Apple is nixing iPhone parenting apps: Here's why

Let's dive into the saga of mobile device management, or MDM, software and why it's causing a showdown between Apple and iOS developers.

Clifford Colby Managing Editor
Clifford is a managing editor at CNET, where he leads How-To coverage. He spent a handful of years at Peachpit Press, editing books on everything from the first iPhone to Python. He also worked at a handful of now-dead computer magazines, including MacWEEK and MacUser. Unrelated, he roots for the Oakland A's.
Expertise Tech from browser security to password managers and government programs from mail-in voting to federal assistance
Clifford Colby
3 min read

Over the past year, Apple has restricted or removed a collection of third-party iOS apps that help parents manage a child's  iPhone and iPad usage. Apple said it has taken the step because the apps present a privacy and security risk. At least one of the affected developers claims Apple is being misleading about its motivations and requested that its parental-control app be reinstated into the App Store.

The conflict between Apple and the parental-control app developers centers on the use of MDM, or mobile device management software, in consumer apps. MDM was designed for the workplace, to help companies manage and keep workers' personal mobile devices secure in a business setting. In iOS apps, MDM potentially could also be used to limit the time children spend using their devices and manage which apps and websites they have access to.

Here's what we know about MDM, parental controls and iOS 12's Screen Time, and what Apple and the iOS developers say about the dispute. Apple did not respond to a request for comment.


Apple's parental controls in iOS 12.


What is MDM?

MDM lets employees use their own devices in the workplace by giving a company tools to manage and secure employee-owned devices to protect corporate information. Employees benefit because they can use devices they're familiar with, and companies benefit by not having to purchase mobile devices for workers and still enforce password rules, for example, and use encryption to protect company data stored on the device.

What are parental-control apps?

Parental-control apps offer a range of tools to help a parent control their kids' phones . With an app, parents can manage access to apps and games, filter websites, block inappropriate content, set time limits for device usage, track a phone's location, set up geo-fences and monitor phone-call activity and social-media posts. The capabilities of parental controls and MDM do overlap, but the goals are different: To keeps kids out of trouble and to protect corporate data.

Which apps did Apple ban or restrict?

Over the past year, according to the New York Times story, Apple has banned or restricted 11 third-party apps designed to manage a child's phone use. Among apps either banned or restricted, according to the Times, are OurPact (the top parental-control iPhone app before it was banned), Freedom, Kaspersky Lab, Kidslox, Mobicip and Qustodio.

Why did Apple ban the apps from its App Store?

The parental-control apps violate Apple's App Store guidelines by using MDM to control a child's device, the company said in a statement. According to Apple, MDM is approved for enterprise uses to manage and control worker devices but not for consumer-focused apps.

In addition, Apple said MDM apps could be vulnerable to hackers. "Beyond the control that the app itself can exert over the user's device, research has shown that MDM profiles could be used by hackers to gain access for malicious purposes," the company said.

What does OurPact, one of the banned app makers, say?

In a detailed statement, OurPact presented its side of the story, writing that MDM is the only way that Apple allows iOS apps to remotely control applications and functions on children's iPhones and iPads and disputing Apple's claim that MDM presents a security risk on consumer devices.

Does Apple have its own parental controls for iOS and MacOS?


Apple's Screen Time in action.


To address mobile-phone overuse and addiction, Apple included Screen Time in iOS 12, which lets you see how much time you and your kids spend on an iPhone or iPad using apps and viewing websites. With Screen Time, you can also set time limits for a device, mute notifications, and block downloads, purchases and  specific types of content.

Over on MacOS Mojave , Apple has Parental Controls, which lets parents administer a kid's Mac account to set weekday and weekend time limits and manage which apps and websites a child can access.

Where else do Apple iOS apps overlap with third-party apps?

Parental controls is the latest area where third-party developers have cried foul, claiming Apple is using its clout to suppress the competition.

Spotify in March claimed Apple uses the power of its app store to stifle competition. Last year, Apple reportedly pressured Yahoo to slow down development of a game-streaming platform. And Apple Arcade, TV Plus, and News Plus all push the company into closer competition with partners and rivals.

What happens next?

Besides appealing Apple for reinstatement, the Times reports that some of the affected companies are filing complaints with national and international trade organizations, including the European Union.

Originally published May 3, 4:00 a.m. PT.