the 1000+ apps that your kids download.
  7. Settings→Mail, Contacts, Calendars: For email accounts, make sure they’re connected via IMAP accounts and not POP. Curse email providers who either don’t provide or don’t default to IMAP (I’m looking at you, Earthlink and MSN/Hotmail/Live/whatever). For the teenagers, explain email (“texting for old people” has worked for me).
  8. Settings→Messages: Make sure they’re signed into their own Apple ID, not a parent’s. My 14-year old niece had been receiving/reading all of her father’s iMessages, and replying as him sometimes, because he had signed her into his iTunes store account but not changed her Apple ID for iMessage. Suggest they turn on Send Read Receipts — it’s great. Ensure both their phone number and Apple ID are included under Send & Receive.
  9. Settings→FaceTime: Make sure it’s turned on and they’re logged into their own Apple ID.
  10. Settings→iTunes & App Store: Turn on Automatic downloads for Updates, and maybe the others. Turn off Use Cellular Data. One of my nieces had over 1.7 GB of cellular downloads from the App Store.
  11. Find my Friends: This one is a matter of personal choice, but in our family the principle is that kids and parents — whatever their ages — share location data with each other. I know where my 83-year old mother is, and she knows where I am.

A final note on Restrictions. For parents, Settings→General→Restrictions has a comprehensive set of restrictions you can place on making changes to an iDevice. There are some personal decisions to make about how and when to restrict your kid use. Here are two that we use:

  1. Under Allow Changes, you can lock a variety of the above settings. For example, if you don’t want your child to be able to turn off Find my Friends, change the Cellular Data Use features, Background App Refresh, you can select “Don’t Allow Changes” under each.
  2. For my little kids, we disable Installing AppsDeleting AppsIn-App Purchases. This is mostly to avoid accidental or older-cousin-induced purchases.

The result of all this will, hopefully, be fewer data overages, more communication among family, and general rightness in the world. However, restrictions on installing apps might lead to awkward moment like this sales job from my Fruit Ninja obsessed 6-year old: